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Drink and drama: top 10 quotes

Wine, beer and spirits have been causing mirth and mayhem for millennia and the world of theatre has been quick to capitalise. We consider some of the finest, most provocative drinks quotations from the stage.

Falstaff, one of theatre’s most famous drunkards

Ever since stage drama emerged from the religious rituals of Classical Greece, right through to Shakespeare, Noel Coward and some of our most modern plays, drink has provided the catalyst for comedy, chaos and more thoughtful musings about the role of alcohol in civilised society.

Of course, theatre is not alone in using alcohol, whether as a plot device, ambience aid or simply product placement. Indeed, the drinks business has already explored some of the most famous fictional drinks, top tipples from the James Bond franchise and films where both whisky and Champagne enjoy memorable cameos.

Over the following pages we highlight pieces of drama where the effect of alcohol – whether positive, negative or causing consternation somewhere in between – offers not just entertainment but often thought provoking reflection on the human condition.

10. Euripides, The Bacchae

Followers of Dionysos celebrate his gift of wine to mankind

For two things, young man, are first among men: the goddess Demeter – she is the earth, but call her whatever name you wish; she nourishes mortals with dry food; but he who came afterwards, the offspring of Semele, discovered a match to it, the liquid drink of the grape, and introduced it to mortals. It releases wretched mortals from grief, whenever they are filled with the stream of the vine, and gives them sleep, a means of forgetting their daily troubles, nor is there another cure for hardships.”

Even two and a half thousand years ago the alcohol debate was running strong. Euripides’ 5th century BC tragedy The Bacchae shows the outlandish god of wine Dionysos coming to Greece, where King Pentheus seeks to repress his corrupting influence on the people of Thebes.

Here the prophet Teiresias warns against Pentheus’ puritanical approach with this eulogy to wine that positions it as a vital component of human happiness.



 9. “Without wine there is no longer love nor any other pleasant thing for men.”

A Greek vase depicts the gruesome downfall of Pentheus

Among the many other wine-related references that permeate The Bacchae comes this further warning for Pentheus from a shepherd, who has narrowly escaped with his life from the eponymous Bacchae, the women of Thebes whom Dionysos has sent mad into the mountains as punishment for the city’s rejection of his religion.

The play ends in tragedy as Pentheus, driven mad by the god and his own prurient desire to spy on the immoral activities he imagines these women are getting up to in the wild, disguises himself in drag but is hunted down by the furious Bacchae and torn apart by his own mother.

8. Aristophanes, The Knights

This man appears to have “soaked his brain” a drop too far

Do you dare to accuse wine of clouding the reason? Quote me more marvellous effects than those of wine. Look! When a man drinks, he is rich, everything he touches succeeds, he gains lawsuits, is happy and helps his friends. Come, bring hither quick a flagon of wine, that I may soak my brain and get an ingenious idea.

From Greek tragedy we turn to the later 5th century Athenian comedy of Aristophanes, who composed biting political satire for a city ground down by the effects of its long war with Sparta.

Near the start of this particular play, the character Demosthenes turns to wine as he seeks inspiration for ways to tackle the corrupt, brutal Paphlagonian who is making the household of his master Demos ­– Greek for “citizens” – so miserable.

7. Shakespeare, Othello

Not tonight, good Iago: I have very poor and unhappy brains for drinking. I could well wish courtesy would invent some other custom of entertainment.

Peer pressure was clearly alive and well back in the 1603 when Shakespeare wrote this play about the destructive forces of jealousy, betrayal and revenge.

Here the hapless, handsome officer Cassio acknowledges his low alcohol tolerance and the treacherous solider Iago persuades him to have “but one cup!


6.“O thou invisible spirit of wine! If thou hast no name to be known by, let us call thee devil!

A drunken brawl and destroyed career later, the wretched Cassio expresses the sort of regretful sentiment that will be all too familiar to anyone who has over-indulged.

Here too Iago – the very man who led him astray – is on hand to promote the message of moderation:

Good wine is a good familiar creature, if it be well used.

5. Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

Shakespeare also gives the subject of alcohol more comic treatment through the character of Sir Toby Belch, the archetypal drunken buffoon and bully.

