'Pick up the gun and shoot the bastard!'
I was much tickled this afternoon to read the performance artist and lecturer Lois Weaver recalling a visit to David Hare's play The Secret Rapture. Her colleague Peggy Phelan, a reluctant co-attendee at the matinee performance ('this sea of the well-behaved'), became exercised during the scene in which the heroine's dangerously obsessive ex bursts in on her with a gun. The dynamic of the play was pointing to the passive heroine copping it, but when the ex-boyfriend dropped his weapon, Phelan's infuriated cry through the polite afternoon atmosphere: 'Pick up the gun and shoot the bastard!'
It's a brilliant reminder of the many-headed nature of a theatre audience, a factor that is often taken for granted. Weaver's story is in her foreword to Theatre & audience, part of Palgrave Macmillan's neat new series of accessible theatre studies theory. The book itself is by Helen Freshwater, who notes both how often critics, academics and practitioners describe audience reactions as monolithic (the monkey holds up a guilty paw: he often uses the grand critical 'we feel,' 'we see,' 'we realise'). And she also wonders why theatrical theorists often regard the audience with 'a complex mix of hope, frustration and disgust.'
As a post-performance discussion will often reveal, audiences offer a hugely varied body of opinion, squirming like a sackful of ferrets. The bravura Melbourne-based blogger Neandallus even uses such disputations as the basis for his reviews, presented as florid, piercing Platonic dialogues.
Yet any performer will tell you that audiences each have their own individual collective character. While on stage, they seem not to experience contradiction, but consensus. Playwright David Edgar in How Plays Work, his rewarding examination of theatrical craft, frequently returns to the weight of audience expectations, and how authors can exploit or undermine them. Genre expectations are so deep-rooted, he considers, that 'theatre's dirty little secret' is that 'audiences know the ending of most plays (or certainly the sort of ending) before they begin.'
It's difficult to think and write about audiences in ways that don't treat them as monoliths, or as passive, or as neatly-defined target groups. It's a fascinating exercise - how do we describe spectators' involvement and investment in performance in ways that respect their individuality but don't become too separate to be meaningful? Are we - sorry, you - a flock of sheep or a chaotic convocation?