"Stage fright": Mark Twain coined the term and gave Tom Sawyer a bad case of it

Everyone from Laurence Olivier to Pastor Rick Warren has suffered from stage fright. Here's how it works

By Sara Solovitch
Published June 21, 2015 1:00PM (EDT)
Laurence Olivier, Rick Warren    (AP/Luis Alvarez)
Laurence Olivier, Rick Warren (AP/Luis Alvarez)

Excerpted from "Playing Scared: A History and Memoir of Stage Fright"

The oldest account of stage fright on record has to be the story of Moses, who expressed understandable anxiety when asked by God to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. He wasn’t the man for the job, he protested. Who would listen to him? He was a poor speaker. He stuttered. “Slow of speech and of a slow tongue,” he described himself in that first conversation at the burning bush. God wasn’t buying. “Who gave you a mouth to talk with,” He pointedly asked, before relenting: “Isn’t Aaron your brother? He’s pretty good with words.” Thus Aaron became the front man and Moses his ventriloquist.

Several thousand years went by before the next reported case of stage fright. According to a story told by Carl Jung, it took place in ancient Athens, where Socrates was grooming his protégé Alcibiades to be the most celebrated orator and statesman of his time. As a young man, Alcibiades was incapacitated by a fear of public speaking. Socrates accompanied him on long walks through the streets of Athens, introducing him first to a blacksmith, then to a shoemaker, asking if he was afraid of the one and then the other. When Alcibiades answered no and then no again, Socrates demanded, “Then why should you be afraid of the people of Athens? They consist of those people, they are nothing but faces.”

It was Mark Twain who coined the term stage fright, and though he claimed to have experienced it only once, it must have been a memorable experience, given the devastating portrayal in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The scene takes place at the end of the school year, when Tom is required to deliver the “Give me liberty or give me death” speech before an audience of parents, teachers, and students. The cocky boy is quickly reduced to a puddle of jelly:

A ghastly stage-fright seized him, his legs quaked under him and he was like to choke. True, he had the manifest sympathy of the house but he had the house’s silence, too, which was even worse than its sympathy. The master frowned, and this completed the disaster. Tom struggled awhile and then retired, utterly defeated. There was a weak attempt at applause, but it died early.

The term stage fright has come under occasional challenge, since fear of the stage isn’t really the issue. A terror of performance can strike anywhere. But unlike other terms used to describe the condition—social phobia, cold feet, chicken heart, the jitters, glossophobia (fear of speaking in public), communication apprehension, paruresis (fear of urinating in the presence of others), the yips (in baseball, cricket, basketball, and tennis), dartitis (in darts), target panic (archery), the schneid (a losing streak in cards, sports, or dating), and the Thing, not to mention biting the apple and plain old performance anxiety—“stage fright” conveys that deer-in-the-headlights feeling that escorts people to the podium, the playing field, and the stage.

Standing in the spotlight, one struggles to counter the feeling of being exposed, of feeling naked and alone. Hip-hop musician Jay-Z got to the heart of it in a 2010 interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, when host Terry Gross asked why rappers grab at their crotches. It was more than straight-out vulgarity, he responded. It was about young men onstage, often for the first time in their lives, looking out at an ocean of fans and feeling naked and scared to death. “So when you feel naked, what’s the first thing you do?” he said. “You cover yourself.”

In the twenty-first century’s age of anxiety, everything is performance: “Work, play, sex, and even [political] resistance— it’s all performance to us,” writes new media theorist Jon McKenzie in Perform or Else, a quasi-academic study that links artistic, organizational, and technological performances.  Performance, he observes, is the filter through which we consider every imaginable product: “high performance” cars, stereos, lawn mowers, toilet paper, and missile systems. The world has become a “test site” in “an age of global performance,” from art and spectacle to Wall Street warfare and air fresheners. Anthropologists have analyzed the rituals of indigenous peoples as performance; sociologists have applied the word to describe every day social interactions from the way one nods hello to a silent flirtation; cultural theorists have examined race, gender, and social politics in terms of performance.

