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Our obsession with theatre etiquette is rooted in the past

At Shakespeare’s Globe audiences can experience what it might have been like to be a groundling at an Elizabethan theatre. Photo: Helen Miscioscia At Shakespeare’s Globe audiences can experience what it might have been like to be a groundling at an Elizabethan theatre. Photo: Helen Miscioscia
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How should we behave when we visit the theatre? Who gets to say which actions are good or bad? Fuelled by recent articles here in The Stage, the etiquette argument rages on – and there are no easy answers.

Argument A says that theatre is a place of immersion. Protected from the distractions of modern life, it’s a rare chance to do nothing but focus on the actors – and let the actors focus on their work. It’s no wonder some audience members get angry when this is threatened by people chewing Chicken McNuggets or brandishing mobile phones. Meanwhile, Argument B criticises movements such as the Theatre Charter and the Cumberphone campaign for clinging on to an old-fashioned, elitist vision of culture. The world has moved on, they suggest: isn’t it time theatre does the same?

As someone who researches audiences, I sympathise with both positions. Rather than taking sides, I want to address a specific question: is it elitist to go on about theatre etiquette? Isn’t it just a matter of good manners, respect for others, common sense? Well, yes and no. Because what these arguments frequently lack is an understanding of context. When it comes to the arts, there’s a historical weight to the idea that audiences should be ‘better behaved’.

The highbrow audience

We’ve all heard the stories about Shakespeare’s audiences throwing fruit and starting fights. But have you ever wondered how we got from there to here? How did rowdy Elizabethan theatres turn into what we know today: seated rows of (mostly) silent observers, facing the stage and clapping politely at appropriate moments? That’s what historian Lawrence Levine explains in his book Highbrow/Lowbrow.

Levine tells us that up to the 19th century ‘highbrow’ entertainments were both popular and elite. Performances of Shakespeare, opera, and classical symphonies had real mass appeal, bringing together audiences from all sectors of society. As the 20th century approached, these were slowly transformed from popular culture into polite culture, fit only to be consumed by those capable of proper appreciation. How did this happen? The answer is complicated, so I have broken it down into three broad areas:

1. Before the 19th century, events tended to be mixed, with popular band tunes scheduled next to symphonic music. Criticised for ‘diluting’ high culture, low experiences were separated out.

2. Performance spaces were divided into high and low venues. Opera houses were built for operas, theatres for plays. This was designed to put physical space between types of culture.

3. The mode of watching came under fire. Previously enthusiastically active, theatre audiences were suddenly hit with organised attempts to modify their behaviour.

What does this tell us about audiences today? The modern expectation of silent reception can’t be put down to natural shifts in society. It was the result of a deliberate, coordinated campaign. Audiences were literally trained into submission. They were told how to behave beforehand, and publicly reprimanded during performances if they stepped out of line. At the same time the introduction of stage lighting plunged the audience into darkness, widening the division between observers and observed.

Why does this matter? Because beneath this history lesson lurk some nasty ideas that still have relevance today.

Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker encourage audience participation
Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker encourage audience participation

Forget etiquette

There are a number of reasons the 19th-century campaigns to change actor-audience relationships took off. Massive industrialisation led to a sudden rise in immigration, sparking in high society a sense of alienation: a division between ‘us’ and an imagined ‘them’. As a result, privileged citizens began to band together and withdraw from ‘the masses’ into their private spheres. Make no mistake: exclusion was precisely what theatrical etiquette was designed to achieve. Levine describes how the new, reverent approach to theatregoing was encouraged by “an elite group with a vested interest – unconscious though it may have been – in welcoming and maintaining the widening cultural gaps”. These new rules of behaviour were a way of forcing the ‘lower classes’ out of theatres by making them feel they didn’t belong.

When I pointed this out on Twitter, I attracted the attention of a theatre etiquette activist, who thought I was accusing him of trying to “put the masses in their place”. I should therefore make it clear that I don’t think etiquette supporters are deliberately being elitist or exclusionary. I sympathise with the desire to enjoy performances without distraction, and I’m as fierce as the next Brit in my defence of good manners. But I also think it’s important to ask why the word ‘etiquette’ has stuck (so much so, that #theatreetiquette is practically the official Twitter hashtag for calling out bad audience behaviour), and what this says about theatre today.

The word comes from ‘estiquette’, the Old French term for ‘label’, which probably refers to the instruction cards used to teach people how to behave properly at court. In his book Distinction, the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued that etiquette is an empty concept. Think about fine dining. Why does it matter which fork you use? Any one will do the job. The only reason etiquette exists, Bourdieu argues, is to reinforce social separation. By producing and policing arbitrary rules you can find out who belongs – and who doesn’t. This is the baggage that ‘etiquette’ carries. It’s not a nice word. We should stop using it immediately.

So what if we forget etiquette and instead ask simply for good manners and respect? Each high-profile episode of bad theatre behaviour spawns a fresh batch of articles, often written by well-meaning theatregoers who want to help new audiences understand the rules. For example, the Theatre Charter campaign encourages audiences to sign up to a series of commitments: to turn off mobile phones, arrive on time, go to the loo beforehand, and so on. Sounds reasonable, right? Again, yes and no. Because what counts as being reasonably quiet/respectful/polite is neither intrinsic nor universal. It depends who you ask. And when it comes to theatre, we need to ask who sets the rules.

Let’s look at the Theatre Charter again. These are fairly common complaints. But what about the suggestion that women should wear less perfume? For some a cereal bar is an acceptable snack but not a full takeaway. What’s more annoying: the unwrapping of cough sweets, or unstifled coughing? It’s easy to see how one person’s reasonable (“I had a long day at work and didn’t have time to grab dinner”) becomes another person’s rude. And more worrying still are the assumptions that hide under these ideas. I’ve heard grievances about sitting behind people with “big hairdos”, for example, or next to someone who needs to keep going to the toilet. I’m sure I don’t need to explain how things like this can tap into and reinforce racist, classist or ableist value systems. Like Levine’s 19th-century audiences, when we refuse to relax our definition of ‘respect’, we can unwittingly reinforce social exclusions by making certain people feel unwelcome in public space.

After all, today’s codes of behaviour are still relatively new. It’s worth remembering that after a lifetime competing with rowdy crowds, pre-19th-century actors playing at court often found the reverent silence unnerving, their performances falling flat. Meanwhile, research suggests theatregoers today sometimes worry so much about poor behaviour they become hyper-aware to even the smallest distraction. While I firmly believe in audiences’ right to enjoy theatregoing (as well as the right of actors to do their job), we also need to ask who benefits from maintaining the status quo – and who loses out. There are no easy answers. We need to question how our experiences are shaped by expectations, and how our expectations have been shaped by the past.

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