Rotten Ratings: Why Were Tomatoes Thrown At Bad Actors?

Once upon a time, in a world before Netflix and video games, people had to entertain themselves by going to the theatre. However, not all actors were created equal, and some performances were so bad that they deserved to be pelted with produce. That's right, we're talking about the age-old tradition of tomato throwing. 

Tomatoes have become symbolic of displeasure, even spawning the popular film review site Rotten Tomatoes but it wasn’t always tomatoes being thrown. This habit of pelting unworthy actors with rotten fruit and vegetables is most often associated with Shakespeare's Globe Theater in Elizabethan London (late 1500s to 1600s), but the practice predates even the cultivation of tomatoes which weren’t even mentioned in English cookbooks until 1752. 

While the audiences at Shakespeare’s plays definitely ejected their kitchen waste onto the stage and the suffering players it was more likely to be rotting peels and eggs than tomatoes. The practice can even be traced all the way back to 63 AD when Emporer Vespasian was pelted with turnips by an angry mob during one of his speeches.

Though it might seem cruel or rude by today’s standards, in Shakespeare’s day it was a normal and even welcome occurrence. This was a time when the theatre was for everyone, not just the elite and people were actively encouraged to participate in the show. Today the ‘cheap seats’ are usually the ones further from the stage, but back then they were right up in front of the stage. The aristocracy would sit further back and the going-on of the rabble as they interacted with actors was as much a part of the experience as the show itself and playwrights would often make amendments and additions to the script based on the reactions they got the night before. 

To find the first recorded incident of actual tomatoes being used for this purpose you had to travel to 19th-century America. American audiences had a reputation for being the rowdiest of them all and would frequently tear apart the chairs they were sitting on and hurl them at the offending act. They would show up with rotten eggs and tomatoes by the armful – or purchase some from obliging vendors who snapped up this new market – and would lie in wait until the performer slipped up. 

In 1883, John Ritchie made his debut at Washington Hall and within minutes of starting his act he found himself being showered in tomatoes. He threatened to end the performance right there and then but the audience cajoled him to go on. With some reluctance, he continued but when he was hit square between the eyes while he navigated the trapeze, it was too much for his artistic sentiments and he fled the theatre in a hail of tomatoes. 

And so began a long association between tomatoes and subpar entertainment that has lasted until today. Though we believe we have a much more sophisticated way of showing our disapproval: we just turn off the TV or leave the theatre, the practice may not be all that extinct. All you have to do is tot up the number of trolls in social media comment sections and you’ll see that although the critics have switched their tomatoes for words, the voices of the people are still going strong even though the tomato has been taken out of the spotlight.