Thursday, October 31, 2013


The famous nineteenth century American classical actor, Edwin Booth, noted particularly for his Hamlet said to be the greatest ever; brother to the probably better known John Wilkes Booth, also an actor but more notorious for his assassination of Abraham Lincoln during a performance of Our American Cousin  at Ford’s Theatre, would have no truck with noisy audiences. He played the major theatres both in America and Europe and earned for himself the accolade “The prince of players.”
One story has it that Booth was playing in Boston on a winter’s night that must have been cold and wet and the audience were coughing; the coughing seemingly getting worse as the evening went on until finally Booth had enough and walked offstage leaving the audience slightly bewildered as to what was going on.
He was away for some time during which they coughed and whispered among themselves wondering what was happening. Eventually he returned and stood downstage centre with one arm behind his back, making no move until you could hear the proverbial pin drop at which point he withdrew his arm and threw a large fish into the audience with the remark – “Get on with that you bloody barking sea lions and we’ll get on with the play.”
In more recent times, John Wood in ‘King Lear’ stopped the performance to politely say, “Will you please stop coughing?”
What’s prompted this Blog is a recent newspaper article – Noisy drummers, mobiles ringing, people chatting and late-comers are among the reasons performers have been compelled to take action.
The drummers were evidently busking and Dame Helen Mirren left the theatre to remonstrate with them. Modern audiences are expected to be quiet but this has not always been the case. It may have started off with the Victorians who never said they were going to “see a play,” but “going to hear a play.” With the advent of film and particularly television we are more inclined to watch than to listen which is why maybe modern actors don’t know how to speak but mumble their way through performances. Sitting at home watching television one can usually chatter to one’s heart’s content or at least pass remarks loudly and unfortunately it would seem this behaviour has been carried over into the theatre by many and any amount of shushing around them only makes matters worse. Also with modern cutting in film audiences are not expected to sit through long dialogue scenes and in consequence with many their attention span is decidedly limited and with time seems to get shorter and shorter.
Except for comedy when laughter is encouraged (an actor cannot hear a smile) an audience is expected to maintain a certain decorum. Acting requires intense concentration that can be broken say by the sudden ringing of a mobile phone. On one occasion evidently the actor Richard Griffiths was so incensed he told the unfortunate culprit to leave the theatre and never come back. Kevin Spacey was more stylish snapping out “Tell them we’re busy.” Unfortunately it is not just the ringing that is a curse in the theatre. People are so addicted to their phones they are simply unable to leave them alone: tweeting, texting, Googling, emailing or photographing. Put the phone away for a minute and they start suffering withdrawal symptoms.
Variety shows and that strange hybrid Christmas entertainment the modern pantomime are different of course. With pantomime the audience is encouraged   to make as much noise as they like joining in the jollifications. It is probably the first experience a British child has of the theatre and, as Arthur Askey so famously said, leaving it with the smell of oranges and pee-pee.
Before the curse of the mobile phone actors  had other reasons to wish an audience better behaved though possibly they were so used to mayhem in the theatre it didn’t phase them one little bit. Elizabethan audiences, Restoration, Georgian used the playhouse as a meeting place, to see and be seen, to gossip, to pick up prostitutes. A favourite few were granted the freedom of the green room backstage and the privilege of being seated on stage and becoming almost a part of the performance. Duels were not unknown and claques were paid to disrupt with as much noise as they could manage, and occasionally there were riots. When in the theatre of today did we ever have a riot?
I can join the distinguished few who have stopped a show in order to remonstrate with an audience. In my case I was playing George in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” in Hamburg, a school matinee and the auditorium packed. At the top of Act Two George has a very long speech that requires the utmost concentration and the noise was getting worse and worse until halfway through I stopped, turned to face them, and came up with a little impromptu speech of my own which went something like, “Is it too much to request that you make a little less noise please?  This is not a television show, neither are you in a movie house. We are flesh and blood up here. If you can hear us, we can hear you. Now, if we can have a little less noise, I will start all over again.” Which I did to a deathly silence which continued until the moment George gets knocked down in a fight. This raised a universal spontaneous cheer which I have to admit made me smile. They liked that and showed it with a round of applause so we were friends again.
I believe the noise problem in this case was more understandable because the kids were listening to a play in a second language and if there was something they didn’t understand they might very well have been asking their neighbour to explain. I think they can be forgiven for that. At least none if them used their mobile phones – that is, I don’t think so.

1 comment:

Steven A Schwab said...

Great story about your impromptu aside to the noisy audience. Thanks for sharing it. I must admit I am addicted to my electronic devices, but I am not typing this note on my iphone. I do however have it next to me on my recliner at this moment!