HOW TO ENJOY THE THEATRE
Reproduced below is an article from a nineteenth century theatre magazine advising the playgoer on how best to appreciate any given type of production. Although it was written over a hundred years ago, and was undoubtedly intended to be whimsically humorous, it is almost equally relevant to the theatre of today.
"HOW TO ENJOY THE THEATRE" - The Theatre: July 1892
I confess that the idea embodied in the title of this paper is not strictly original. It was suggested to my mind by a lecture, entitled "How to be Rightly Amused at the Theatre." It struck me that the lecturer made a great mistake both in his title and his treatment of the subject. He did not strike at the root of the matter.
Before discussing "How to be rightly amused," it appears to me that there should be a preliminary discussion on how to be amused at all. This latter point being fairly and thoroughly settled, the other would follow in natural sequence. I am free to admit that the value of this paper will be greatly lessened by the previous discussion of the point which should have been allowed to stand over in the meantime. I cannot blame myself for the unfortunate mistake, indeed, I fail to see how it could have been avoided, since, as I before remarked, it was the second point which suggested to my mind the first one. I trust the British public will pardon my negligence in not being sufficiently premature, and impute the fault (if there be a fault) to the gentleman who has - so to speak - spoken out of his turn.
I have made a point of studying audiences. I may be in the audience myself, but I am not of the audience; I am there studying the British public in its own interest, and it is from this unassailable standpoint I wish to write. If the foregoing remarks appear to any reader to be egotistical, I would implore him to believe they are not so. Unless he believes this, he cannot thoroughly appreciate them.
As for their full enjoyment the different forms of theatrical entertainment require different treatment, it may be as well to enumerate these to begin with. There are three or four primary classes, each of which is shaded into the other by means of a series of nondescript performances, partaking of the good qualities of neither, and the bad ones of both. For instance, opera is shaded off into burlesque by a series of more impossible and absurd situations, as contained in opera bouffe, comic opera, etc. Burlesque slips imperceptibly into pantomime, and pantomime glides into variety entertainment. Tragedy slips into drama, and from thence into melodrama. Comedy, by easy stages, through farcical comedy into pure farce.
To thoroughly enjoy and appreciate all these varied forms, I maintain that each one must be taken individually, and treated according to its requirements. It is impossible, it is true, to alter the form of an entertainment so as to suit every individual member of the audience in the natural state. But it is possible for every member of the audience to create within himself an artificial and purely temporary condition suited to the class of theatrical entertainment he is anxious to enjoy. He must train up to it. In order to make myself thoroughly clear, I think I cannot do better than give a few illustrations of what I mean. 1 will begin with burlesque.
The best time to enjoy a burlesque is after a good dinner. There must have been consumed just sufficient wine to cause the delusion that the libretto is smart and the music tuneful. Without some artificial exhilaration, the best jokes and puns of which any burlesque is capable cause but faint interest, while the worst ones give rise to a feeling of pity bestowed equally upon author, actors, and such portion of the audience as is unfeignedly amused thereby. Under the more favourable conditions, however, the whole thing is changed. The comparatively good jokes are superlative, and hidden beauties are seen in the bad ones, the existence of which was never suspected. The worse the burlesque, the more wine will be necessary. No entertainment of this description can possibly fail with an audience that has carefully prepared itself as I have indicated.
The most suitable coign of vantage from which to witness a burlesque is the stalls. This for various reasons. If you have attended to the preparatory stage as given above, you are feeling very amiable and friendly to all concerned in your entertainment. You are anxious to feel at home, as it were, with the performers; and in the stalls alone can you realise your ideal in this direction. The occupants of the stalls are the persons to whom burlesque artistes invariably address their confidences. They hear those delightful sotto voce remarks which cause strictly professional laughter, that is, laughter on the stage and in the orchestra. It is the correct thing for the stalls to join in this laughter, but for the rest of the audience it is not considered etiquette to do so. In the stalls, you have the delightful sensation of feeling yourself almost part of the show, and of knowing that the rest of the audience is out of it. If this pleasure is but fleeting, and will not bear the morning's reflection, it is at least delightful while it lasts and harmless in its results.
