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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: September ::
Reconstructing Audiences
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0823  Thursday, 10 September 1998.

From:           Christine Cornell <
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Date:           Wednesday, 9 Sep 1998 10:35:12 AST4ADT
Subject:        Reconstructing Audiences

Hi,

Recent descriptions on this list of the audiences at the new Globe, as
well as the Shakespeare classes I will be teaching in a few days, have
me wondering about our descriptions of the general rowdiness of
Elizabethan audiences.

Two problems in particular interest me.  First, I don't doubt for a
minute that the historical audience would have approached the theatre in
a rather less than reverential manner, but do the complaints of the
playwrights add up to the chaotic scene we now picture?  Even before
movie theatres began showing movies at volumes around the pain
threshold, it was never particularly difficult to follow  what was going
on and to hear most of what was said.  Still, I know I have come out of
a movie complaining about the crunch of popcorn and the chatter of
fellow patrons.  I know letters and e-mail from friends often contains
the same complaints.  How often, though, do we refer to a quiet,
well-behaved audience when we haven't been annoyed?  I don't think I
ever have.  Attending live theatre with audiences packed with students,
I have been annoyed by the noise, but still could follow most of a play
without serious difficulty.  Or to pick a more extreme example, even the
loudest Grey Cup party with cheering football fans will have moments of
suspense or tension which seem to result in absolute silence.  Wouldn't
those characters in the pit have been capable of this response as well?

Second,  why would playwrights engaged in a commercial enterprise write
all those words if the audience was mostly oblivious?  Mime, dance,
broad physical comedy would make sense; Hamlet's soliloquies would not.
Since both sides kept coming back for more, something must have been
working.

I wonder if we are confusing our notions of an unruly Elizabethan
audience with the choreographed mayhem of our talk show audiences.  The
unison barking, booing, and cheering of a Jerry Springer audience
clearly drowns out every sound for blocks, but this is hardly the
spontaneous response of an unrehearsed crowd. Do our attempts at
audience reconstruction resemble ourselves more than anything else?

I haven't been to the reconstructed Globe, so I would like to hear more
on this subject from those who have or from anyone else who has thoughts
on the subject, Christine Cornell

Christine Cornell
St. Thomas University
 

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