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Noises Off? A Brief History of Unruly Audiences

None of us wants to piss off Patti LuPone. But it seems that an increasing number of theatregoers are doing just that, especially with their use of cellphones during performances. “I am so defeated by this issue that I seriously question whether I want to work on stage anymore,” she said in a statement in July. Nor was that even the worst example of audience behavior that month; an attendee at Hand to God, the Broadway play about a possessed puppet, found himself the subject of national headlines when he climbed up onstage to try and charge his phone in a fake, electrical outlet on the show’s set.

Have the barbarians won? Will theatre be doomed to be overrun and ultimately destroyed by boors and yahoos? Or is this issue, as Jonathan Mandell of New York Theater and Lyn Gardner of the Guardian have suggested, not as clear-cut as we might think? The idea that the audience will sit in a darkened house while maintaining a respectful silence is actually an aberration in the history of the theatre. Playhouses of the past were often rowdy, noisy places that make today’s cellphone-using, set-invading audiences look downright tame by comparison.

You could write multiple books about the various instances of bad audience behavior across different cultures and historical periods. In ancient Rome, it took three tries for the comic playwright Terence to get his Hecyra (usually translated into English as The Mother-in-Law) staged. Early Roman plays occurred amidst bustling civic festivals, and the first two attempts to put on Hecyra floundered when fights broke out between those who came to see the show and those who showed up to the same venue expecting to see something else. The first time, the attraction was a tightrope walker, while the second time it was a boxing match. In both cases, the fans of either acrobatics or violent sports chased away the theatre troupe and its supporters.

In other, less dramatic cases, inattentive and chatty audiences were the norm. For instance, many traditional Chinese theatres retained aspects of the teahouses that had once served as performance venues. While the actors performed, customers would order refreshments and carry on conversations, stopping to pay attention to a passage from a favorite play before going back to chatting. This was considered completely normal, not a cause for offense.

The idea that the audience will sit in a darkened house while maintaining a respectful silence is actually an aberration in the history of the theatre. Playhouses of the past were often rowdy, noisy places that make today’s cellphone-using, set-invading audiences look downright tame by comparison.

Perhaps the best indicator of how recently—and how drastically—attitudes have changed is the contrast between today’s audience faux pas and some of the great brawls in French theatre history. One of the most famous of these cases involves Victor Hugo, probably best known to us now as the author of Les Misérables. In 1830, Hugo premiered his new play Hernani, which caused uproar because it broke with convention by ditching the rules that governed how French tragedies were written for nearly two centuries.

The scene was set for a confrontation between Hugo’s supporters and those who opposed his innovations. Things got even worse because of a phenomenon known as the claque, in which supporters of a playwright, actor, or other artist would show up as a group and loudly applaud the show. Their support was sometimes genuine (as in this case), but in many instances they were motivated more by the prospect of getting paid.

Neither the claque supporting Hugo nor the one opposing him on that night behaved very well, even by the laxer standards of the nineteenth-century theatre. As theatre scholar Tracy Davis recounts, the two sides started by hurling insults at one another outside the theatre. Once inside, Hugo’s claque proceeded to get drunk and, unable to get into the restrooms, used the various corners of the theatre instead. The performance itself devolved into further pandemonium, with audience members whooping and yelling at the actors when they weren’t scuffling with one another. The brouhaha continued throughout the play’s entire run. In Mary Gluck’s Popular Bohemia: Modernism and Urban Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris, the critic Theophile Gautier described what happened: “One evening it was the Romantics who lost speech, the next, they recaptured it and the classicists, beaten, brought to another line a formidable artillery of hisses, bird calls, screeches, and the combat was re-engaged with even more spirit.”

ancient drawing of two actors
Sarah Bernhardt and Mounet-Sully in an 1877 production of Victor Hugo's Hernani. Photo courtesy of Bibliothèque Nationale de France (National Library of France).

