General English


  • noun a person who is learning how to do a job which is currently being done by someone else, so as to be able to take over the job if the present incumbent retires or is ill
  • verb to learn how to do a job by working alongside the present incumbent, so as to be able to take over if he retires or is ill


  • An actor who learns the part of another, especially that ofa principal actor, in order to substitute for him at short noticein case of an emergency such as illness. In the 18th-century Frenchtheater, this substitute was called a double, and young actorsusually began their careers in this way. The world's longest-servingunderstudy was the late Nancy Seabrooke (d. 1999), who from 1979 to1996 understudied the part of Mrs Boyle in The Mousetrap. Inthe course of 6240 performances over 16 years she was required to go on stage a mere 72 times.

    Albert Finney first achieved recognition in 1959,when, as a 23-year-old understudy he replaced Laurence Olivierwho had injured his knee while performing in Coriolanus at Stratford-upon-Avon.Finney had previously experienced great nervousness on the Stratfordstage, but when he replaced the star "all the difficulties Iseemed to be going through left me". He summed up the advantagesof the understudy, noting: "It didn't matter what happened.It didn't matter if I dried; they'd expect it. If I fainted, wellit's a lot of pressure on the lad, you know. So I didn't worry."

    One case of an understudy imitating the star too closely occurredat the Mermaid Theatre during a revival of Shaw's The Philanderer.A new polished parquet floor had been installed and when the actressJane Arden made her entrance, she slid straight off the stage intothe lap of a woman in the stalls. Arden was too shaken to continue,and the understudy was called for. When this actress appeared on stageshe too skated right into the same woman, who left the theater indignantly,thinking she had been the victim of a deliberate practical joke.