The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The play opens in Tito Merelli’s hotel suite on the night of his performance with the Cleveland Grand Opera’s production of Guiseppi Verdi’s Otello (1887). At stage right is a sitting room with a door to the hallway and a kitchen door off the right. At stage left is a bedroom with doors to a closet, bathroom, and hallway. Another door connects the two rooms. The living room is furnished minimally with a sofa, pouf, radio, telephone, and coffee table, and the bedroom with a bed and bureau.

When the lights come up, Maggie is revealed rapturously listening to a recording of Tito on the radio. Max enters in a panic, since Tito has not yet arrived. Maggie soon reveals to her longtime boyfriend that she has a need to have a “fling” before settling down into marriage, preferably with someone like Tito. Maggie’s father, Saunders, arrives, also in a panic over the tenor’s absence, and Maggie attempts to calm him with a phenobarbital pill, leaving the bottle out. When Saunders hears that Tito is downstairs, he ushers Maggie out, tells Max to keep Tito away from “liquor and women,” and goes down to the lobby. Maggie sneaks back in through the bedroom door. Max discovers her too late to remove her before Saunders arrives with Tito, his wife Maria, and an eager-to-please Bellhop.

Tito refuses to obey Maria’s request to take tranquilizers to calm him for the performance, so she storms into the bedroom. After Tito announces that he will skip the afternoon rehearsal, Saunders admonishes Max to make sure Tito gets some sleep and then exits. Max and Tito soon become friends, with Tito giving Max a singing lesson. When Tito offers Max some wine, Max spikes Tito’s drink with Saunders’s tranquilizers after Tito, to placate Maria, has...

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Lend Me a Tenor Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The play employs a number of devices common to farces: mistaken identity, double entendres, a playful sense of rhythm generally delivered with alacrity and precision, intricate blocking and sight gags, and frequent entrances and exits utilizing the six doors onstage. There are several sections characterized by silent physical comedy unencumbered by dialogue. The most elaborate is a moment in act 1, when the Bellhop is attempting to place suitcases into a closet in which Maggie is hiding. Max, discovering her in the closet, attempts to extract her while preventing the Bellhop from seeing her. The action takes place in a nearly pantomime fashion, with Max and Maggie frenetically gesturing to each other and the Bellhop blithely going about the business of repeatedly opening the closet door that Max keeps shutting.

In an author’s note, Ludwig suggests that in casting, acting ability is more important than singing ability. Far from being merely practical advice, this suggests a deeper connection with the genre and structure of the play. For some time, the audience is asked to believe that Maggie should not be capable of recognizing her fiancé in his disguise as Tito, and that others (such as Saunders) should also succumb to the mistaken identity. In this play, the audience is eager to suspend their disbelief in favor of the fun offered by the plot line.

This play may be distinguished from the classic farce by its metatheatrical features. A term coined in 1963 by critic Lionel Abel in his book of the same name, “metatheatre” signals such devices as the play-within-a-play or performance-within-a-performance (such as the opera duet in act 1). Certainly it includes masquerading, which forms the basis for the mistaken-identity device that drives the action of the second act. There are also a few moments in the first act during which, in order to make a point to Max, Saunders addresses the audience as if they were members of the opera audience.

In some of the play’s early performances, notably on the American West Coast, there was some controversy over the use of blackface as part of the Otello makeup, a device whose purpose is to make the identity confusion between Max and Tito more plausible.

Lend Me a Tenor Bibliography

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Dunn, Don. “Broadway’s Brightest Lights.” Business Week, June 19, 1989, 105.

Hodgson, Moira. “Lend Me a Tenor.” Nation 248 (April 17, 1989): 534-535.

Hoyle, Martin. “Lend Me a Tenor.” Plays and Players 392 (May, 1986): 22.

Oliver, Edith. “Zaks Rides Again.” The New Yorker 65 (March 13, 1989): 74.

Wetzsteon, Ross. “Zaks Appeal: Lincoln Center’s King of Comedy.” New York 23 (May 28, 1990): 50-57.