A Theatergoer Thought ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ Was So Hilarious, She Died Laughing
“Break a leg” is a one of those expressions in showbiz, wishing the addressee success during a performance, not that he or she would literally suffer an accident onstage that requires a cast and crutches. Likewise with the expression “go kill ’em” for performers of comedy, which does not urge the comic to mow down the audience with a machinegun, but to kill them with laughter.
Even said killing with laughter is meant figuratively, not literally. However, that was not the case for an eighteenth century comedic troupe whose theatrical performance in 1782 ended up literally killing an audience member with laughter. It occurred on an April evening that year, when a Mrs. Fitzherbert went out with some friends to see The Beggar’s Opera on Drury Lane, in London.
The play starred a popular actor named Charles Bannister, and when he appeared onstage in drag, portraying a character named Polly Peachum, the entire audience was thrown into fits of laughter. A print of Bannister as Polly Peachum gives a hint of what caused the extreme mirth. In the guise of the charming Polly is a lantern jawed and poorly shaved middle aged man, in a voluminous dress and holding a fan, staring deadpan.
The audience eventually collected itself, wiped the tears from its eyes, and resumed watching the play. Not so, Mrs. Fitzherbert, who was unable to suppress the laughter that seized her. As described by The Gentleman’s Magazine soon thereafter: “Not being able to banish the figure from her memory, she was thrown into hysterics, which continued without intermission until she expired on Friday morning”
Another contemporary source described it in more detail: “Mrs. Fitzherbert, the widow of a Northamptonshire clergyman, had been with some friends to Drury Lane on the evening of 17 April 1782 to see the transvestite ‘Beggar’s Opera’ in which Charles Bannister played Polly. This lady was overcome by laughter to the extent that she had to leave before the end of the second act. She continued in hysterics until the morning of 19 April, when she died“.
The incident caused waves at the time, as it was pregnant with what were, for its era, several class transgressions. For one, the presence of a clergyman’s widow at a comic play was highly unusual in of itself, let alone her uncontrollable laughter in public. That might have been expected from a fishwife back then, but not from a woman whose gentility was deemed a given in those days.