New York / Outpost: audiences

Tonight we went to a flamenco show in the recently renovated Muni Theatre of Capital City. Right after I got to my seat, I started feeling jittery: the nouveau-riche attitudes, the Bourgeois Gentilhomme outfits, the small-town ‘everyone-knows-everyone’ small talk around me. Spectacularly stupid (and loudly uttered) random comments during the show followed this prelude, as well as some people’s inability to comply with a request not to shoot flash into performers’ eyes.

Then I remembered the two shows I saw in New York. The first one was Spamalot. The show was inept, flat, awkward (or should I say maladroit? English pigdogs!): a fretful playing-out of the original film with some extra tits (tits, bits — whatever) added. The audience just loved it. They were raving. They were orgasmically ecstatic, some were maybe ecstatically orgasmic, too. They gave it a standing ovation. We did not think too much about it: it was a musical, after all, most of the audience were out-of-towners and stupid tourists like us — end of discussion. Jod even came up with a clement excuse: “Maybe they haven’t seen the film; in that case Spamalot could even pass as hilarious, with Clay Aiken, fake English accents and all”.

Our second theatre night this time was traumatic audience-wise, though. We got tickets for Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with James Earl Jones, a spectacular Anika Noni Rose and an altogether wonderful all-African-American cast. This should have been a totally different story. The audience looked different, too: they mostly seemed regular theatre-goers and the majority consisted of African-Americans. The play is a sombre bitter-sweet interweaving of many yarns (homosexuality, the politics of sex, alcoholism, sterility, money-hungry religion, moneymaking, prejudice crushing individuals, old age, cancer, dysfunctional families, poverty and how it degrades people) woven around a thread: mendacity. So, it’s not funny. It’s actually very potent T. Williams fare. It’s not even bitter-sweet, really. At times it is sarcastic and venomously sardonic. That’s it.

Now, the audience treated the play as ‘you-will-laugh-you-will-cry’ material. They behaved like they were waiting for sitcom cues to burst out laughing in unison. They laughed a lot. They laughed a lot LOL-wise. They laughed and they laughed. I was continually perplexed and horrified. During the first break I asked Jod whether I was missing something, whether there was something in the way the piece was directed playing on the (conceivably) funny bits of the text. “No, it’s not you, it’s not the director, it’s not the text, it’s not the actors: it’s them, raised on sitcoms”, she said.

The play was magnificent (of course, it was also given a standing ovation — maybe this is just a sort of mild stretching exercise after all). However, the audience was largely insolent and insensitive, living up to the stereotype of superficial, clueless and philistine Americans.

Bile aired, I’m off to bed now.

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5 thoughts on “New York / Outpost: audiences

  1. hm, with a friend we are constructing a theory about the Anglo-Saxon theatre audience and their propensity to laugh at everything, be it the italian accent of a character at the Rose Tattoo, an ironic wordplay of Uncle Vanya’s, a swear word at a Mamet play. We haven’t taken the sitcom explanation into serious consideration for various reasons. I believe our awe and horror to this jolly, British, in our case, disposition has something to do with our own “theatrical upbringing” in a very portentous art culture. Where we come from nothing can or should be taken lightly. I will never forget watching a play by Brian Friel in the Royal National Theatre and comparing it with the experience of watching Translations a few years back in Athens (a play which I adore by the way). What I saw in London was equally tragic and bitter and what have you, however, its nuanced irony was salvaged by the direction and the appreciative –laughing- audience, allowing you to breathe normally. On the contrary, the feeling of doom and absolute depression is what I got in Athens and what I usually get when I go to the theatre there. I ‘ve also noticed that it has been easier for me to laugh at the theatre since I started living here – not very happy about this frowning upon I get from my compatriots though.

    On the other hand, my friend is much stricter. I think he might have shared your opinion about TV’s implication in this. I will ask him to write a few lines here. The last thing to say and sorry for writing so much, is that I have started sharing some of my friend’s opinions recently, especially after watching Uncle Vanya directed by P. Hall earlier this year. It was unbelievable at which moments the members of the audience chose to laugh, the frivolity with which they did it and how distracting it was. And you know, laughing is contagious. It was also a miracle I didn’t shush or slap any of them.
    🙂

  2. mm, interesting link (as always) 🙂 I haven’t read that back in your blog I have to admit 😛

    I would have to make it “continental european” though. and that goes for academia as well. one could just have a look at the academic writing here (island) and there (continent) and observe some similarities of the sullen / happy culture kinf… Oh, well this is a whole new discussion

  3. I don’t know anything about the laughing bit – I haven’t been to a play in the Fatherland in over a decade. And I don’t remember people laughing like that.

    But the standing ovation thing.

    That seems to be a problem here as well. I hate, hate, hate it. I refuse to stand and ovate unless it’s something truly extraordinary. And I feel like a fussy old lady, sitting in my seat as everyone else jumps to their feet and applauds. But I can’t make myself do it.

  4. σίλαρεν, closer to the point you are making: I understand the argument from portentous and pretentious ‘seriousness’, I know about the ‘feeling of doom and absolute depression’. However, an alternative to this mood is not necessarily the LOL laughter of sitcoms. It can also be a knowing or bitter (albeit self-conscious) half-smile.

    francis, you know I could not agree with you more on that.

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