Here is a random roster of playgoing pests, may Thespis strike each of them dumb.
Just before Labor Day is a slow time for the arts, so I thought it would be the perfect occasion to post one of my favorite ‘Curtain’ columns written by long-time Boston theater critic Arthur Friedman, who for decades wrote with vim, vigor, and wit — in The Real Paper, The Cambridge Express, and then The Boston Herald. He published this piece in The Cambridge Express on December 19, 1981.
It was penned well before the advent of the cell phone, Twitter, etc. I welcome readers to send in additions to Arthur’s list of “pestiferous playgoers.” Theater historians should note that I met Arthur back in the early ’80s at a production of Sam Shepard and Patti Smith’s Cowboy Mouth in Cambridge’s Central Square. He noticed me because, then the theater critic for WBUR, I was a dedicated Frantic Scribbler. Did anyone ever use the word “scritch” so appropriately?
— Arts Fuse Editor Bill Marx
By Arthur Friedman
Maybe I’m getting old and cranky. There was a time I could enjoy a show, even with the audience in an uproar. Not anymore. Nowadays public rudeness spoils too many evenings in the theater, and playgoing has become an endurance test, requiring the patience of Griselda and the pacifism of Ghandi.
Maybe today’s audiences — weaned on canned television theater in the privacy of their living rooms where anything goes (eating, griping, snoring, gabbing, nose-blowing) — demand the same freedom of expression in the live theater, to the distress of those of us who expect minimal courtesy and consideration.
Here is a random roster of playgoing pests, may Thespis strike each of them dumb.
The Coat Dragger: Physical contact in the theater, as opposed to that in a stadium or moviehouse balcony. Is traditionally verboten. So the latecomer, shuffling to his or her seat in the middle of a crowded row, bends over forwards to avoid brushing the knees of those already seated. The result: a hand-held coat dragged across the pates of playgoers seated directly in front of the latecomer. Pity those of us who have carefully combed our hair, or like to keep our glasses perched on our bridges. Pity even more those who wear toupees and run the risk of public exposure by the thoughtless Coat Dragger.
The Coat Draper: Enter the theatergoer with an enormous fur coat that must have cost the lives of a wilderness of rodents. Rather than shell out fifty cents at the cloakroom, this public nuisance drapes her huge coat over the back of her seat. The person seated directly behind now has to watch the show over a stitched mound of dead pelts, half of which is nestled snugly on his lap.
The Arm Rest Hog: Instinctively impelled by the territorial imperative, this bully plants his or her arm firmly on the arm rest, then fixes you with a stony glare if you make even a half-hearted attempt to reclaim a small part of it. You will have to wait until intermission to get your own back, but it’s worth the wait.
The Back Seat Thumper: This pest usually stands over six feet tall, and his huge bony knees have to settle somewhere. So why not in the back of the chair in front of him? The poor shelp seated therein is in for a bumpy evening.
The Narrator In Spite of Himself: In stage whispers loud enough to carry to the balcony, this idiot gabbler generously provides a running translation of the onstage action. “Oh, oh, he’s opening the door. Watch out! Ooh, I knew it! It’s his wife’s corpse, what did I tell you! I’ll bet the mother-in-law did it…”
The Textual Commentator: This menace is usually an academic type eager to impress his date. “Hmmm,” he whispers to the admiring coos of his companion, “this is an interesting variation on the pirated quarto of Hamlet. You’ve read the play, haven’t you? Well, the first quarto has ‘solid’ rather than ‘sullied…'” Tell this pedant to pipe down, and you’re flirting with a shiner.
The Snorer: Generally of the male gender, this snoozer has been hustled to the theater by his culture-vulture wife. After a hard day’s work at the office, and a hurried meal at some Theater District restaurant, The Snorer is soon lulled into the Land of Nod. The rhythmic belly rumbles and heavy suspirations are bad enough, but when the buzzsaw starts its log-slicing, forget the show.
The Brayer: Most people with annoying laughs aren’t aware of their affliction. The ear-splitting brayer can only be cured by seating him or her in a forest where a herd of horny moose, aroused by the familiar mating call, will pound this pest into the ground. Icy stares won’t work. I’ve tried. They only prompt the Brayer to redouble his guffaws so that you can share the joke.
The Hard of Hearing: This nuisance isn’t really handicapped. He has simply dozed off or lapsed into a coma until a punchline brings him ’round. “Huh! Woddhesay?” he asks his companion sotto voce. The companion inevitably repeats the tagline and thereby sets in motion another cycle of “Woddhesays” from adjacent playgoers who’ve missed the rest of the dialogue.
The Tsk-Tsker: Is a torrid love scene taking place in Verona? Has Lady Macbeth convinced her worthy thane to bump off his houseguest? It’s a probable ten to seven that someone in the audience will respond to such excitement with a loud series of tsk-tsks, fast or slow, depending on the degree of the viewer’s involvement.
The Rustler: Curse the inventor of cellophane. And curse the candy chewers. The worst offenders in this category are usually the best-intentioned. Trying to mute their crinkly unwrapping, they prolong our agony by rustling the paper in slow motion. Preferred strategy: one sharp rustle and an immediate discarding of the wrapper lest the candy chewer absentmindedly toy with it for the next two acts.
The Candy Sucker and Biter: Closely akin to The Rustler, this bozo has already popped in his cough drop or sour ball into his maw. For the rest of the show, he expresses his relish by rattling the candy against his dentures or by orally caressing it with noisy lip-smacks and sucking sounds.
The Program Roller: Why are playbills printed on glossy paper so soothing and squeaky to the touch? Many’s the pestiferous playgoer who rolls up his program and unconsciously plays with it for the rest of the show. It sounds like Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane.
The Message Beeper: This noxious fellow usually belongs to the professional class — a doctor or a busy executive on a rare night off. The peremptory beeps of his gadget cut through the quite playhouse like a police siren.
The Hack-Hacker: Our consumptive Lady of the Camelias has risen from her sickbed and chosen to expire in the seat besides you. After all, she realizes that even at today’s prices, a ticket to a show is a bargain compared to a stint in a TB clinic. As Fate would have it, her assorted hems, snorts, and lung-splitting coughs explored during the play’s climactic moments. “Elementary, my dear Watson. You see, the Baskervilles hound did not … hack! hack! hack!
The Wet Sneezer: Usually seated behind you, this latter-day Typhoid Mary generously bedews your scalp with armadas of germs, while you sit holding your breath long enough for the germs to expire. (In China, wet sneezers have to wear surgical masks in public. Chalk up a point for totalitarianism.)
The Incurable Romantic: Having been trained to express his affection in moviehouse balconies and the back seats of cars, this loverboy keeps in touch — literally — with his date. He puts his arms around her shoulder and they nestle, head to head, like a pair of billing parakeets. If you’re unlucky enough to be seated behind them, you’d better get used to catching only fleeting glimpses of the stage.
The Frantic Scribbler: This show-off is a second-string critic or a reviewer from an obscure paper who desperately wants to be noticed. So he or she begins taking notes before the curtain goes up and continues even during the intermission. Worst of all, the Frantic Scribbler persists in filling reams of paper during the performance, so the stage dialogue is often underscored by the noisy scritch of pen or pencil.
The Bravo Yeller: Whether the show is a hit or a flop, or features a star, some cheerleading dolt will rise at curtain call time and shout “Bravo!” Through a lemming-like instinct for mob action, or through sheer embarrassment, most of the audience will follow the Bravo Yeller’s cue, making those of us still in our seats look like ungrateful Philistines.