Q From Anne: While the mental image of a well-known movie star snacking on the props around him is amusing, I imagine the origin of the term chewing the scenery is more metaphorical. Could you elaborate?
A It’s from the acting profession, all right, and means to over-act, over-emote, or ham it up in a synthetic frenzy so great that you might think the actor was about to bite chunks out of the set. Sometimes it’s applied almost as praise, suggesting an actor who is energetic and spirited. You may also come across it as chew up the scenery or occasionally as chew scenery. Note that the phrase is about the scenery — the backdrop to the action — rather than the furniture, costumes and props you mention, which are the immediate concerns of the actors.
It’s so common in reviews, especially in America, that it has long since become a cliché that should be permanently extracted from writers’ lexicons without benefit of anaesthetic. Here’s a recent example:
Overacting? Sally Field? Never. As in always. She chews up the scenery and spits it out with particular vigor in this show, as the mother who invests too much psychic energy and self-interest in her adult children. In a family of drama queens, she's the leader of the pack.
Boston Globe, 25 Oct. 2009.
Brewer’s Twentieth Century Phrase and Fable says it was invented by the New York columnist and wit Dorothy Parker in one of her reviews. But it’s certainly a lot older than that. This is the earliest example I’ve so far come across:
The Antony of Mons. Dermont was quite devoid of dignity and real force. He was inclined to “chew scenery.”
Rocky Mountain News, 1 Mar. 1891. In a review of Victorien Sardou’s Cleopatra in New York, starring Sarah Bernhardt, whose performance the reviewer described as a “decided failure”. The New York Times wrote of its first night on Christmas Eve 1890 with qualified praise, “A large audience witnessed the performance with apparent interest, which after some scenes was warmed into enthusiasm.”
So it is firmly pre-cinema and originally referred to the theatre. Which is only reasonable, when you think about it, since scenery that is close enough to you that you can chew on it, even figuratively, is usually found only on the stage.
The phenomenon, however, quickly escaped its thespian confines:
“Long may Mason wave!” exclaimed the Washington Post, referring to the new Senator from Illinois, and his red lemonade speech on the Cuban question. But the Hon. Billy Mason does not wave. The Hon. Billy may heave, swell, howl, snort and swear, but he does not fluctuate. He may throw language at the birds, pound at atmosphere, shake the desks in the Senate, and perspire like a spring thaw, but he does not wave. He may amble, he may cut the pigeon wing, he may roll forward, he may warble on the dudgeon, as the Hardeman Free Press would say, he may chew scenery, dash high, tumble upon himself, collapse from a punctured lung, hurl defiance, defy the lightning, point with pride, and call heaven to witness, but we repeat it that he does not wave.
Los Angeles Times, 1 Jul. 1897.