His first appearance on stage will strike a familiar chord with anyone who has been woken late at night by a friend or neighbour so wrapped up in their merriment that they fail to see why others might be less amused by their presence.

Here the servant Maria rebukes him, saying: “By my troth, Sir Toby, you must come earlier o’nights: your cousin, my lady, takes great exceptions to your ill hours.

Sir Toby, however, shows no remorse, but instead entertains himself with a witty retort: “I’ll confine myself no finer than I am: these clothes are good enough to drink in; and so be these boots too”.

All Maria can do is roll her eyes in despair and warn him that no-one is impressed by this behaviour, saying: “That quaffing and drinking will undo you: I heard my lady talk of it yesterday”.

4. Shakespeare, Macbeth

Drink sir, is a great provoker of three things… nose painting, sleep and urine. Lechery, sir, it provokes, and unprovokes; it provokes the desire but takes away the performance.”

While Macbeth and his wife have been carrying out murderous deeds, their servants have been making merry. As Macduff bangs on the gate to wake up the king, as yet unaware of his violent death during the night, a drunken porter eventually lets him in.

The two have a brief, friendly exchange on the contradictory effects of alcohol, with the porter providing this brief moment of levity for audience and protaganists alike before “the Scottish play” descends into horror.

3. Noel Coward, Private Lives

A few centuries on and in a rather more convivial setting, Noel Coward was entertaining the crowds with plays packed full of pithy social observations.

His play Private Lives ruffled feathers when it debuted in 1930, telling the story of a divorced couple, Elyot and Amanda who marry new partners, only to find their ex-spouse honeymooning in the next-door hotel room.

Realising they still have feelings for each other, the two divorcees run off together, only to find themselves trapped in the same vicious bickering that originally drove them apart.

As their rekindled relationship collapses once again, Elyot sneers:

It’s a pity you didn’t have a little more brandy. It might have made you more agreeable!” Only for Amanda to snap back: “It doesn’t seem to have worked such wonders with you.

It seems unfair to blame alcohol for this destructive relationship, but its ability to exacerbate marital tensions would no doubt have struck a familiar chord with audiences both then and decades later.

2. Noel Coward, Words and Music

In addition to his plays, Coward’s career was built upon songs that formed part of the musical revue shows so popular in the inter-war years.

One of these, the sharply satirical Words and Music, features a number sung by three debutantes, who seek to drown their disillusionment at the depressing state of world affairs by drinking gin.

“…The gin is lasting out,

No matter whose,

We’re merely casting out

The Blues,

For gin, in cruel

Sober truth,

Supplies the fuel

For flaming youth.

A drink is known

To help a dream along…”

10. Compton MacKenzie, Whisky Galore

First a novel, then part of the popular Ealing Comedies film series and now enjoying something of a revival both on stage and silver screen is this whisky-themed comedy originally conceived by writer Compton MacKenzie.

Whisky Galore is loosely based on a true story, telling of a whisky shortage during World War II which prevents the hero Sergeant Odd from marrying his sweetheart on the grounds that it would be impossible to celebrate the rèitach, or wedding party, without the traditional dram.

As luck would have it, a ship runs aground with 50,000 cases of whisky, provoking a race among the islanders to secure the booty before the authorities spoil their fun and ruin Odd’s marriage hopes.

This year saw Whisky Galore staged as a new Gaelic adaptation Uisge-Beatha Gu Leòr, while a film remake starring comedian Eddie Izzard is currently in production.

This clip from its recent Gaelic incarnation gives some sense of the merry mayhem that Scotch – or a shortage thereof – can inspire.


And finally…

UKIP! The Musical, which took the Edinburgh Fringe Festival by storm this year may not have an obvious drinks connection – unless you count its beer swilling anti-hero Nigel Farage.

Look closely at the credits, however, and you’ll see that its catchy, irreverent songs were in fact recorded and arranged by the multi-talented MW Alex Hunt, who displayed his musical prowess earlier this year as a member of UK wine trade band Skin Côntact.

To read more about the project – including some intriguing parallels with the world of wine, click here.



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