On June 4, 2015

Take a stand by sitting down

We’re getting into the season of summer stock, theater festivals, and outdoor Shakespeare performances: from now until the end of August, someone between here and California will always be doing “Oklahoma!” or “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

I am, anachronously, a theater lover—whatever I see, I’m usually the youngest person in the audience by about 20 years. If you choose to attend a show this summer—at the Dorset Theatre Festival, the Weston Playhouse, or the Oldcastle Theatre Company (to name just a few local options)—thank you, truly, for supporting the arts.

I do, however, have two polite requests of you, fellow patron, and neither one has to do with silencing your cell phone, which should go without saying, unless you’re some kind of monster who’s utterly unfit for human society.

The first request: if you choose to watch a Shakespeare comedy (like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”), please don’t laugh too loudly. I’m not concerned that you’ll drown out subsequent dialogue or break the actors’ concentration; the issue is that Shakespeare really isn’t that funny, and audible laughter during a Shakespeare performance is almost always a lie. Yes, Shakespeare was brilliant, and many of his jokes contain a still perceptible cleverness, but they simply don’t strike the modern sensibility with gut-busting immediacy. You can smile, but you don’t need to laugh quite as uproariously as the rest of the cultured crowd inevitably will force itself to do.

The only reason contemporary audiences continue to chortle and slap their knee during “The Merry Wives of Windsor” or “Love’s Labour’s Lost” is to show that they “get it”—they’re sophisticated enough to understand whatever muffled Elizabethan jests the actors are desperately attempting to bring to light as they drag obscure puns and moldy allusions across the centuries and onto their stage. Certain playgoers want everyone to know that they love Shakespeare and have a direct, joyful, unmediated relationship with the Bard. The worse the comedy is (and some of Shakespeare’s comedies are very bad), the more they laugh, eager to legitimize the worrisomely irrelevant material and, subconsciously, to impress some long-ago college English professor on whom they once had a crush.

What’s wrong with this pretentious but otherwise seemingly harmless practice? Well, it’s annoying, and it also inhibits a real understanding of Shakespeare’s work. If we choose to believe that Shakespeare’s comedies are funny (even though they’re not), that itself is enough reason to continue performing them, watching them, and reading them. If, instead, we admit that they are not funny, we’re forced to look elsewhere for their value (which may still be considerable): what, if anything, do they mean to us? Obliged to answer this more difficult question, we may learn something about the plays and about ourselves.

The second request: please don’t give a standing ovation. I was talking about this with my grandmother, one of the more devoted opera-goers on this planet over the last few decades. She confirms that standing ovations used to be incredibly rare. They meant that something truly special had occurred. Now, they’re standard practice: if the opera doesn’t get a standing ovation, that means something has actually gone wrong.

The custom has changed, as it has with tipping. Where you used to give 15 percent normally and 20 percent for extraordinary service, you now are supposed to give 20 percent normally and 25 percent or more for extraordinary service—except there is no theatrical equivalent of 25 percent. Short of doing cartwheels in the aisle, there exists no method by which to express appreciation for a genuinely remarkable performance, now that the standing ovation has become meaningless.

Still, theater-goers love them, and once a standing ovation begins, there’s no way to avoid joining in. If you remain in your seat, you’re suddenly lost in a forest of pants, eye-level with your neighbors’ butts and crotches, and you can’t see the performers take their bows. You might as well get up whether you liked the show or not.

I don’t go to operas, but the same thing has happened elsewhere in the performing arts. At the end of an utterly average production of “All My Sons,” play-goers will jump up in a frenzy of clapping. It isn’t because audiences love theater more than they used to. Most theater companies struggle financially despite grants and donations, and audiences roar ever louder as box office receipts dwindle. Do we clap so ferociously to assuage the guilt of supporting live theater so infrequently? Do we go to the theater so rarely that, when we finally make it out to a play, it inevitably strikes us as a “special occasion,” worthy of a rare gesture of gratitude?

My grandmother has a theory that the two audience behaviors that annoy me (and her)—the excessive laughing and the excessive clapping—are linked: specifically, that they are both prompted by a participatory urge within the audience, which, today, expects its entertainment to be “interactive.”

For amusement, people now are accustomed to Facebook and Twitter, YouTube clips with comments sections, TV singing competitions where America votes to decide the victor, basketball games where someone is plucked from the crowd during time-out to shoot from half-court for a thousand dollars, daytime talk shows in which the host might randomly gift each audience member with a new car, reality shows that have eroded the barrier between art and life. But at the theater, traditionally, you don’t get to do anything—you’re not part of the show. It isn’t about you (except indirectly). You’re there to be silent and to witness something outside of your own life, and then you get to go home and think about it. That’s all.

For many people, this idea is unbearable, and they must embed themselves within the show by any means necessary—so they make noise, they become part of the spectacle. I have no authority to make demands, but a basic principle of the theater is at stake here: just as we silence our cell phones, we must silence ourselves.

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