Before Michael Frayn became a novelist and playwright he had regular columns in the Guardian and the Observer. Many of these pieces were later published as collections, and those lucky enough to have copies can happily revisit them. Here he is, forty years ago, describing the agony of the actors—and the audience—when there is a mishap on stage:
...I have a haunting fear that one night when I'm present some piece of business is going to go so completely wrong that the play as written cannot proceed at all, and the actors will be reduced to improvising some new line of development entirely. Take the famous Locket scene at the end of Error for Error, when young Ferdinand shows Duke Oregano and the assembled court the locket which proves he is the Duke's son, carried off at birth by a waterspout. Suppose that after the lines -
A locket sav'd I from that spoutsome day,
Most curiously incrib'd. I have it here.
Ferdinand tosses the vital instrument to the Duke, and the Duke fumbles it and drops it out of sight. What can they do, except make the rest of the scene up as they go along?
DUKE: Alas! Methinks I have misfinger'd it!
FERDINAND: Sire, bend thou down thine aged frame
And do thou smartly pluck it up again.
DUKE: Bend as I might, I cannot see the thing.
My lords, do you explore your cloggy beards.
No sign? Ah me, I fear it must have roll'd
Amid this mazy grove of cardboard trees.
FERDINAND: Was not one glance as it came winging by
Enough to grasp the general sense of it?
- That here before thee stands thy long-lost son?
DUKE: A fig for your problems - what worrieth me
Is how I speak my major speech, which starts;
'Come, locket, let me kiss thee for thy pains,
And taste the savour of fidelity,'
Without the bloody locket. Come, let's shift
This forest. Take the yonder end and heave.
FERDINAND: Is this meet welcome for a long-lost son?
DUKE: Meet welcome for a long-lost son, forsooth!
What kind of long-lost son is this, that chucks
Essential props outside my senile reach,
And cuts his long-lost father's longest speech?
Lose thee again, son, till thou learnst at last
The art of throwing props and not the cast.