Contemporary culture presupposes performance, a put-up-or-shut-up mind-set in which virtually every activity, from the banal to the most intimate, is photographed, documented, videotaped, and evaluated. The zeitgeist begins with birth, an experience now often celebrated as a social event, with friends dropping in to offer encouragement, bear witness, record the delivery, tweet about it, and post it on Facebook. The conversation is no longer limited to how well the new mother is doing, but extends to how well she did. Back in the bedroom, Big Pharma awaits with its billion-dollar line of products for boosting sexual performance. Regardless of whether the anxiety strikes in the penis or at the piano, the same rule applies: You have to be in control of your instrument.

Many performers eschew the subject. Studies have shown that up to 30 percent of orchestra musicians rely on beta-blockers to slow their autonomic nervous systems prior to a performance. Many of them willingly share their prescription stashes with their colleagues, but few care to delve into the problem that precipitates it. “It’s such a touchy topic,” a young pianist in New York told me, practically recoiling. “It seems like it would be bad luck to talk about it.” The American psychiatrist Glen Gabbard wrote about “an unspoken conspiracy of silence” among musicians and other performers about stage fright. Before a performance, he noted, “the experience of stage fright is seldom alluded to, as if the mere mention of it will cause the reaction to intensify.” It’s been said that every pianist’s anxiety is as unique as his or her fingerprints. One detects an almost existential dread of contamination, as if stage fright were as transmittable as a virus on a doorknob.

And maybe they’re right to steer clear. Though anxiety contagion can’t be traced as systemically as bird flu, it shares some of the same qualities. That much was demonstrated in the spring of 2012, when a succession of Tourette-like cases ran through the small western New York town of Le Roy. A cluster of high school girls, many of them cheerleaders, had begun to exhibit uncontrolled tics, twitches, stutters, and jerks. It happened at the dinner table and in the classroom. TV news cameras raced to record the girls, their arms lurching, heads yanking, legs tottering like zombies in a B movie. Two cases jumped to eighteen, and parents grew convinced that there had been an undisclosed environmental disaster. Erin Brockovich, the environmental activist, was called in to investigate. In the end, the girls were diagnosed with a condition called “conversion disorder,” a mass psychogenic illness better known as mass hysteria. The neurologists who treated them concluded that they were subconsciously converting stress into physical symptoms.

As it happens, cases of mass hysteria have more than once involved cheerleaders. In a New York Times Magazine story about the Le Roy case, reporter Susan Dominus suggested that it was the girls’ organizational unity that made them susceptible to influence. She cited a 2002 incident in which ten students, five of them cheerleaders, from a rural town in North Carolina suffered nonepileptic seizures and fainting spells. In 1952, 165 members of a cheerleading squad in Monroe, Louisiana, fainted before half time at a high school football game. Five ambulances raced across the field to attend to the stricken girls. “It looked like the racetrack at Indianapolis,” a spectator told the Associated Press. In Le Roy, doctors advised parents and school administrators to stop talking about it so publicly. The media attention was halted, and after a few months, the girls improved markedly, mostly after learning relaxation techniques and, in some cases, taking anxiety medication.

Stage fright exposes the foolishness of the body, so easily deceived and outmaneuvered by the mind. Naturally, people are loath to accept it. How can symptoms so excessive and seemingly life-threatening proceed from mere anxiety? The British actor Michael Gambon, the lovable Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films, has twice been rushed to the hospital for symptoms of stage fright. In 2013, his performance anxiety forced him to with draw from a play at the National Theatre in London. The American evangelist Rick Warren, minister of the twenty-two-thousand- member Saddleback Church in Southern California, has explained his public-speaking problem as a purely physiological brain malfunction, though most neuroscientists would call it stage fright. His symptoms are so extreme that they have temporarily blinded him: “When I stand up to speak and adrenaline hits my system, I cannot see until that adrenaline drains out. It is a very rare disorder; I have been to all the top clinics in the world, and they said they may name a syndrome after me! There are only fourteen or fifteen people they know of who have it. It makes public speaking excruciatingly painful. Everyone knows that adrenaline is a public speaker’s best friend: If you do not have adrenaline, you are boring. You need it for passion. So when I get up to speak, adrenaline hits my system like any public speaker. I am not talking about nerves; I speak to 22,000 people every Sunday morning. I am not talking about stage fright. I have spoken in the Superdome three times. I have spoken to over a million people at one time. But when adrenaline hits my system, I go almost blind until it drains out. When I got up here, you did not know it, but I could not see you. I could not even see my notes.”