Tragedy requires different treatment entirely. I should recommend to all intending tragedy-goers one or two cups of strong tea or coffee, and total abstinence from food for some hours previous to the performance. Wine would be fatal to the enjoyment of any tragedy, however good. Wine and tragedy in combination create sleep. To thoroughly enjoy tragedy the mind must be excited, the body asceticised. The feeling of hunger - the gnawing, aching void is - here an invaluable adjunct. It is necessary to feel austere and critical to a degree. The text of the play must be carefully conned, and an original reading of his own must be evolved by each and every member of the audience. By this standard, in so far as the tragedian realises or fails to realise such individual conceptions of the part, each and every member of the audience must judge him.
The audience must be perfectly familiar with the methods of every previous exponent of the part, and must know exactly where each one failed. The pit is the proper place from which to view a tragedy. Seats without backs are preferable, and every occupant must sit erect, with a book of the play handy for reference. Enthusiasm of any kind must be left to the more ignorant portion of the audience, who are sure to cheer whenever they feel dull. This generally occurs after a lengthy peroration by the principal actor. At such applause the intelligent playgoer must smile contemptuously, and reserve his approval, if he has any, for little points that no one else notices. There must be no identifying audience with actors, in tragedy. The performers must be held sternly aloof and viewed in a somewhat aggressive light. If these instructions are carried out, the tragedy-goer will come out of the theatre feeling that, although the entertainment in itself was not worth the money, he has derived a real pleasure from the exercise of his own powers of criticism and superior intelligence.
As regards melodrama, I have consulted the lady who cleans out my offices, and she unhesitatingly votes for "gin and the gallery." She votes for gin, because it is "a good liquor to cry on." She votes for the gallery because in that part of the house alone congenial melodramatic souls do congregate, and (accomplished weeper though she be) she finds that sympathetic company is a great help. I believe my respected char-lady is quite correct in her theory. To sit through a whole melodrama and thoroughly enjoy it, you must be emotional. If you are not naturally emotional, you must supply the want by artificial means. If you cannot do this, you had better not go. I know a newspaper critic (a most abandoned critic), who was personally induced to try the effect of artificial emotion on a melodrama of most virulent type. He went to scoff, but remained to weep. He said afterwards that it was a delightful sensation, such as he had not felt for many, many years, and that the only drawback was the terrible reaction, and the violent headache it left behind. I have never myself had the pluck to get up the necessary afflatus, and I am therefore in the unfortunate position of a man who has never enjoyed a melodrama. I have sat in the gallery and envied the sympathetic souls around me. I would have given a great deal to feel like my char-lady, of whom there were numerous types present. I yearned to sob when the heroine (with her back-hair down) was ruthlessly thrust from the doors of an unfriendly workhouse, to wander aimlessly about in the snow, and was sternly repulsed by severe old walking gentlemen, who threatened her with the police. I should have liked to be able to cheer madly when the friendly (but to my mind clearly bibulous) policeman, produced a brandy bottle from his coat-tail pocket and administered a generous dose to the unfortunate lady.
Why does not my blood boil when the hero is sent to penal servitude, and the villain remains at home to enjoy his property and to persecute his friends and relations? Why does not my heart bound with responsive gladness when the comic man puts everything right in the last act, and the hero and villain change places? I can only humbly confess that these delightful sensations are not for me, and look with longing envy upon those thrice-happy mortals who experience them. The fact is, I once saw a melodrama from the stalls. It was my first melodrama, and I have never got over it. I saw the carpenters waiting to push the raft on the stormy ocean. I saw the dead and dying men place themselves in positions of studied agony. I saw the wheels of the raft. I saw the dead man assisting, by a see-saw motion of his body, to keep up the oscillation, which all realistic rafts should experience on stormy oceans. To crown all, I distinctly saw the human composition of the stormy ocean itself. After this unfortunate insight into the hollowness and unreality of the situation, could I be expected to be enthusiastic when the British man-of-war sailed on to the relief, at a speed of twenty knots, stopping abruptly by the raft, as if by means of a vacuum brake? Not even although a brass band was on the poop (I believe it was the poop, but I am not sure of my seafaring terms) playing "Hearts of Oak!" But the occupants of the gallery were worked up into fearful excitement over the incident. From their lofty heights they had seen none of the mechanism which had destroyed my illusions for ever. I often think had it been my lot to first experience melodrama under their favourable conditions, I might now have been a happy, emotional, enthusiastic god, instead of a blase, critical groundling. Be warned, all ye who would enjoy melodrama! Stay in the gallery and jealously guard your illusions. You require them all.
