It may just be the time of year, with journalists struggling to find anything interesting to write about, but there has been a recent spate of articles about lapses in audience etiquette across the arts.
Readers of this column will be aware that front of house staff have been up in arms about the antics of drunken theatregoers in recent months. Audience members at assorted jukebox musicals have been complaining about their fellows “singing” loudly enough to drown out the heavily-miked folk on stage, whom they have paid outrageous amounts to see (and listen to).
Elsewhere, workers on minimum wage have been confronted with the dilemma of whether it is safe to reject a noisy drunk or, in exceptional cases, step in as a brawl threatens to spoil the fun. Gone are the days when the only fights in theatres took place on stage, ahead of Hamlet’s tragic dénouement.
Naïve feature writers have assumed that this was unprecedented and amateur psychologists immediately sprang up suggesting that this was undoubtedly a consequence of the interregnum when theatres were closed to the public. It has now spread. In the last week, there have been separate articles about similar outrages afflicting other art forms, making some of the antics in theatre sound positively tame.
If you are worried that a night out at the theatre might be disrupted by the woman behind screaming the words of a favourite song or the guy in front spending a couple of hours sorting out e-mails, intimately breaking off to take photos or film of activities on stage, don’t go anywhere near a cinema or a rock concert.
Apparently, nobody knows how to behave when watching films in public any more, chatting on their phones or with friends, wandering around during key scenes and, once again, indulging in those ubiquitous fights after arguments get out of hand. Somewhat ironically, there is a news report of a fight breaking out between audience members at a viewing of The Little Mermaid.
However, it seems that rock concerts take the biscuit. Here, audience members feel licensed to chat with the performers willy-nilly, throw drinks or even bottles on stage and, of course, have a bit of a barney in the mosh pit. Surprisingly, these articles were not limited to Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells in the Daily Telegraph but have been spread much further afield.
Personally, I dream of sitting in a theatre with an audience so well drilled that they do not breathe, let alone fidget or snore, leave their mobile phones at home and don’t make a sound while they drama unfolds, saving any noise resulting from seemly applause at the end of the show. I dream about it but such exemplary behaviour is becoming increasingly uncommon. Does this mean that audience behaviour has tanked as a result of the pandemic? Of course not.
Anyone who knows a little history about theatrical performance will be well aware that, in Shakespeare’s day, audience members would drift around, vendors will be selling them food and drink during the play and fights would have been commonplace, quite frequently between prostitutes and their customers or each other.
Readers of Victorian novels will know that rich folk used to pop in and out of theatres at will, finishing dinner and spending half an hour in a box, there to be seen and wave at friends, almost certainly chattering drunkenly as they did so.
The irony of the article about rock concerts would surely not have been missed by anyone over the age of about seven. Surely even news journalists must have seen film of girls screaming through Beatles performances, heard about deaths when the Rolling Stones played in Altamont and chuckled when reading about girls throwing recently removed underwear at their idols.
The '70s were even worse, with the advent of punk rock. Then, the likes of The Sex Pistols expected to spit and be spat at and see beer flying both towards and from the stage, closely followed by bottles.
While undesirable behaviour might not be a new phenomenon, it is concerning, especially for those who prefer the quiet life or work in increasingly dangerous jobs trying to calm down the badly behaved without interrupting the show. This is almost certainly a fad and it will pass as it has in the past. In the meantime, we just have to grin and bear it.
If it gets too much, the last thing that you need from what was supposed to be this to suffer insult or injury so please take care before telling a miscreant to shut up or turn off the phone.
The real danger is that someone gets badly hurt or the worst comes to worst and there is a fatality, after which the world will begin to see sense again.