A syndrome was named after Steve Blass, the Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who woke up one day in 1973 to discover he could no longer find the strike zone. He had been among the dominant pitchers in the major leagues, with a ninety-mile per-hour fastball and a nearly unhittable slider. The latter pitch was notoriously hard to control, but Blass was so sure of himself that he’d throw it even when behind in the count. He won eighteen games for the Pirates in 1968 and another sixteen in 1969. He was a member of the National League All-Star team in 1972 and finished second in that year’s voting for the Cy Young Award. When he collapsed, when “the Thing” brought him to his knees, it was like a real-life version of Groundhog Day: Inning after inning, as if in a dream, he walked batters, threw wild pitches straight to the back stop, and allowed a multitude of stolen bases. The most mystifying thing about it was that when he threw alone with a catcher in the bullpen, he was as good as ever.

Blass consulted psychologists, tried transcendental meditation, and ran down every tip, no matter how patently ridiculous, including, famously, one fan’s suggestion that he invest in a loose set of boxers. Forty years later, I phoned him at his home in Pennsylvania. A good-natured man who had spent the intervening decades as a Pirates TV color commentator, he didn’t mind talking about it. “Steve Blass disease” had become part of the baseball lexicon. He understood the fascination: “It’s so damn illusive unless you’re living it.” And though he never could figure out why it struck him in the first place, he all too clearly understood the physiology. “I would physically tighten up—and you can’t pitch like that. No flow, you’re just hoping the ball will go where you want it to, but you don’t expect it to.”

Tightening up is the key, as etymology bears out. The word anxiety comes from the Old French anguere, meaning to choke, constrict, strangle, or cut off at the airway. It describes the very hallmark of performance anxiety—the rapid, shallow breathing that occurs when the muscles contract and you begin to shake. Utterance of the word forces the tongue backward, blocking off the throat. In other words, just saying the word embodies its very meaning. The harder you try to control these muscles, the more they tremble. So we choke, bite the apple, and gasp for breath.

Google “stage fright” and you get more than seven million hits—a catalog of phobias, instant cures, and celebrities who wrestle with their anxiety. For some, it comes and goes like malaria, showing up at the most unexpected times. Laurence Olivier was fifty-seven, long regarded as the world’s foremost actor, when he suddenly became crippled by stage fright while playing Othello. It never subsided, and for the next ten years of his career, he had to be pushed onstage, where his fellow actors were forbidden to look him in the eye. Mahatma Gandhi was only a young lawyer in England when he attended a small gathering of a vegetarian society, stood to read a few remarks, and discovered that he could not speak: “My vision became blurred and I trembled, though the speech hardly covered a sheet of foolscap.” Thomas Jefferson’s law career was disrupted by a fear of public speaking. His voice would “sink in his throat” whenever he tried to give a speech, according to one biographer. In his eight years as president, Jefferson delivered only two—the inaugural address for his first and second terms.

When, in March 2012, U.S. solicitor general Donald Verrilli went before the Supreme Court in defense of President Barack Obama’s health care legislation, he was a player at the highest level of his profession, a lawyer who had argued more than a hundred high court cases. But this one became a train wreck. At the beginning of his oral argument, he stumbled and stammered. When he paused to sip from a glass of water, the ice cubes clinked louder than his words. He lost his place, repeated himself, his voice quivering as he asked the justices to excuse him. A blogger from Mother Jones compared his performance with that of a teenager giving a high school oral presentation for the first time and opined that Verrilli should be grateful the Supreme Court didn’t allow cameras in the courtroom. Another publication derided him as “a case of stage fright that skipped right past funny and went directly to pitiable.” If Obamacare went down, as so many prematurely predicted, it would be the fault of Verrilli’s “pathetic” performance.

