Smoking on Stage

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Cigarettes on stage are tricky, aren’t they?

One of the Mundy sisters smokes. She talks about smoking, other people talk about her smoking, and there are two places where the dialogue indicates that she lights a cigarette.

People smoke! The play is set in 1936, and it would not have been at all surprising for a woman to smoke, even in rural Ireland. In fact, the Irish Free State encouraged tobacco-growing, and certainly didn’t discourage tobacco-smoking. But then people used to smoke a lot; in almost any play set in the US or England during the middle of the twentieth century, it seems odd if nobody smokes at all. Or plays set in other places at other times—I’m told that there are places where cigarettes are now as ubiquitous as they seem to have been here in the fifties. In some ways, if we’re attempting a naturalistic setting for Ballybeg, a total lack of cigarettes would be as jarring as Nikes or doublets.

But of course actually smoking tobacco on stage is illegal in most places and is dangerous and ethically wrong besides—and restricts your audience to those people who can stand the stink without coughing themselves sick. And the substitutes are not very convincing. Our Maggie has an e-cigarette that looks like a white nightstick and weighs about fifteen pounds. As our actor hasn’t ever smoked a cigarette in her offstage life, she’s doubly handicapped by learning to stage-smoke with this ridiculous prop. And I don’t know that there’s a better option. It isn’t quite like whiskey, where substitution can be convincing. Oh, you can put some non-tobacco herb in the paper, but if you have the business of lighting and puffing, well, where there’s smoke there’s proverbial, innit?

When the play premiered in 1990, I suspect the actor just smoked a cigarette, and that was the end of it. Maybe a clove whatsit, but probably just an old-fashioned ciggy. I don’t really blame Brian Friel for writing it in, at the time, and the truth is I don’t know if I would advise him to cut it if he were writing the play now. As I said, naturalism almost requires it, and even in the hazily naturalistic memory play, I would think that smoking would make a real impression on a boy in the thirties. Ah, well.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

1 thought on “Smoking on Stage

  1. Michael

    For me, smoke is a serious asthma trigger (and my only one). When there is smoking on stage–real or fake–I get hyperfocused on whether I have to leave, whether I’m starting to wheeze, whether I should have known, who might have an inhaler, how the ventilation works in the building, whether there’s a distant seat I can switch to, etc. It’s not an ideal mindset for enjoying the show, to put it mildly.

    If I’m still ok, and the smoking ends, and I can tell that I’m not going to be in trouble, I can shift my thoughts to the ethics of making actors smoke, or further to the ethics of making actors engage in hazardous stunts, or to how warnings ought to work to audience members about smoke or haze or strobes, or a lot of other things that still aren’t the show in front of me.

    I’m perfectly fine with the loss of some realism in exchange for skipping the smoking.


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