"Vulgarians," "Vigilantes," and the Great Cell Phone Smashing of 2013
National Review’s roving correspondent Kevin Williamson made himself a folk hero of the Twittersphere when, at a recent performance of the new musical Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, he seized the cell phone of a woman sitting next to him and threw it across the theater.
Hailing himself a “vigilante” standing athwart the texting “vulgarians,” Williamson protested his ejection from the theater. “In a civilized world,” he wrote on his blog, “I would have received a commendation.”
Leaving aside the fact that in a civilized world people don’t generally hurl their neighbors’ property, Williamson’s post—and the adulation it inspired—has more serious implications for the American theater.
As an actor and regular theatergoer, I’ll be the first to admit that cell phone use is irritating and disrespectful. I’ll also second Williamson’s frustration with house management’s self-imposed impotence to stop it. But in my experience, it’s also not by any stretch the most ubiquitous theatrical distraction.
Since moving to New York in October, I’ve been to fourteen Broadway and off-Broadway productions, about half of which have featured some form of unruly audience behavior. A few rows behind me at The Piano Lesson, a patron’s hearing aid screeched for a good fifteen minutes. When politely asked on several occasions to turn it off, he indignantly refused. At The Great God Pan, my neighbor started unwrapping and biting into hard candy after hard candy. About halfway through the first act of The Flick, a gentleman in front of me began loudly complaining to his wife that the show was long and boring and that he couldn’t wait for it to end already. For some inexplicable reason, he returned for act two only to resume his diatribe.
As an actor, I’ve been in shows in which audience members have snored, shouted things at the stage, talked amongst themselves, and yes, texted throughout.
Cell phone use is annoying, but it’s just one of many regular disruptions we’re forced to deal with—and compared to malfunctioning hearing aids and verbalized disgruntlement, a relatively unobtrusive one at that. So why do we not see vigilantes tossing hard candies and smashing hearing aids? Why are cell phones the one great evil we hear bemoaned over and over? Why did so many people who weren’t even there go online to applaud Williamson’s vandalism?
Unlike other rude behaviors, cell phone use is singled out because it’s associated with an age and a gender easily dismissed by the gatekeepers of culture.
I think the answer can be found in Williamson’s own post. To ensure that we fully envision the barbarity he confronted, he sets the scene. “The main offenders were two parties of women of a certain age,” he writes, “the sad sort with too much makeup and too-high heels.” So he deputized himself to impose the discipline he felt lacking.
Unlike other rude behaviors, cell phone use is singled out because it’s associated with an age and a gender easily dismissed by the gatekeepers of culture. It’s almost inconceivable that Williamson would have done what he did if he’d instead been dealing with an older gentleman in a suit—which incidentally would include the perpetrators of every disruption I’ve encountered in my time in the theater. It’s even harder to imagine so many people rushing to congratulate him afterwards.
Explicit in Williamson’s post is the notion that some theatergoers deserve to police others. Implicit is the corollary that some have more of a right to be there in the first place.
As theaters across the country struggle to attract and keep young people in their audiences, this way of thinking is self-defeating. Rather than applauding Williamson, we should think about what his actions say about the assumptions underlying our theater—and how we can do better in the future.