“It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

Most people prefer not to think a lot about death.

But that subject has always loomed large in the mind and works of comedian, writer, actor and director Woody Allen, even when he was a young man.

One of Allen’s quips about death is a famous quote that’s cited in hundreds of books:

   “It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

This line comes from an imaginary one-act play Allen wrote in his late thirties, titled Death.

It was one of two short plays included with a collection of his short stories in the book Without Feathers, which was published on May 12, 1975.

Death is said to be Allen’s humorous homage to Eugene Ionesco’s 1959 “Theatre of the Absurd” play The Killer.

Years later, he used Death as the basis for his 1992 film Shadows and Fog.

The title of Allen’s book Without Feathers is a satiric twist on words written by Emily Dickinson.

It’s a take-off on the first line of Dickinson’s poem “Hope,” published posthumously in 1891, five years after her death:

“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune – without the words,
And never stops at all.”

By titling his book Without Feathers, Allen was making a sardonic literary joke.

It encapsulated the contrast between his own fatalistic, dark-humored view of life and the more uplifting thoughts expressed by Dickinson in “Hope.”

Allen’s quote about death from Without Feathers has been immortalized by it’s inclusion in many books of famous quotations, as have a number of lines from his movies and his early stand-up comedy routines.

I don’t know if Woody Allen will end up being as popular after his death for as long as Emily Dickinson has been since hers in 1886.

But I suspect Woody’s reaction to that possibility might be another famous line he used back in the days when he did stand-up:

“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.”

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Related reading: books by and about Woody Allen…

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