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Why It's “Easier to Act with a Telephone than a Man”

  • Christopher Grobe

Hollywood is ruled by conventional wisdom—or, as it's known when it takes off its coat and tie, magical thinking. Certain factors, they say, make for a surefire hit; certain others mean you'll never make a buck. Some of the rules sound silly, but, really, why tempt fate? Listen to director Bill Condon as he slips one of these showbiz credos into a recent interview: “You know, they say for a great performance you need a great telephone scene.” To the uninitiated, this may sound strange—surely an outlying tenet of the faith!—but Hollywood's belief in the “telephone scene” is curiously devout. And unlike other Tinseltown lore, with its murky past and fractured provenance, this tale of the telephone is easy to track to a single event nearly eighty years ago.

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1. Robert K. Elder, The Best Film You've Never Seen: 35 Directors Champion the Forgotten or Critically Savaged Movies They Love (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2013), 186.

2. “Meyer [sic] felt … the part was too unimportant for me.” Rainer, unfinished memoirs, 218, typescript, Box 1, Folder 18, Luise Rainer Collection, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University Libraries. (I specify “typescript” or “manuscript” because these memoirs consist of two interleaved documents—one handwritten, one typed—each with its own continuous pagination.)

3. The Great Ziegfeld, directed by Robert Z. Leonard (1936; Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2004), DVD. This scene is available on YouTube at “The Great Ziegfeld (1936) Telephone scene w/ Luise Rainer,”, accessed February 2015.

4. Bob Thomas, “Winning an Oscar Is War of Nerves Says O'Brien,” Springfield (MA) Union, 18 April 1955.

5. “Drinks Soften O'Brien's Will,” Springfield (MA) Union, 24 February 1963.

6. Bob Thomas, “South Gets Going Over in Upcoming Picture,” Springfield (MA) Union 24 February 1962.

7. “Valerie Perrine Flirting with Oscar,” Springfield (MA) Union, 20 December 1974.

8. Quoted in Patrick Goldstein, “Following the Club Rules,” Los Angeles Times, 11 January 2000,, accessed 22 January 2016.

9. Stuart Petre Brodie Mais, Some Modern Authors (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1923), 267.

10. Nathan, George Jean, “The Theatre: Fragmentary Meditations,” American Mercury 15 (September 1928), 117–22, at 117.

11. Rainer, unfinished memoirs, typescript, 218.

12. Rainer, unfinished memoirs, manuscript, 119. That she calls it Beloved Voice suggests that Rainer read the play (or saw it) in her native German, the only language in which the title was translated loosely: Die geliebte Stimme.

13. Film scholars have presumed that “split-screen techniques” and “parallel editing or crosscutting” are the “obvious parameters for putting telephony on the screen,” but the Ziegfeld scene uses neither technique. Jan Olsson, “Framing Silent Calls: Coming to Cinematographic Terms with Telephony,” in Allegories of Communication: Intermedial Concerns from Cinema to the Digital, ed. John Fullerton and Jan Olsson (Rome: John Libbey Publishing, 2004), 157–92, at 158. Instead, it keeps us firmly on Rainer's side of the conversation. Although most instances of telephony in film are indeed cross-cut, scenes labeled as “telephone scenes” tend to take this peculiarly minimalist approach. (The Lenny scene mentioned above is the rare exception that proves the rule.) You might even call this approach theatrical in its refusal to transport us to the other end of the line.

14. The play features pivotally in key works of critical theory and media studies: e.g., Avital Ronell, The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 11. And it is always cited in connection with what John Durham Peters calls “the telephonic uncanny.” John Durham Peters, Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 195.

15. Voigts-Virchow, Eckart, “‘Your Voice Is Around My Neck’—The Media History and Poetics of Theatre Telephony,” Forum Modernes Theater 19.2 (2004): 131–51, at 141, 138.

16. Let me make this point a bit more seriously here. In contemporary academia, we tend to agree (1) that identities are multiple and unstable; (2) that we perform such identities into stability only through our use of language; and (3) that the link between such language and its referent is tenuous at best. Jean Cocteau seems appealingly ready to flatter these beliefs.

