Putting the ham in Hamlet... and lots of other shows
When I was a child, I thought William Shatner was the best actor ever because of his over-the-top performance as Captain Kirk. Those offbeat inflections, extreme facial expressions and strange cadences -- his acting was so obvious I figured that meant it was great.
As I matured, however, I started to appreciate the fine art of subtlety and suddenly Shatner's shtick looked pretty humorous. He was always chewing the scenery, over-emoting and pulling focus from his cast mates. It's no wonder that once he became a star, the stage-trained actor only came back to Broadway to do a one-man show -- no one else could compete! Of course no scenery is actually harmed when an actor chews it (though a show might be). It simply means the performer is overacting or acting in a way that is distracting.
Although the phrase "chewing the scenery" is sometimes attributed to noted wit and critic Dorothy Parker, who observed that a particular actor was "...more glutton than artist... he commences to chew up the scenery" in a 1930 review, the expression was actually coined long before. The earliest published occurrence seems to be in Idahoan novelist Mary Hallock Foote's 1894 story Coeur D'Alene, in which one character disparages another by saying, "Lads, did ye hear him chewin' the scenery, givin' himself away like a play-actor?" And since Coeur D'Alene is about miners, not actors, that implies it was already common usage.
Interestingly, the origin of "chewing the scenery" isn't the only thing about the idiom in dispute. Its application is debated as well. Usually it's meant negatively, as a way of saying that a performer is overdoing it or hamming it up. But sometimes you'll hear people (and even professional critics) use it as a compliment, especially for comedic turns. In this case, actors go all out and steal a scene or two, all while picking bits of scenery out of their teeth. Still, it's rarely used in a sincerely positive way when applied to a dramatic performance. Perhaps that explains why Shatner turned to comedy later in his career.
Made with our friends at F*IT Club.