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.”
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.