Curmudgeonly Imelda Staunton, currently appearing in a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, caused a stir when she convinced the Harold Pinter theatre to slap a ban on patrons eating during the show. “Out of consideration for the actors and fellow audience members, we ask that no food be consumed during the performance,” they intoned. And Staunton followed it up with a terse statement, of the kind given when people haven’t eaten properly, in which she decried the propensity of the herd to munch through her performances, as if their lives depended on their bodies being supplied with sustenance at regular intervals. Naturally, a debate on theatre etiquette, elitism and snobbery followed, which was going nowhere until I tapped out this shit.
Let me declare my interest. I’m a product of all that 19th century intellectualism and its mission to exclude the masses from culture that you’ve heard about. I’m not an intellectual, obviously, but I am middle class, the Diet Coke version, and consequently disdainful of anti-intellectual forces and the threat they represent to my way of life. Thus I’m conditioned to mount Staunton with thanks.
If I’d been alive in the 1850s, I’d have been the man standing on a riverbank, three miles upstream from the village in which I grew up, brushing away tears as the vista was vandalised to make way for urban housing for the working poor. What was wrong with inner city slums? I’d probably have campaigned against the new railway that brought these people and I’m sure I’d have written a novel in which the ever growing mass were depicted, metaphorically of course, as nature destroying parasites.
Fifty years on I’d have been the cock who, whatever he said publically, wondered aloud in his study as to why the degenerate mob, who these days appeared to be everywhere, had to be pandered to in print. Why were former journals of record now courting the new mass readership with tawdry human interest stories and prurient articles on sexual misconduct? What was the deal with these Penny Dreadfuls one saw on every bookstand? Why not just buy a real door stop? Wasn’t literature a high-minded pursuit? Why the prolefeed? Though I don’t yet know what that word means.
And yes, I suppose I’m the gentleman, because I would be one obviously, who agreed that the theatre around this time, should be a safe space for a chin stroking clientele. Right enough, the undesirables used to come out in force for it, but something like music hall’s a better match for their low rent sensibilities and lack of social grace.
Propriety, refinement and respect; these are the hallmarks of a cultivated mind, and you can’t have the common folk, who laugh at flatulence, are slaves to animal impulses, and can barely string two words together – hence their frustrated shouting and propensity for profanity, sabotage a piece of dramaturgy that assumes a certain intelligence and corresponding focus from the patrons. Consequently, I bandy around terms like highbrow and hope, through repetition, to kill the spatial metaphor, annihilate it in fact, and normalise the assumptions supporting it. My sons and daughters, I know, will adopt the same prejudices through identification with me, and will reliably pass them on, and everything will be fine until the 21st century when Imelda Staunton opens her trap like a tin opener to take the top off a can of worms.
So yes, I am the fascist you’ve read about. Somewhere, deep down, I hate the mass, even though it’s a social construct which I rationally understand does not exist; a reductive concept that purposefully, gleefully, scrubs humankind of its nuance, contradictions and hypocrisy. By extension I hate you.
All of which blinds me to the fact that now all the working class, or as we like to think of them, “ordinary” people have been driven from the theatre; the medium having become the plaything, province and obsession of the middle class; then we’re left only with the well-to-do thoughtless, professional idiots. And the awful thought crowns that maybe, just maybe, the disruptive mentality isn’t strictly a prole thing. What if there’s selfish people in every walk of life, meaning they’ll inevitably show up at whatever venue they’ve been socially conditioned to attend as a lifestyle affectation?
You see, kids, I don’t just go to the theatre, I also frequent its fully democratised cousin, the cinema, that artless low-rent domain of the people, where the unwashed and unloved congregate to watch something thousands of times more sophisticated than live performance, and I’ve noticed something rather worrying.
Theatre audiences are no better behaved.
In the theatre, as in the cinema, wherever I sit I will, due to what surely will one day be named Whitfield’s Law, find myself close to the few or one in a large crowd, who’ll insist on ruining the thing I’ve come to see with a lack of self-awareness and relativized conception of good manners. This is the bastard’s trademark, you see, and I’m well adept at spotting such people and, with awful certainty, knowing they’ll be responsible for all the problems I experience thereafter.
The Royal Court hosts a selection of so-called serious theatregoers and the finest stock drawn from the surrounding areas. But only last night it was my displeasure to be seated next to the one man, the only man, who refused to sit still, who ate crisps and chocolate during the show, who raised his arms above his head, apparently indifferent to blocking views, who sneezed, and who checked his phone, ignoring the house instruction to switch it off. His expensive hair and stylish pullover were a reminder that the problem isn’t class, it’s common courtesy. There’s not a lot of it out there anymore, particularly when strangers are involved. We used to think we could beat this by surrounding ourselves with people from a similar background. What a blow to learn that centuries of cultural segregation has all been a complete waste of time.
In a world where you’ve never had more opportunities to be selfish and are actively encouraged to tailor an experience to your own tastes in most areas, is it unreasonable to promote spaces where a little moderation and self-control is still expected? It is unreasonable to apply a standard to a collective endeavour? We understand the origins of such standards are elitist. The ideas mark an attempt to make theatre unattractive to the peasants. But does that make them effete now?
I don’t know what the optimal conditions for theatre look like and neither do you, because it’s contingent on the material. But it’s likely that both the house and company have given it some thought, which is probably why they and not ticket buyers should decide. Our only role, whatever our identity – real or imagined, is to sit still and keep quiet (unless directed otherwise). If you’ve read that and thought, “sounds dictatorial”, then maybe a night in the stalls isn’t for you. Perhaps you think that driving on one side of the road and using a urinal and not the sink is an outrageous infringement of your personal liberty too? If you’re minded not to see every covention through the prism of identity politics, you’ll find many have a utilitarian foundation.
In the home, you’re free to do what you like, and you do. You talk over all those carefully filmed and edited TV programmes, making asinine comments about an actor’s hair or wardrobe, missing crucial lines of dialogue, treating the whole thing like background noise that’s secondary to whatever irrelevant aside you’re regaling your social group with. But when people are active rather than passive participants in something, they’re mindful that reasonable compromises might be necessary to accommodate others. After all, in a public space, you simply can’t assume everyone has the same version of reasonable behaviour as you and your disgusting peers. A theatre isn’t your living room, even if the set apes some of your furniture choices.
When we say theatre etiquette actively excludes audiences, what we’re really talking about is the problem of getting people to engage who aren’t interested in what’s on offer, prefer other forms of entertainment, and reject formality rather than respecting it as a convention. It matters because the average age of today’s theatregoer is 52. Theatre has an existential fight on its hands. If it had hands.
But here’s the problem. How do you encourage people from all walks of life to get involved, the assumption being that the art form in question is inherently valuable to everyone (has everyone been asked?), without fundamentally changing the thing you’re trying to save?
If you say that an unbroken spell of audience concentration no longer matters, you change the nature of performance. The playwright, forced to accommodate easily distracted sensation junkies; the kind of person who can’t get through a blog of this length without checking their phone twice; has to reinvent their art – not because the old model’s broken, but because the audience is.