The disturbances that greeted Hernani were just the latest in a long line of similar incidents throughout the history of the French theatre, and the tradition continued for nearly another century. One of the most famous examples of this is the first performance of Alfred Jarry’s bizarre Ubu Roi, which occurred decades after Hugo’s play premiered. As with Hernani, the audience arrived already divided into factions, either supporting or opposed to Jarry, and they were both ready for a fight. When lead actor Fermin Gemier appeared onstage and said the play’s first line, a modified version of the French word for “shit,” the audience erupted, and chaos reigned.

European avant-garde theatre continued to see conflicts over new plays well into the twentieth century, including the debut of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author in 1921 and a performance of Tristan Tzara’s Dadaist oddity The Gas Heart in 1923. But by then, such outbreaks of rudeness had become anomalies, attributable more to the bohemian nature of the works and their audiences than the prevailing social norms. So, what changed?

The short answer is Richard Wagner. The sort of behavior seen during Hernani became progressively more unacceptable in polite society over the course of the nineteenth century. When Wagner opened his new opera house at Bayreuth in 1876, he enforced a strict policy of silence for his audience, who was also expected to sit in darkness. The unruly crowds were finally being tamed.

Perhaps the rules promulgated by Wagner and his contemporaries are finally starting to show their age. Like Terence and his band of thwarted thespians, our theatre faces competition from many other forms of entertainment, and changing our expectations for audience behavior may be one necessary adjustment that we’ll need to make. A more boisterous, even sometimes rude, audience will also usually be a more passionate and more engaged one. Hernani became a hit, in large part because people wondered what all the fuss was about. Allowing for a more unruly audience just might make for a brighter future for the theatre—just so long as we all agree to shut up when Patti LuPone’s onstage.

Thoughts from the curator

Michael Lueger dissects different topics from theatrical history.

Strange Eventful History by Michael Lueger


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On one hand, a rowdy audience makes it hard to hear what the actors are saying. On the other hand, if it means I can get up and go to the restroom and return to my seat during a one-hour-45-minute (or longer) intermissionless performance I'm all for it.




I am increasingly amazed at HowlRound writers who seem to regularly rewrite the work of others. As noted by Melanie Dryer, Lynn Connor's "Audience Engagement and the Role of Arts Talk in the Digital Era" is an excellent discussion of these issues, as is Lawrence Levine's "Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America."

In the meantime, I suggest that the editors at HowlRound begin to encourage their writers to do a little research before reinventing the wheel.

Hmmm. Thought I posted a comment already but I don't see it. Lynne Conner, author of "Audience Engagement and the Role of Arts Talk in the Digital Era" has written extensively about this important issue. She actually pioneered this idea with an article published in 2008 and has since been traveling the world speaking about how important it is to give up our need to control the audience's behavior and opinion and let them participate in meaning making. I highly recommend her book if this topic interests you.

'In both cases, the fans of either acrobatics or violent sports chased away the theatre troupe and its supporters.' - doesn't that just say it all?

Great article! I've been so disheartened by all the snootery around that kid and his cellphone. I think at worst it was hilarious, and nobody lost their life. What's endangering our theatre is its inability to deal with actual spontaneity with anything except reprobation-- not rowdy audiences. This great '60's Brit playwright John Arden was actually bummed out by how polite his audiences were:

"When I was writing my scripts… I regarded myself as preparing a story which would… in fact be me saying something of interest to a whole crowd of people whom I would have liked to believe my friends. If I personally told such a story to a group of real friends round a supper-table I would have expected them to react, to interrupt, to comment in a manner provocative some more prolonged discourse. If this did not happen in the theatre, was I to blame for my style of writing, were the public to blame for their false expectations, or should one blame the entire theatre and its inherited manner of presentation, publicity and technical device?"

It comes down to a question of whether the theater is always to be a completely safe place where the audience, actors, directors, technicians, and playwrights all "behave." Or a place where everything is possible and sometimes people don't "behave." We talk about the theater being a place where the artists take risks, but there's very little expectation that the audience should be taking risks. When you look back at it, the great moments in theater history that we still talk about are the times where someone started to break the rules. Maybe this is a time where that's happening again. Maybe the relationship between actor and audience is changing again. If so, that's the time theater usually seems to make a leap into a new and creative path. Like the Waiting For Lefty audience, maybe in the end everyone in the room will cheer loudly and feel as if they're a part of the story.