So the Carol and I saw David Mamet’s “Romance” at the Ahmanson Theatre, for her birthday (she’s 12 for about the 4th time, give or take a time or half), and we were thoroughly enjoying it right up until the very last line of the play, which was such a dud that it came pretty near to negating what had come before. But it was educational, because it served to remind me of a couple of things. It reminded me how delicate and transitory theatre is. It also reminded me that live theatre is, by its very nature, a perverse exercise.
Understand that I’m not talking about content here. What goes on, on the stage, is neither here nor there. It’s all been done. There’s nothing to shock anymore. Human sacrifice, buggery, eating cucumber sandwiches, there’s nothing new under the sun. The Greeks did it all before. When I talk about the inherent perversity of theatre, I’m talking about the relationship between the audience and the performers.
The dirty little secret of Live Theatre Audiences is that they go to a performance hoping that something will screw up. They’re wishing that tonight a disaster of epic proportions will manifest before their waiting eyes. That tonight will be the night that it will be “ To be...or...or”.
That tonight a piece of scenery will drop on Annie’s head (preferably during one of the ad nausea reprises of “Tomorrow”...The sun won’t be coming out for you, kiddo). That tonight Blanche DuBois will actually stab Stanley with the broken bottle.
That last one is more likely to happen than you might suspect. It has long been my contention that any woman (or man for that matter) that desperately, desperately wants to play Blanche DuBois should never, under any circumstances, be allowed to. Why, you may ask? Because inevitably they are too close to the part to ever do it justice. I would suggest that casting a woman slowly but inevitably losing her grip on reality to play a woman slowly but inevitably losing her grip on reality is a dicey proposition at best. At the least it involves absolutely impeccable timing. John Gielgud pointed out that Vivien Leigh was far to close to a Tennessee Williams character to ever actually be playing one, but there you go. That’s the exception. To put it another way, you wouldn’t want a real sociopathic cannibal psychologist playing Hannibal Lecter, would you? Well, maybe you would. Which brings me back to my point...I think...
Most audiences are sitting there subconsciously hoping that something will go wrong, if for nothing else than to make their experience unique. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think most people are actively willing a calamity, but the hope is there buried in the back of their minds. It’s part of the thrill of a live performance. It’s the equivalent of watching a tight rope walker and surreptitiously blowing to alter the air currents just enough so that...you know.
Remember “The Carol Burnett Show”? What was the best part of it? Not the sketches or the songs. It was watching Harvey Korman start corpsing (the theatrical term for cracking up on stage) whenever Tim Conway did something that wasn’t in the script. That’s a mistake. Professionals hate it when it happens. Why did we at home get to see this? They were on tape. They could have done a retake. So why did they leave them in? Because audiences loved it. It got so they were disappointed when it didn’t happen.
Still think audiences aren’t perverse? Okay, here’s a slightly different example. In 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival Bob Dylan succeeded in pissing off the folk purists by showing up with an electric guitar and a rock band. People booed. There were cries of sacrilege. Ultra-Pacifist Pete Seeger threatened to cut the microphone cord with an axe. It was a major controversy in the folk community, and became legend in the music world. Dylan then went on to record 2 albums in the new style. His fans were well aware of the change in style, and the controversy. So what happens? He goes on tour, and people buy tickets and show up just to boo. Get it? They know what he’s doing. They know what he’s going to play. They know they don’t like it. But they show up anyway, just to screw up the performances. They’re going to specifically try to provoke an incident. Now this would mean nothing if it were an isolated incident, but it happened not only on the American dates, but all the European ones as well. Now that’s what I call audience participation.(BTW all this is well documented in Martin Scorsese’s excellent “Bob Dylan: No Direction Home”)
And here’s the kicker. The performers feel exactly the same way. There isn’t an actor I know (and I know a bunch, including myself) whose mantra is not “ Please God, don’t let me fuck up”, thus initiating the self-fulfilling prophecy. And so you have a strange variation on the old school Double Dog dare that goes something like this:
Audience: I bet you’re going to fall on your ass tonight.
Actor: Oh yeah? Well, I bet I will too!! So there! Nyah!
So why do we do it? Why do we continue this version of the "(Sado)Masochism Tango?" I haven't got the slightest clue. Having been involved in theatre for over 40 years you might think that I would know something about it. But this would be a mistaken assumption. I know absolutely nothing about theatre. But I have my suspicions.