"Vulgarians," "Vigilantes," and the Great Cell Phone Smashing of 2013

 

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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.

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THANK YOU. I have been pointing out the egregious sexism of this act on Facebook, Twitter, and face to face since it posted. You are the first man to make the point in print (that I've read--apologies to any I missed). Guys, do you realize how often, how casually, how persistently women are actually menaced in our day-to-day life? And these women--rude, obnoxious, yes--were menaced IN A THEATER. IN A SEAT SHE PAID FOR. AND PEOPLE THOUGHT IT WAS GREAT! Picture me sailing past Charlie Brown's football on this one and thank you again. Yes, she was a jerk. That didn't give a man a right to assault her. She was also wearing a lot of makeup. Would that give him the right to rape her? Some would say yes. And that's your mother, sister, aunt, daughter, neighbor, co-worker, friend.Oy.

I must agree with Mr. French when he writes, "cell phone use is singled out because it’s associated with an age and a gender easily dismissed by the gatekeepers of culture." I see a great deal of theater in a wide variety of venues, and — in my experience — cellphone use is a relatively infrequent (though maddening) annoyance.

On the other hand, I have spent far too many performances trying to hear over the crunching, chewing, and guzzling of people eating. The crinkling of ubiquitous water bottles and the rustling of M&M wrappers makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Must we belly up to the trough every time we're seated in the dark?

Still, I can't place the blame solely on my fellow theatergoers; the theaters themselves are as much at fault. When I complained to the management of a theater to which I am a longtime subscriber about the sales of "noisy food," I was told, "We make our money on concessions." (I fear that next they'll start charging for the privilege of texting and tweeting in the theater.)

Have we forgotten the difference between live theater and sitting at home watching TV? Do people not care at all about how their behavior affects the actors on the stage and the people in the next seats? While destruction of property isn't an ideal solution, I understand Mr. Williamson's frustration. And whether he would have confronted a man ... well ... What we do know is that his actions struck a chord. The question is, in a civilized society, where do we go from here?

For a further examination of the assumptions underlying our theatre see Walter Kerr's excellent article "The Day the Shop Girl Got Her Notice," published in his book "How Not To Write a Play."

I have to say that I was one of those who originally enthusiastically applauded Williamson's action, this post has caused me some serious reflection. I still believe that texting in many circumstances is at best discourteous, but the more I reflect, the more I am appalled by the misogyny of the action. Had the offending cell been in the hands of an athletic young man (1 - athletic young men do come to the theater, and 2 - athletic young men do text) I doubt Williamson would have been so quick or so smug in his assault. Thanks for making me question my initial assumptions. In all contexts this is a good thing.

I have to disagree with you about who disrupts the theatre. I'm a critic who goes to the theatre constantly, and overwhelmingly it's women who disrupt shows. I'm talking 90% of the time (actually, I've been tallying this since encountering an incredibly rude woman at a show in New York in April, and since that point, 100% of the disruptions I've encountered have been by women - but I have encountered some obnoxious men in the past.) When men do disrupt performances, it's usually in some major, contentious way, I admit. But it's women who niggle and tear at the atmosphere in irritating little ways - they unwrap candy, they whisper things to their friends (or themselves), they groan in disapproval, their cell phones go off (it's almost ALWAYS women whose cell phones go off, and half the time they can't figure how to turn them off for good), they suddenly leave to go to the bathroom - and then come back, who spill their drinks. Women are unbelievably rude in the theatre.

I'll add one further note. Ms. Byrne's response seems typical to me somehow of the knee-jerk, sexist silencing of any critique of women that is endemic in the theatre. The funny thing is that I only recently realized myself how obnoxious women are as audience members - like a good feminist, I'd been "silencing" myself and my own observations! I only came to my senses after a particularly unpleasant encounter at a dance concert in New York - later that night I described the audience member's behavior to a group of friends I was having a drink with. These gay men immediately said, "It was a woman, wasn't it." When I replied in the affirmative, they basically answered, "It's ALWAYS women." I protested - I was actually kind of shocked at their attitude. No, that wasn't possible, I said - surely bad behavior had to be pretty much divided equally between the sexes; or if anything, surely men were ruder! But as I thought back over eight years now of constant theatre-going, I began to realize that every major incident of rudeness I could think of involved women, not men. That's when I began tallying up the audience interruptions I encountered moving forward - and as I said, so far, it has been100% female trouble. I wish it were otherwise.

