Drop in on any theatre conference or marketing meeting these days and within five minutes someone is going to dither about theatre's aging audience. And it's true enough. Look around you and chances are you'll see a whole lot of bright eyed elderly folks tottering up the aisles. We all know we need more young people in the theatre, no question, and by young I mean those who have yet to live a half century. We also need them at the opera, and at concerts of classical music, at the ballet, at nearly every place arts are performed live with the possible exception of rock concerts, Disney musicals, magicians and stand up comedians. Let me say I agree with all this, and I support efforts to get theatre into the schools and the schools into theatre. I support date nights at the theatre, e-harmony nights, family nights, hot singles nights, facebook nights, group-on nights, twitter-nights, just about anything that will bring the younger generations into our house (usually this anything means something that has little to do with theatre itself).
There are reasons why old folks come to the theatre more than young people. To begin with there are many more old people than there ever were --- we live longer now. Old people often have what young people do not: time and money, two crucial necessities of theatre-going. All this has been oft thought and said.
There's more to it. Theatre remains one the the great last best pleasures of growing old. It doesn't take as much physical energy as some of the things we used to do for fun--we just have to stagger into our seats and stay awake some of the time. Old people have seen more and often done more, which makes them good judges of actions that men might play. if you are lucky, the Hamlet you see before you is the ghost of Hamlets you've seen before--behind Rory Kinnear now onstage at the National stands Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Ian Charleson, Mark Rylance, Paul Redford, Khris Lewin, Simon Russell Beale, and David Tennant, to name a few notable Danes I have been fortunate enough to have seen. This produces vibrations. The pleasures of performances multiply. Contrary to popular belief old people are not only old in their souls--they thirst for life as they once did, and onstage they find it, concentrated and played out in glorious human vivacity. It's often a lot more interesting than watching your grandkids play video games. In this sense, old people are not old--they are just not, as the saying goes, in their first youth; theirs is a youth enriched by having had a youth earlier.
But of course old people are old, and closer to death. They can't help but think about it more. Many of their friends and family have already fallen off their perches, and they know they are likely not as far behind as they once were. Nature is less interested in them now. Life is different when you are more aware of your own more or less imminent demise. You know your own show is somehwere closer to your last act, and there will be a final curtain. All the more reason to go see a play, to reach for a cup of life and drink from it deeply, and to do this in the congenial company of other "fellow passengers to the grave," as Dickens said.
By all means let's have more young people in our theatres. No one would enjoy it more than the old people already there. But let's also celebrate our grayhairs. They yet live, they richly live. That quiet apparently dead matinee may have more real life in it than that Friday night house of rowdy drunkards. Let's have more youngsters, by all means. But let's have more oldsters too. For them, for us, theatre really means something, even if we have have forgotten exactly what that was the next morning.