Chew scenery [thespian sense] (antedating 1878)

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Fri Sep 23 11:56:41 UTC 2011

I was unable to find "chew the scenery", "chewing the scenery", "chew
scenery", "chewing scenery" in the OED. There is a citation containing
"scenery chewing" under neo-noir, B. noun. "1993 Etc. Montreal 15
Aug.–15 Nov. 23/2   Jim McBride's neo-noir, The Wrong Man, starring
John Lithgow as a scenery chewing villain was screened as part of Un
Certain Regard."

The Historical Dictionary of American Slang of Jonathan Lighter has an
entry "chew [up] the scenery - Theat. To overact" with a first cite in

Wiktionary has an entry for "chew the scenery" that references the
HDAS entry for a first cite, but it assigns a date of 1894.

The Word Detective discusses the phrase and mentioned an 1895 cite.

World Wide Words of Michael Quinion has an entry for "chew the
scenery" with a first cite in 1891.Dorothy Parker is namechecked.

Below are three instances in 1878, 1880 and 1886. The 1886 article
describes an actor who would "chew scenery and eat soap to get up a
froth". This suggests the possibility that some actor(s) may have
inspired the expression by pretending to eat scenery. Alternatively,
the 1886 cite may suggest a comical  literalization of an existing
metaphor. (Please double-check for errors in transcription.)

Cite 1878 November 03, Cincinnati Commercial [Tribune], Page Title:
Amusements: Opera, Comedy, Burlesque and Vaudeville, Article: Knights
of the Road, Page 12, Column 3, Cincinnati, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)

The Henck's(?) Opera-house Company goes out on the road this week to
Maysville, Lexington and Louisville, Ky. "Roaring Ralph" Douglas will
chew scenery and kill supers(?) in each of the above named places.

Cite: 1880 November 24, Fort Wayne Daily Gazette, The Missing Manager,
Page 1, Column 1, Fort Wayne, Indiana/ (NewspaperArchive)

Mrs. Hattie Morris, wife of the manager, is playing an engagement at
the Coliseum, Detroit, where she is nightly chewing scenery in support
of that stentorian-voiced histrion, Mr. J. Z. Little.

Cite: 1886 October 03, The Commercial Gazette [GNB Cincinnati
Commercial Tribune], A Chat About Famous Minstrels, Page 2, Column 7,
Cincinnati, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)

A fog horn would blush if Cool Burgess should yell alongside it. He is
what we call a stalwart. One of his great acts is to chew scenery and
eat soap to get up a froth. When he does a song and dance the noise is
simply deafening.


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