Would Shakespeare Have Approved?

I came across an article in the August 2nd edition of London’s Sunday Times.

“A number of West End theatres are now employing bouncers to cope with intoxicated patrons who fight, fondle one another and even urinate in the auditorium.

The yobbish behaviour has led to theatregoers being ejected during performances and police being called to some of London’s most successful shows.”

One production was interrupted after a woman was caught “pleasuring” her partner in the stalls. And the cast of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music were stunned to see an audience member walk over to the side of the stage and relieve himself.

rowdy crowd

the rowdy theatre crowd

Critics believe the vulgar antics have been fuelled by falling ticket prices designed to attract younger audiences and the ease with which theatregoers can take alcohol into the auditorium.

Police have been called on occasion to deal with troublemakers.

Meanwhile, the audience for Dirty Dancing, a musical based on the Hollywood film, has been likened to a “bear pit” by insiders who insist that patrons — many of whom turn up drunk — have to be regularly removed from the premises.

Desmond Atuehene, 46, who works on the door of the Prince of Wales theatre, where Mamma Mia! is playing, said: “When hen parties come, they are always drunk but you just have to ignore them. Two months ago a drunk guy came in and assaulted me.”

Some patrons have been known to let their phones ring and even take calls while a play is running. Rosamund Pike, the film and stage actress, , who recently appeared opposite Dame Judi Dench in Madame de Sade, has seen someone in the front row texting another patron further back in the audience.

Some theatregoers seem to have no qualms about joining in with the cast. Greta Scacchi, who appeared last year in Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, said: “Someone in the audience called out ‘It’s on the table’ during a particularly dramatic moment. During another performance of the same play, Scacchi recalled someone falling asleep in the front row and snoring loudly.

A combination of factors have been cited for deteriorating standards of behaviour. Some theatre managers have been blamed for creating a climate that deliberately appeals to the Big Brother generation — including offering tickets for as little as £10.”

Well! What’s new? Going to the theatre in Shakespeare’s London was the most popular form of entertainment. Modern theatre-going in London has been, until the current efforts to make theatre more accessible, an elitist activity. But with the cheaper tickets it begins to resemble Elizabethan theatre-going. In Shakespeare’s time everyone went to the theatre. Richer patrons could afford to sit in expensive seats and indeed, the very rich bought tickets to sit on the stage itself. But most of the audience paid a penny to stand in the large area between the stage and the seating. They were the groundlings and, not being raised as well as the higher classes, they set the rowdy tone for performances. But in any case, unlike today’s audiences, it was customary to make direct vocal responses to the performance.

Commentators of the time observed that missiles might be used not only to hasten the beginning of a performance but also to stop it, and even to make the players offer a different play. In the modern theatre ice cream and other delights are sold. In Elizabethan theatres they sold oranges and if you didn’t like someone’s acting or wanted to change the play you hurled oranges at the players.

Pickpockets and prostitutes plied their trade in the theatres. There was no question of calling in the police if you caught someone picking your pocket. If a pickpocket was caught he could expect to be dealt with by a form of mob rule. Will Kemp in 1600 wrote of cutpurses being tied to one of the stage pillars “for all the people to wonder at, when at a play they are taken pilfring.”

There is nothing new under the sun, as Shakespeare himself observed.

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