Vanity Fair, November 1919
Reviewing a Theatre Audience
The Critic Turns His Batteries Away from the Stage
By P. G. WODEHOUSE
THE vaudeville critic of a theatrical paper, the other day, made an ingenious change in the customary routine of dramatic criticism by turning his batteries round and directing them against the audience instead of the performers.
Usually the audience gets off pretty lightly. Occasionally a critic, after disembowelling a show and jumping on it with his gent’s Oxfords and generally proclaiming its unfitness to be considered part of the scheme of things, will add a scornfully pitying line to the effect that “The audience, however, seemed to be pleased.”
He may feel tempted to add “poor goops,” but he resists the temptation. This particular vaudeville critic, however, was made of sterner stuff.
“Business,” he begins, “Wednesday evening was big, and an audience which was not quite equal to the quality of vaudeville it paid to see was as satisfied as that kind of an audience knows how to be.” He then proceeds to details. “Laurel Lee proved the shining spot of the bill. The chic chérie, tiny as she is, was a head over the heads of the flatheads out in front, but even a deaf and dumb bricklayer, with one good eye, could apprehend the unusual, the silk-lined, and the élite of her.”
And, later in the outburst, in connection with a cross-talk team, “The dialogue had wit, and because these men refused to hand it to the boneheads in front with thick syrup of low comedy, the sad-eyed kitchen mechanics and shoe clerks failed to rise to the bait.”
After that, he doesn’t say a single thing about the audience. He seems to consider that they have got theirs.
What This May Lead To
THE novelty of this is pleasing, but it is to be hoped that other critics will not follow him and make this method of writing the fashion. It is so easily capable of development, and the step from attacking audiences in the mass to singling out individuals for censure is so short.
I should hate to read in my morning paper, after visiting a theatre, “James J. Gagger’s new number is all to the mustard and took three encores, failing, however, to get a yip out of a bald-headed, spectacled chump in a last-year’s suit, who sat on our left and badly needed a shave and brush-up. We were sufficiently interested to make enquiries and ascertain the name of this goggle-eyed nut. The name is Wodehouse, initials P. G. If you meet him on the street, kick his spine up through his hat. He ought not to be at large.”
Going to the theatre would become even more of an adventure than it is at present.
For it is an adventure, and of the most sporting kind. And that is why it is wrong to say unkind things about the audience. The man who goes to see a play is a sportsman, and should be entitled to consideration as such.
What it amounts to is that he has betted—blindly—good money and war-tax that he will not be bored. If he loses his bet, it is very decent of him merely to sit still and say nothing. If he were not a very fine fellow, he would make a demonstration of some kind. He would call up the manager late that night and get him out of bed and tell him that the show was pathetic and that his money was obtained under false pretences. Or he would tear up the seats or something. But, being a sport, he just pockets his loss in silence.
When you consider what audiences are called upon to go through, their sunny patience is marvellous. They are tricked and bullied into the theatre. Day after day they are shouted at in the advertisement columns of the press and told that they are taking no risk at all in putting down their money. It is hinted that if they don’t they ought to be ashamed of themselves and will spend a lifetime of regret when it is too late. And finally they give in, only to discover that they have been buncoed again.
And the modern audience is even deprived of artificial stimulant. In the old days it was possible to enjoy the first hour of almost anything with the aid of a little judicious lubrication of the works immediately beforehand, and by sticking to it resolutely in the intermissions one could get through the evening splendidly. But now, crook dramas and drawing-room comedies and bedroom farces are administered in cold blood, without anaesthetics.
Yes, these things are going on in our very midst unchecked, without protest. It is the sort of evil John Galsworthy would write a scorcher about, and the extraordinary thing is that he has not thought of doing it. Talk about Things That Make You Weep In This Great City! This is one of the worst.
Taxation Without Representation
WHAT is at the root of the audience’s unfortunate position is the old business of Taxation Without Representation. In other words, the theatre takes their money, but won’t allow them a voice in the subsequent proceedings.
This is particularly noticeable in musical comedy. In every musical comedy there is a big number. It is big because the management has decided that it is big. “We’ll get through somehow to the middle of act two,” says the management, “and then we’ll knock their eyes out with ’Waiting in the Moonlight.’ ” The thing is a deliberate plot. The dance-director is instructed to think up a lot of different business for first encore, second encore, third encore, and so on. The chorus is drilled to the last smile. And then the number comes on. The audience listen, sniff at it, and turn it over with their paws, and then lean back and intimate that that’s that and now let’s see what happens when the hero meets the adventuress again.
Does the management let it go at that and permit bygones to be bygones? Not by a jugfull. This is the big number, and it’s going to be the big number, even if every chump out front dies where he sits.
What do the audience think they pay their dance-director fifteen thousand a year for? Fun? Amusement? Well, by Heck! In the midst of the pained hush that pervades the auditorium like a fog the conductor taps his baton, the orchestra strike up the refrain, and out come the chorus for encore number one. There is a little clapping now, for the audience, having the souls of gentlemen, are willing to show the performers that they bear no ill-will, and that, now that the awful thing is really over, they are prepared to bury the past and, so to speak, start a new life together.
The conductor taps his baton again, that beastly glutinous refrain begins once more, and out come the chorus again. From this point on, the audience is licked. It just sits there and hopes for the end. It knows that nothing it can do, short of the only sensible thing—viz., pulling down the theatre and murdering the management, can stop that song until the last encore has been repeated twice; so it makes the best of it, chats about the weather, reads the What the Smart Man is Wearing page in the programme, and thinks of its boyhood. And presently, when the management is good and ready, the play goes on.
The Nightly Miracle
THIS is not an isolated arbitrary act. The theatre is run all the time on the principle that the audience has no say in any thing. Suppose a small-part actor pleases the customers, and they want to see more of him. What can they do? The management ignores their preferences, and plugs along with the star. Revolutions have come about for smaller reasons, and whole populations have risen in rebellion against less tyranny.
I have been reading an article by an English actress which puts the case of the audience excellently.
“To an unjaundiced eye,” she says, “an audience is a nightly miracle. For amiability is a matter of health, and think what an unhealthy life an audience leads. Always indoors. Always with indigestion after a hurried meal, and with cold feet. Cooped up in a chair, and forbidden to argue or snore or groan or cry for help. And all it has to look forward to—besides the end of the piece—is walking home. Yet, there it sits, arriving punctually night after night, watching you politely, even bending forward sometimes with a look of eager interest. But never answering back!”
There you have the thing in a nutshell.
It leaves out all the minor tribulations of the audience, such as the hurrying from the dinner table to get to the theatre at the advertised time for the rise of the curtain and the long, restful wait of twenty-five minutes till the curtain actually does rise.
It does not touch on the curious fact that theatre-architects seem to imagine that the human race is a race of midgets without legs and construct their seats accordingly. But it does speak a much-needed word for a downtrodden and suffering class of the population, and one hopes that other critics who are contemplating attacks on the audience will restrain themselves.