17. Philip Carr, “Drama by the Seine,” New York Times, 9 March 1930, 118.

18. Jean Cocteau, The Human Voice, trans. Carl Wildman (London: Vision Press, 1951), 7.

19. David Trotter grounds his theory of literary “e-Modernism” on a similar attitude toward the phone among novelists and their characters. “What I am calling e-Modernism began when—and only when—the event [of the telephone call], however ritualized in itself, did not necessarily acquire symbolic proportions in and for the literary text.” Trotter, David, “E-Modernism: Telephony in British Fiction 1925–1940,” Critical Quarterly 51.1 (April 2009): 132, at 6. Many of the arguments Trotter makes about telephony and its effect on novels (especially on their plotting) might be applied with equal force to dramatic literature, but my focus on acting means that I must postpone this dramaturgical thesis. Trotter's periodization, too, is nearly my own—though the telephone's mundanity, I will argue, hits the theatre a full decade sooner—except that, as I argue elsewhere, theatre's “e-Modernity” begins with the heyday of telegraphy onstage in the 1880s and 1890s.

20. Moretti, Franco, “Conjectures on World Literature,” New Left Review 1 (Jan.–Feb. 2000): 5468, at 57. With the support of a grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources, I am developing a database that, by indexing the prop lists at the back of acting editions in the Samuel French Collection at Amherst College, will allow theatre historians to sort large corpora of plays by the objects they feature onstage. Once this tool exists, a more thorough study of this kind will be possible.

21. I'm being glib, of course. For a fascinating overview, see Alan Galey, “The Victorian New Media Demo as a Performance Genre,” Floating Academy, 13 August 2013,, accessed 11 February 2015.

22. For a late example, see Lincoln J. Carter's Bedford's Hope (also called The Great Rescue), in which “the telephone wires have been cut; no communication can be had,” etc. [“Review of Bedford's Hope,”] Theatre Magazine 6.61 (March 1906): 58–9, at 58.

23. See, for example, Rex Beach and James MacArthur's The Spoilers: “There is nobody about. But there is a telephone. She faintly calls for help through it. He tears it out. She struggles, breaks away, he in pursuit like a devil with a pitchfork”; [“Review of The Spoilers,”] Theatre Magazine 7.74 (April 1907): xii–xiii, at xiii.

24. This is what Scott Marble does in his 1896 stage western, The Great Train Robbery.

25. This is what Victor Mapes and Winchell Smith discovered while updating Bronson Howard's 1887 Wall Street comedy The Henrietta for a 1913 revival as The New Henrietta. In 1913, Howard's venal stockbrokers had a telephone cord to juggle with their ticker tape.

26. “Amusements,” New York Herald, 6 January 1880.

27. I'm thinking of the following published, recorded, and reported telephone scenes, in order: Marjorie Benton Cooke, “What the Janitor Heard,” in Modern Monologues (Chicago: Dramatic Publishing Company, 1903), 33–40, at 39–40; William Dean Howells and Mark Twain, Colonel Sellers as a Scientist, in The Complete Plays of W. D. Howells (New York: New York University Press, 1960), 205–41, at 233–4; Joe Hayman, Cohen on the Telephone, Columbia A-1516, 1914, 78 rpm (one of several recordings of this character and situation); and a popular vaudeville sketch by Harry Watson Jr., mentioned in “Pantomime Again Becoming Popular,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 10 July 1921, 8, which is quoted in the text.

28. Margaret Montgomery, Per Telephone: A Farce in One Act (Boston: Walter H. Baker & Co., 1893).

29. André de Lorde and Charles Foley, “At the Telephone,” in One-Act Plays for Stage and Study, ed. Walter Prichard Eaton, 2d ed. (New York: Samuel French, 1925), 383–401, at 399.

30. For this typical reading of Au téléphone, see Crane, David, “Projections and Intersections: Paranoid Textuality in Sorry, Wrong Number,” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies 17.51 (2002): 71113, at 77–80. See also the oft-cited article on Au téléphone and its silent film adaptations, which Crane is echoing in his essay: Gunning, Tom, “Heard over the Phone: The Lonely Villa and the de Lorde Tradition of the Terrors of Technology,” Screen 32.2 (1991): 184–96.

31. “A Telephone Drama,” American Telephone Journal, 11 January 1902, 26.

32. “Foreign Currents,” American Telephone Journal, 8 March 1902, 153.

