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  William Hobbs
Stage Combat, "The Action to the Word",

St. Martin's Press/New York-1980; ISBN 0-312-75493-0

 

 

 

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I have in my stage fighting life been more hurt than hurting, which would seem to absolve me in principle from this weakness, though in my mind's eye I see a couple of prone spectres of the past raising themselves upon a painful elbow aghast with speechless incredulity at my effrontery in making any such assertion.

I was first caused to muse upon these matters by an incident during Romeo and Juliet about Christmas-time 1935. I had hurt Geoffrey Toone quite badly in the Mercutio-Tybalt bout and the poor lad had to leave the cast for some weeks on account of his thumb hanging by a thread. The next evening I found myself squared up to the understudy — Harry Andrews no less. Each found something about his opponent that set his nostrils aquiver, if not his foot apawing and shrill neighing assailing the air. To each was flashed that instantaneous recognition of a kindred spirit. We both knew 'they' were going to get a good fight. From then on through the run no holds were barred and sparks flew like Japanese crackers and it was more up to the audience to defend itself as best it could rather than either of us.

We were using bucklers and hand-and-a-half hilted longish swords and hardly a performance went by that the tip of one of these did not go zinging out into the auditorium to be greeted by a female shriek, an outraged masculine snort of 'look here, I say', and a sobbing exit through one of the

swing doors. How the management coped with it I shall never know.

Looking back over my career now, I see it as a long, a very long chapter of almost every imaginable kind of accident, which would seem to say that either I am a bad fighter or my rule of 'the safer the more dangerous' is a load of malarkey.

Without pausing for reflection I can think of:

1 broken ankle
2 torn cartilages (1 perforce yielding to surgery)
2 broken calf muscles
3 ruptured Achilles tendons

Untold slashes including a full thrust razor-edged sword wound in the breast (thrilling)
-Landing from considerable height, scrotum first, upon acrobat's knee Hanging by hand to piano wire 40 feet up for some minutes (hours?) on account of unmoored rope
-Hurled to the stage from 30 feet due to faultily moored rope ladder Impalement upon jagged ply cut-outs
-Broken foot bone by standing preoccupied in camera track
-Broken face by horse galloping into camera while looking through finder
-Near broken neck diving into net
-Several shrewd throws from horses including one over beast's head into lake
-One arrow shot between shinbones
-Water on elbow
-Water pretty well everywhere
-Hands pretty well mis-shapen now through 'taking' falls Quite a few pretended injuries while it was really gout
-Near electrocution through scimitar entering studio dimmer while backing away from unwelcome interview Etc., etc., etc.

Not to mention injuries inflicted upon my colleagues. (Memories of R. R. as Richmond, sotto voce but not unheard . . . 'Steady boy now', 'Easy fellow' or 'You've got two today boy . . .' 'Merely venture to submit'.) Not to mention injuries inflicted upon my audiences. I could go on a great deal. Honourable scars? Well, I am not sure.

But why introduce, with a chapter of accidents and mistakes, a text book in which one is sure there are none?

Laurence Olivier

 

'The Master of the Fence' is a splendid title, redolent of times when le mot juste was le mot le plus splendide or to be more vaudevillian:

'Those days of fame,
When a Pansy was a flower
And a Fanny was a name.'

Mr Hobbs has gone into his task with the extremest and most loving care and, I should guess, as thoroughly as can ever have been done.

I wish he had been born before I was, so that I could have had the benefit of such an abundance of advice and knowledge of technique.

My training and exercise in the an of fence has been largely grounded on the clockwork technique of 'one, two, three; two, one, four'; or 'bish, bash, bosh; bash, bosh, bish; no, no, no, you should not be doing bosh there, it is hash first, then bosh, now then, bosh, bash, bish, then backhand bosh'. This sounds idiotic enough but can be quite good if you look as if you really mean it, and use carefully practised variations of rhythm, also with a few escapes — I mean purposely narrow escapes — some surprises here and there and a frill or two, your little fight can look quite respectable.

I have always felt very strongly that a stage fight offered the actor a unique opportunity of winning the audience, as great almost as any scene, speech or action. That Shakespeare put it high in his estimation of stage effects is proclaimed by the amount of times he trustingly leaves it to this element to provide him with his denouements, and this, as Mr Hobbs points out, for an audience commonly practised in the art and therefore shrewdly critical of the goings on.

There is a traditional paradox in reference to stage fights the safer the more dangerous*. Most accidents can be attributed to hesitancies and other symptoms of not wishing to hurt your opponent.