Theatre has always had a love-hate relationship with the over-intoxicated and over-exuberant. More often than not over centuries, this phenomenon has manifested itself on stage rather than off.

There are legendary tales, some of them no doubt apocryphal, about actors who could barely stand due to alcoholic intake but still managing to deliver the kinds of performances about which lesser folk would dream. At the other end of the scale, many journeyman performers were drummed out of the profession as a result of their addiction to substances, primarily because their predilections meant letting down colleagues too often.

However, stories in the media over the last few weeks have focused on behaviour on the other side of the curtain, with the suggestion that some audience members are showing less respect to performers and their fellows than is appropriate.

Before exploring current etiquette, it is worth taking a brief look at historical trends. Back in Shakespeare’s day, it would have been normal for those in the pit to respond vocally if they felt the need to do so, perhaps mimicking children at a pantomime today. They would also dip in and out of the performance, buying food and drink from vendors along the way.

Looking a little higher up, both in seating and social terms, a century and more ago, the gentry were there to be seen rather than to see, happily wandering into performances at their convenience, regardless of the state of the play, more interested in social niceties and their refreshment than the efforts of those on stage.

Pleasingly for the vast majority of drama lovers in more recent times, the general expectation has been that audience members would sit quietly through the entertainment, laughing politely at the right moments and only reacting noisily when the actors appeared to take their curtain call.

For a number of reasons, this is no longer necessarily the status quo and even if someone has paid a three-figure sum for a ticket, they are in danger of facing interruptions from, amongst other things, people using mobile phones in a variety of fashions, those who choose to talk over the actors.

In addition, nowadays at musicals, the demonstrably talentless seem to believe that their singing and dancing is more worthy of note than the efforts of those who have spent their lives training for the opportunity to entertain.

Any theatre critic will tell you that these trends are not as new as they might seem.

Over the years, this particular writer has had the misfortune to be told by someone in the row behind at one performance that she would talk through it if she wanted to and, on remonstrating with someone who also loved the sound of his own voice at an Edinburgh International Festival Opera performance, told that “if you’re not happy, I’ll see you outside”. This doesn’t even consider the dozens of irritating mobile phone users, intent on answering texts and e-mails and even conducting conversations.

More encouragingly, he has also been praised by a performer at an off-Broadway promenade production having persuaded an ill-mannered theatregoer to turn off their mobile phone and will never forget an immortal line delivered by Kevin Spacey to a man whose mobile phone rang at a pivotal moment during his run in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh at the Old Vic—“tell them you’re busy”.

There is every chance that more frustrated theatre staff will now weigh in but, of late, the two main contributions to this debate have come from Colin Marr, the director of the Edinburgh Playhouse, and Bethany North, a peripatetic front of house worker. Many readers will be horrified by the tales they have to tell.

North of the border, the main concern appears to be the marketing of jukebox musicals, apparently designed to encourage punters to treat their night out as a large-scale karaoke event.

Perhaps the theatre is following the somewhat dubious lead of cricket? Are we going to reach the point where traditional theatregoers find themselves gradually squeezed out by the preponderance of our own equivalent to Twenty20 cricket, the jukebox musical?

You have to wonder whether it might be time for theatres at large or individual producers to develop an etiquette guide designed to assist those who rarely visit their establishments. After all, if you’re used to chattering away loudly in front of TV reality shows or sports events, why would you assume that sitting watching your favourite star on stage is any different?

In many ways, Bethany North’s concerns should worry us to a greater degree since they are more wide-ranging. Having worked in 40 or more theatres across the country, she identifies a gradual decline in respect for the art form and those presenting it by far too many theatregoers. The major question she poses is why managements are not willing to eject those intent on spoiling the evenings of their fellows.

In principle, it would be wonderful if her three strikes and you’re out policy was implemented across the land. In practice, many less courageous front of house workers might very reasonably be reluctant to engage in what could be a full-blown argument with drunken customers, for fear of a genuine risk to life and limb.

Even if there was no physical threat, attempting to eject someone unruly from a theatre will inevitably cause serious disruption to the reason why everyone (else) has turned up in the first place.

At the moment, theatres need all the help they can get and the idea of putting off regulars who feel threatened or merely don’t think they will enjoy themselves due to the activities of others could be seriously damaging to the industry.