33. See a social historian's account of this rural push in Claude S. Fischer, America Calling (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 95.

34. “A Telephone Drama,” 26.

35. De Lorde and Foley, “At the Telephone,” 398. Subsequent citations by page are given parenthetically in the text.

36. In the original French (“je sens les moindres inflexions de ta voix … de tes gestes”), this sensory blurring is even more pronounced. The verb sentir, meaning variously to sense, to feel, and to smell, is ambiguous from the start, so it takes as its object the inflexions (modulations or bendings) of both her body and her voice. André de Lorde and Charles Foleÿ, Au téléphone, suivi de Un concert chez les fous et de La Nuit rouge (Paris: Librairie illustré Jules Tallandier, 1910), 53.

37. “Sound effects as a whole were treated with great seriousness at the Grand-Guignol,” write two experts on this institution, citing as a key example Au téléphone's incessant “offstage sound.” Richard J. Hand and Michael Wilson, Grand-Guignol: The French Theatre of Horror (Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 2002), 64.

38. Michel Chion, The Voice in Cinema, trans. Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 77.

39. W. B. Yeats, “At the Hawk's Well,” in Collected Works, vol. 2, The Plays, ed. David R. Clark and Rosalind E. Clark (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), 297–306, at 303.

40. Fischer, 243.

41. Grace Kingsley, “At the Stage Door,” Los Angeles Times, 29 September 1915.

42. Untitled joke, Puck, 29 July 1916, 10.

43. Quoted in Thorne, Dorothy, “The Telephone in Sock and Buskin,” Telephone Review 7 (October 1916), 293. The suggestion that playwrights owe money (or homage) to Bell is a surprisingly common one. One theatre critic, for instance, jokes that playwrights ought to “[erect] a monument to Bell.” “Telephonic Drama,” Los Angeles Times, 12 February 1915.

44. J. M. Barrie, “A Slice of Life: An Advanced Drama,” unpaginated typescript, Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Cambridge, MA.

45. Alfred Sutro, The Laughing Lady (London: Duckworth & Co., 1922), 11.

46. George Jean Nathan, Since Ibsen: A Statistical Historical Outline of the Popular Theatre since 1900 (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1933), 7, 27, 102.

47. Clemence Dane, A Bill of Divorcement, in Representative British Dramas: Victorian and Modern, new revised ed., ed. Montrose J. Moses (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1931), 713–45, at 724.

48. Cocteau, 8.

49. Frances Gray, “Meggie Albanesi: A Life in the Theatre,” lecture for the Winter Lecture Series of the Society for Theatre Research, London, 16 February 2011,, accessed 11 February 2015.

50. Quoted in ibid.

51. Marjorie Wood, “‘Hello’ Girls' Part Is Difficult to Master,” Oregonian, 6 October 1912, 9.

52. Ibid.

53. Ibid.

54. If you revel, as I do, in the silent stretches of video artist Christian Marclay's “Telephones” (1995), you're already familiar with the pleasures of such presence. Available on YouTube at, accessed February 2015.

55. Uta Hagen and Haskel Frankel, Respect for Acting (New York: Macmillan, 1973), 110.

56. Ibid., 111.

57. James Herne, Margaret Fleming, in Representative American Plays from 1767 to the Present Day, 7th ed., ed. Arthur Hobson Quinn (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1957), 513–44, at 525.

58. De Lorde and Foley, “At the Telephone,” 397.

59. Marcel Proust, The Captive, quoted in John Brooks, Telephone: The First Hundred Years (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), 119–20.

60. Thorne, 296. Thorne is speaking here specifically of telephones in movies, but as Figures 6–8 show, her observation was equally true of the theatre.

61. Yetta D. Geffen, “Some Recent Hits,” Theatre Magazine 21.168 (February 1915), 87–8, at 87.

62. Cocteau, 52. This is my own translation; for Wildman's, see 8–9.

63. Some Significant Long Distance Talking,” Telephone Review 3.3 (March 1912): 60–1, at 61. For another account of this event, see “Inter-City Stage ‘Phone: Operators in Play Here and in Chicago Exchange Congratulations,” New York Times, 8 March 1912.

64. Strasberg, Lee and Schechner, Richard, “Working with Live Material,” Tulane Drama Review 9.1 (1964): 117–35, at 119.

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Theatre Survey
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