I find this whole discussion problematic. What is the use of figuring out who creates more disturbances in the theater? If both men and women create them, why does it matter who creates more? When I'm disrupted in a theater by a woman, I don't think "Ugh, a woman
is disrupting me." I think, "Ugh, someone is disrupting me." What is being discussed in the post is the treatment of those who create the disturbances, and he's positing that women are treated more harshly than men.

Mr. Garvey, Perhaps you need to interrogate your location in this matter. Are you predisposed to be more annoyed by women than by men? Are you more forgiving of people who disrupt in a "major, contentious way" than those who "niggle and tear at the atmosphere in irritating little ways"? Your very language lionizes the men while spitting venom at the women. Remembering your interview of Emily Glassberg Sands, I do not find it hard to believe that you have certain prejudices toward women with which you are unwilling to wrestle.

In any case, what do you hope to gain by making the issue of noisy, disrespectful theatergoers a gender issue? The very fact that you've been "tallying this since encountering an incredibly rude woman at a show in New York in April" says a great deal about you. And your "it's almost ALWAYS women whose cell phones go off, and half the time they can't figure how to turn them off for good" is a very thinly veiled "women are stupid" comment.

Alas, Mr. Garvey, your post here is really no less hostile toward women than more than a few of your reviews — which I have long stopped reading for that very reason.

Sorry, but I refuse to take anyone seriously who can say "Perhaps you need to interrogate your location in this matter" with a straight face - particularly when writing from an all-too-obvious bias.

It is sad that so many women in theatre try to silence any criticism of their gender with claims of sexism. The most ardent male romantic was never as dedicated to keeping women on a pedestal!

But the fact is, women are flawed. And one of their flaws is that they're too chatty in the theatre. I'm more "forgiving" of "major, contentious" disruptions only in so far AS THERE ARE FEWER OF THEM and THEY QUICKLY COME TO AN END. Indeed, in this very incident you can limn the outlines of a general gender divide. The male critic had finally had enough of an irritating disruption that the perp insisted was "under the radar." So he blew a fuse. But at least the incident quickly concluded. Otherwise no doubt the perp's delusional cloak of invisibility (and inaudibility) would have been operative all night . . .

And in case you can't tell, it was the original author of this post who none-too-subtly attempted to transform a single incident into a "gender issue." This is a typical HowlRound move, btw, but this time it was particularly disingenuous, so I responded, since all my observations contradict the author's claims. And it's quite striking (and rather damning, I think) that you couldn't perceive the slant of French's article ("cell phone usage is easily associated with an age and a gender easily dismissed by the gatekeepers of culture" - please, such obvious bull!). And as is clear from my comment, I've been doing my little tally at least partly in the hope of refuting my friends' contention that women were responsible for most of the disruption in the theatre. Instead, my tally confirmed their claims, with a vengeance. Sorry, but that's just the way it is.

As for Emily Glassberg Sands - only statistical naifs still cite her. I know I exposed systemic inaccuracies in her paper, and for this I can never be forgiven in some quarters. Still, Sands fudged her data, and that's that. No one has ever come forward to dispute my analysis of her paper. Not even Sands herself! But it's okay, because people like you just repeat her falsehoods anyway. Intellectual dishonesty never stopped a true believer, I guess.

I do want to add, though, that if I replied to you in the same way that you have replied to me, I would simply call you a "man-hater," or something like that. You can perceive that difference between us, can't you? That you're just ranting without any observations or experience or data or anything as back up, while I'm arguing from evidence? And let's be honest - it's evidence that everyone else is secretly aware of. I mean honestly - to you, what I have observed over and over and over again - i.e., women, particularly older women, struggling to figure out how to turn off their ringing phone - is thinly veiled sexism. If so, then simple honesty is thinly veiled sexism. Men may be chauvinist pigs, but they know how to turn off their cell phones.

The good news, of course, is that you've stopped reading my reviews. We're both happier that way, I'm sure.

It is unbelievable how rude people are in New York theaters. As someone who works backstage and often front of house, I am consistently appalled at the number of people who spend an entire performance texting or using their laptop. The vast majority of the offenders I encounter are 30-60 year old white men who feel entitled to do business wherever they may be and mothers who are unconcerned about the distraction that their small child might be causing. I am often shocked by the reactions of patrons when I ask to put away their devices or stop loudly crunching popcorn. When I heard about the cell phone throwing incident from an article in the Daily News (the heels made the article, the age and makeup status of the woman did not) I was amused. There have been many times where I have wanted to do the same thing. Having now read the original article and your post, his actions make me uneasy. It was house management's job to enforce the rules and I agree that if he had encountered one of the middle aged men who menace my theater, he would not have had the presumption to toss their phone at a wall. Nice post, Nat.