Opera requires more delicate handling. The element of romance must be present if an opera is to be thoroughly enjoyed. Unfortunately, the average man of the world has this element very effectually knocked out of him at a comparatively early stage of his career. This being so, artificial means must again be resorted to. It is not good for man to be alone, at least, not at an opera. Every male opera-goer must go accompanied by his most romantic lady friend. He must take a strong personal interest in her, and she must not be a relation. They must both feel, pro. tem., that they are kindred souls, and created for each other. A dash of melancholy in the shape of a "'tis not to be" feeling may be introduced with advantage. Of course, I am not advising that the aforesaid conditions should be permanent or even prolonged. It must be a purely temporary arrangement; and the best plan is to make a point of never taking the same lady twice. By this means it will be found that the temporary romantic sentiment may be acquired with ease. And how delightful is an opera under such conditions! His companion sighs, and whispers, "How heavenly! I could listen to music all night," and he sighs, and whispers in return, "With you I could never tire." Of course they say pro. tem., to themselves, but as the element of romance is only required pro. tem., this is as it should be.
I am afraid to say much of pantomime without explaining at great length what pantomime really is. The pantomime of the present day must be treated as a burlesque. The former, however, differs from the latter in the respect that there is a stronger dash of "music-hall" in it. I do not think, however, that this element requires any special departure from the burlesque preparation previously mentioned.
Adhere faithfully to the rules laid down, and I am ready to guarantee you will thoroughly enjoy burlesque or modern pantomime, or music-hall entertainments, or anything! As regards the old-fashioned pantomime which we have all heard so much about, I confess utter ignorance. I never saw one. They all died before I was born. Another type of pantomime is the children's pantomime. I have seen several of these, and find that the managerial idea of what children enjoy is four hours of assault and battery, participated in by the whole of a very powerful (and they need to be powerful) company. The children of England are a bloodthirsty race. To enjoy a children's pantomime you must be a child, and like oranges. If you are not a child, and see no immediate prospect of becoming one, you must take a lot of children and plenty of oranges with you, and amuse yourself by watching the enjoyment of the children.
There are some further types of theatrical performance on which I frankly confess myself unable to give any reliable advice. I have tried them under all conditions, and have utterly failed to enjoy them every time. Personally I am not going to try any more. It will suffice to particularise two out of the number. The first is that hotch-potch of everything called the "musical play." It is in this play that the daughter says to her weeping mother: "Ah, mother dear, dispel your grief! A song and dance will bring relief," or words to that effect. The song and dance then take place, the subject being, say, "The darling little cowslips of the prairie," at the conclusion of which the woes of the mother and daughter are resumed. I have come to the conclusion that it is the amount of variety imported into these productions which renders it impossible to thoroughly enjoy them. The musical play contains melodrama, burlesque, tragedy, and comedy all intermingled. It will be seen that it is impossible for the audience to alter its conditions every time the style of performance undergoes a change; therefore some portions of the audience must be miserable, while only one portion can be happy at a time. This is regrettable, but unavoidable, and should be remembered in palliation of the offence by those critics who systematically condemn these performances.
The other type of theatrical performance, which it is difficult for me to imagine under favourable conditions, is the amateur performance. I have tried (Heaven knows how I have tried) to enjoy an entertainment of this description, but without success. I have had strong personal inducements to look favourably upon it. I have seen ladies in whom I had the strongest personal interest (pro. tem.) act, and still I have derived no pleasure. Of course, I told them differently, but this is the free and irresponsible truth. The time I came nearest to enjoying an amateur performance was once when I myself took part. It really seemed to me that it had gone very well, much better than any performance I had ever seen before. All my personal friends told me it was the best thing they had ever seen, and my lady friends, in particular, told me I was "awfully good, really quite the best character in it." But a personal stranger, whom I met a day or two after, and who did not recognise me as having been a performer, confided to me such an open and candid opinion of the performance in general, and of my performance in particular, that it was gradually forced upon me that our performance wras no better than the average, and that my performance was considerably worse.
I thanked the personal stranger, and have confined myself strictly to criticism ever since. To sum up amateur performances briefly, I think that they are not intended for purposes of enjoyment, that is, so far as the audience is concerned. They are organised generally for purposes of charity. Therefore, let us bear with them, suffer under them, and extend to them that charity which they extend to the objects of their patronage.
JOHN J. WOOD.