Do we need new rules for the theatergoing? You could argue audiences these days are almost too well behaved--certainly we are by Elizabethan standards, when spectators listened to Shakespeare while cracking hazlenuts, fending off pickpockets and picking up girls--or so we are told. But things are different now, and that's a good thing. Theaters themselves are different. We have such things as comfortable seats and intricate theater lighting. We have much more nuance than Shakespeare did in his Globe. We have done an awful lot to eliminate anything that separates the play from the audience, and audiences have been taught to behave rather differently than they did 400 yeas ago. Most regular theatregoers know the two rules of being a good audience member. #1) Turn off your cell phone; #2) Do your best not to disturb others around you. Quite simple, and for the most part audiences behave very well in theaters these days--though there are exceptions. Recently I flew to New York to see a star studded production of The Cherry Orchard, and suffered through its delicate finale accompanied by a young woman three seats over unwrapping her crinkly papered candy for what seemed like a good five minutes. Several others heard her too; I watched them whipping their heads around in alarm. What are you doing!!! When the performance was over the candy woman was raked with hard glares as she left--but she sailed up the stairs fancy free, happily oblivious to our disapproval just as she been to her own bad behavior during the show. I really believe audience members like this have no reason to live. But they are, thankfully, very much the exceptions. Yesterday afternoon I went to the Philharmonic's performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony--nearly two hours of uninterrupted music, and the large audience was quiet and attentive throughout. Very impressive, I thought---and Mahler's music faced no interference or competition. The famous last movement is all about getting to silence---all those notes, that huge orchestra, the blaring brass, and then, at the end, only a few violins, a few cellos, and then . . . nothing. A marvellous nothing.
Silence in concert halls is much more concentrated than it is in theaters,and for good reasons. Theater invites audience particpation--laughter, gasps, groans. The classical concert invites absolute alert attention, and very quiet attention. I vividly remember sitting in the balcony of Wigmore hall listening to a Schubert recital with a Gap bag sitting quietly on my lap, or so I thought. But when the first song ended the woman in front of me turned around indignantly and with incomparable British contempt said, "Please put away your bag!" She was absolutely right. I had no reason to live.
As I say--getting to silence is requried in the recital hall and not in the theater, where generally we don't like audiences who sit on their hands and turn to stone. On the other hand, there is at least one point in a performance where very often the silence of the audience is a very good thing, and that is the place where you would think it's least required. This is what prompts proposing my third rule of theatregoing. It's quite a simple rule, though apparently counter-intuitive. Here it is: when the play is done, hold your applause. What's that, you say? Must I restrain my enthusiasm, my whole hearted approval, the welling joy flooding my heart as the curtain falls? Well, no, not always--just sometimes,and juts for a moment. Not at most musicals or shows that end with a bang, shows that send you signals to start beating your hands right away and earlier if possible. On those occasions, and they are difficult to miss, by all means go for it: jump our of your seat, throw bouquets and make as much noise as you can. But there are many other occasions where this rush to applaud is just not a good idea.
Very often this is how a great play ends: The last words have been spoken, the curtain falls, the lights fade to black and the play disappears in the dark, leaving behind a little silence, a little space. This is a moment in between. It is a space like no other--- the life of the play we have seen still fills us even though the play itself has vanished. This brief moment of silence is precious, charged and magical. We are doing nothing. But these days we all too often we are robbed of this moment because some enthusiast just can't wait to clap, and then of course we must all join in. A moment the entire play has labored to achieve is regularly cut off before its time. Nothing lingers in the air. Of course the shattering applause is well intended, but it's a spoiler. Surely we can all remember occasions in the theater when people did not immediately beat their hands, and those occasions are very special and much rarer than they should be; even in England at the temples of theatre, they are still rare. I was speaking about this with a friend in New York who understood this perfectly as I am sure you do too. The problem, she said, could be easily solved if audiences followed this simple rule: Don't be the first to clap.
I think that's the answer. When the dying light fades on the last falling leaf in Cyrano de Bergerac, let there be a moment of silence. When the dying Hamlet says, "the rest is silence," silence is called for. At the end of The Grapes of Wrath, Rose of Sharon brings a starving man's face to her breast, saying, "There. There." It is a very, very quiet moment. When the lights fade on Spooner and Hirst we are in Harold Pinter's no man's land, "which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, but which remains forever, icy and silent." Let us linger for a moment in that no man's land, silent and unmoving. At the end of Ibsen's The Doll House, Nora Helmar walks out of her home and slams the door--and the finality of that doorslam only be realized in the deafening silence that follows. At the end of The Cherry Orchard there is the sound of a snapped string mournfully dying away---the subsequent silence, the final nothingness, is as resonant as the mysterious sound. Over and over again the greatest plays we have end quietly. They invite our silence. Their invitation is well worth accepting.
So again, here's my theater rule #3: Don't be the first to clap.
Pass it on. We'll all be glad you did, and that's a promise.