According to one theory, stage fright is a phenomenon of modernity. Nicholas Ridout, a British cultural theorist, dates it to the introduction in 1879 of electric lights in theaters across England and Europe. Prior to that time, auditoriums were never completely darkened; now, with a flick of a switch, a hall could be blackened, leaving the performer isolated in the spotlight, staring out at an invisible void. The theaters of ancient Greece had been outdoor affairs, designed to take advantage of sunlight, while those of the Renaissance depended on oil lamps, torches, and candles. A painting from 1670 of the Comédie-Française in Paris shows a stage lit by six chandeliers and a bank of thirty-four “foot lights,” large candles requiring a crew of candle snuffers to extinguish. By the eighteenth century, the Drury Lane Theatre in London had introduced a “float,” a long metal trough filled with oil, in which metal saucers, each holding a flickering wick, would bob like buoys. The trough was lowered into a hatch in the stage floor by ropes and pulleys, to create a dimming effect.

The inception of gas lighting in the early nineteenth century allowed for still greater control. Now, a near blackout could be achieved. But theater operators weren’t interested in darkness: They understood that the ruling classes went to the theater to see and be seen, to flirt and conduct business, to show off their costumes and jewels. In nineteenth-century novels, from Madame Bovary to The Mill on the Floss and War and Peace, the opera glass is turned on the audience more frequently—and to greater plot effect—than on the stage. The opening scene of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (published in 1920) is a classic case. When Newland Archer trains his opera glass on his fiancée’s box, he catches sight of another woman—the tempting princess Ellen Olenska, “with brown hair growing in close curls about her temples and held in place by a narrow band of diamonds.” So much for the opera.

The social role of the theater demanded a brightly lit auditorium. But composer Richard Wagner and other radicals of the second half of the nineteenth century were pushing a different agenda. Wagner’s Bayreuth audiences sat in utter darkness, eager to merge with the composer’s metaphysical epics—with his Gesamtkunstwerk, the grand unification of the arts. The theater gradually was becoming less a social setting than a quasi-mystical one, no small thanks to the power of electricity.

In his book Stage Fright, Animals, and Other Theatrical Problems, Ridout says that the introduction of electricity in 1879 coincided with these changing ideas about the role of theater and paved the way for a major shift in the balance of power between performers and their audiences. Now the center of attention belonged more fully to the actor and musician, whose social roles were simultaneously undergoing major changes. No longer retained by the court, they were becoming independent contractors and thus newly vulnerable to the economic approval of the modern-day audience or “entertainment consumer.” The approval of that audience had a direct impact on the performer’s very employment and economic success.

These changes further coincided with a new paradigm of acting then coming to prominence and making unprecedented demands on performers. The Stanislavski system, developed in the late nineteenth century by the Russian actor and director Constantin Stanislavski, required that actors go deep into their own psyches for “emotion memory,” to make their most intimate experiences the basis of their performances. “It is not just the actor’s professional credibility or employment prospects that are at stake when he or she steps on stage,” writes Ridout, “it is his or her self: a negative response from an audience is no longer just a comment on professional accomplishment, it has become a judgement upon the inner self. This judgement is exercised in darkness. The actor under scrutiny is initially blinded by the light, and even when this effect fades as the eyes adjust, the auditorium presents an undifferentiated darkness.”10

Stanislavski chronicled his own stage fright in An Actor Prepares, a barely fictionalized account of his younger self—the aspiring actor Kostya, who one day steps to the front of the stage and peers out into “the awful hole” as he performs the role of Othello (the same role, incidentally, that precipitated Olivier’s stage fright). It is only a rehearsal, but his terror grows, so that by the time of performance, “the fear and attraction of the public seemed stronger than ever” and Kostya is paralyzed. His voice makes high-pitched sounds, his hands have turned to stone, and he can barely breathe. He feels severed from the world. And then, as he gasps the famous line “Blood, Iago, blood!” a murmur runs through the audience, signaling some deep-seated recognition. Somehow, the feelings of terror and rage against his own helplessness—and his stage fright—have created something real. Ridout suggests the “awful hole” could serve as a stand-in for Kostya’s very soul. It could also symbolize the vagina, he adds, then immediately cautions the reader not to put too much stock in this Freudian suggestion. “It would be wrong to suggest that every, or indeed, any actor experiencing stage fright is reliving some infant anxiety about origins, membranes and fluids.” Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

