O.Henry (Rouge et noir): fly-by-night theatricals

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Senior Member
Russian - Ukraine
Hi, Guys!

Can you please explain what is "
fly-by-night theatricals" here?

How do you understand it?

"The lad's game," said Cronin, with a commending look at the tall, easy figure by the steps. "But 'tis all like fly-by-night theatricals to me. The talk's bigger than the stage; there's a smell of gasoline in the air, and they're their own audience and scene-shifters."

From Cabbages and Kings by O Henry (1896) Part 16: Rouge et Noir
See full text here:

  • cuchuflete

    Senior Member
    Hello Japutra,

    Fly-by-night means unrealiable, apt to depart quickly, especially to avoid responsibilities, such as paying debts. The etymology is interesting:

    1796, slang, said to be an old term of reproach to a woman signifying that she was a witch; extended 1823 to "anyone who departs hastily from a recent activity," especially while owing money. The two senses involve the two verbs fly.
    Online Etymology Dictionary

    In this use, the sense is that the theatrical company is shady, shoddy, and not especially honest or substantial.

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    The metaphor is quite extended. The flight that this theatrical company is going to make by night is coming soon, if the smell of gasoline is in the air - their tanks are full, ready for a quick getaway, is how I'd read that.


    Senior Member
    English English
    and they're their own audience and scene-shifters."

    They're also not very good if they have to act as audience and stagehands to themselves.
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