The act of getting up onstage is, by its nature, an aggressive act: “Look at me! Listen to me!” the performer demands, whether it’s to speak, act, play music, preach or argue before a court of law. When the performance is deemed a failure, the audience may consider itself entitled to lash back—Hiss! Boo!  Splat go the tomatoes. The actor or musician must wrest control of the crowd, like a lion tamer whipping the beast into submission. Stephen Aaron, a New York psychologist, actor, and director, writes about this mutual antagonism in Stage Fright: Its Role in Acting: “The audience remains the bad presence in the house—the uninvited—threatening to persecute the actor by humiliation, ridicule, starvation, and indifference until the actor has made contact with them, until the stage and the house are merged.” Aaron duly notes that performance is an aggressive/erotic endeavor, never more apparent than in the confrontational language unique to backstage theater: “Knock ’em dead,” “Fuck ’em,” “Lay ’em in the aisles.” Olivier used to stand behind the curtain, muttering “You bastards” at his audience. Blythe Danner buoyed her spirits with the battle cry “Go out there and maim them.”

As a child actor on the New York stage, Eric Brown knew nothing of such one-way confrontations; he exhibited a panache that made older actors envious. He began his career at four, blowing bubbles through a straw in a Listerine commercial. When he was twelve, he played Pippin in the musical’s national touring cast. At thirteen, he made his Broadway debut in On Golden Pond. Two years later, he was cast as Phillip Fillmore in the 1981 film Private Lessons, a steamy coming-of-age comedy about a teenager seduced by his thirty-something French governess. The Dutch actress Sylvia Kristel, star of the soft-porn Emmanuelle films, played the sexy governess, and Private Lessons became a cult sensation. Brown was golden. After graduating high school, he took off for Los Angeles to join the cast of Mama’s Family, a spin-off of The Carol Burnett Show.

But he soon found himself adrift. On the first day of shooting, when cued to introduce his character on camera, he opened his mouth and said, “Ah . . .” He tried again. “My name is . . .” He couldn’t remember his character’s name, and it took three takes before he could say his line: “My name is Buzz!” That mishap set in motion a pattern of anxiety attacks that undermined his confidence and derailed his career. Cast in a two-character play titled Mass Appeal, Brown and his stage partner stumbled on opening night, repeating three pages of dialogue three times.

“And everybody knew it. It was like watching an animal on Animal Kingdom that isn’t dead yet.” Though he’s telling it from a distance of thirty years, he winces as he recounts the experience. He broke out in hives and developed gastrointestinal problems. His doctor advised him to quit acting before he made himself sick. And then came the final blow. Mama’s Family—Brown was still in the cast—was canceled. “I had just come off a movie that made a lot of money. I had a big-shot agent. Then he dropped me, which was devastating. I felt I had underachieved, I felt I had underperformed.”

Brown enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley and majored in political science. He worked as press secretary to a New York congresswoman and eventually returned to California as communications director for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, where he trained his staff how to be effective public speakers. The most important thing, he told them, was plenty of practice. He could see in an instant when someone is nervous. Men tap their feet; their voices go dry. Women’s necks bloom shades of red and purple; their voices turn squeaky and thin. People develop telltale idiosyncrasies. Whenever one of his colleagues is called upon to speak, she picks up her ever-present can of Diet Coke, then sets it down, picks it up, and sets it down, obsessively, without ever taking a sip. Brown has recommended that she leave the drink back at her desk.

Yet, ironically, he still gets what he calls “a modified version of stage fright,” rambling and losing focus when it’s his turn to perform. He procrastinates when the next presentation looms, because, frankly, he would rather not think about it. “The high irony is that I train people to give presentations and make sure they practice like crazy.”

Excerpted from "Playing Scared: A History and Memoir of Stage Fright" by Sara Solovitch (Bloomsbury, June 16, 2015).

Sara Solovitch

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Books Laurence Olivier Mark Twain Stage Fright Tom Sawyer