Illustration by Josephine Moir.
Watching a play may not be the same as watching the new Spiderman in the cinema. It may not be the Netflix show you can settle into, lying completely horizontal in bed with your laptop balanced on your chest. It’s a long way from Tiktok. But before collapsing into clichés about our generation, let’s take a few steps back. A long way back, actually.
Theatre is among the earliest forms of entertainment, and it’s easily one of the most accessible. All you really need is a group of people. No paint, paper, or printing, no need to be able to read and write, no heavy camera equipment or guitar amps. Just some people to act and some people to watch. Before our lives became connected online, and it became possible to call, block, or express sexual interest in someone with a single tap (or swipe), communication was something physical and present. Entertainment was about people coming together; it was about spectacle. People crowded to pay their penny to see a play in Shakespeare’s day because they wanted, like everyone else, to be told a story. You didn’t usually need to be learned, wealthy, or ‘sophisticated’, to understand and enjoy a performance: this is why it was so popular. Theatre had a massive sociopolitical and cultural impact in Europe, and this was soon to spread across the rest of the world. It was fought over for decades: banned by the Puritans for being immoral, rescued at the Restoration, parodied, defended, bailed out, and made so many famous names. Theatre was everything from heart-warming, to hilarious, to downright filthy.
The importance of communication cannot be understated. It forms the basis for all art and entertainment. A film, for example, might speak to us in many different ways. An actor’s voice might crack as the character grieves, a tilt of the camera lens perfectly captures the morning sunlight, or a particularly witty line transforms a scene. Films (unlike, say, books) carry on playing when you’re not concentrating. Books require concentration. Theatre is different to both. The strange thing about dramatic communication is that, although the play keeps going if you close your eyes or look away, or zone out and start debating about what flavour ice cream to have in the interval, it’s immediate: it’s happening right in front of you. It’s like live TV. In fact, it’s better than live TV, because if an actor drops a prop and you’re sitting in the front row – who knows? You might catch it.
And yes, something could go wrong. It’s dangerous. It’s about the adrenaline. If you’ve ever been involved in a show, in whatever way, think about that giddy rush you get just before it starts. That’s all about this immediacy. The characters are living, breathing people in front of you. Theatre allows us to study other people: if a character speaks, shouts, or sobs onstage, we are being allowed to witness such a vulnerable, breakable person. Sitting in the audience, we feel strangely disconnected from them. ‘How can this be happening?’ we might think. We’re barely ten metres apart, the actor and me. We’re sharing the same space. We probably both had to get the Tube here. And yet, right now, you’re not sharing this world of mine, because you’re a character in a different one.
Imagine that you’re going to see your favourite play. You’re walking into the theatre now and you’re buzzing. Everyone else is too. There’s a quality of expectation about it: it’s not a new film – you know the play – but you want to see what’s going to happen this time. And you’re surrounded by people who want exactly the same thing. The lights go down, the spotlight sweeps onto the stage. It’s the opening bars of “Good Morning Baltimore“. It’s Walter and Mama from A Raisin in the Sun. It’s the cocksure Capulets strutting the streets of Verona. It’s a tribe of cats.
Whatever it is, it’s there. But if we – the audience – if we weren’t there, eating our smuggled-in food, rustling our programmes, accidentally elbowing one another in the ribs, it wouldn’t really be anything. A play is a two-way system in which our participation is crucial. Theatre is usually defined by its relation to a live audience, and functions best with one. The play is our mirror, and is a process of mutual trust: the actors, as well as the audience, know this is not ‘real life’, but act as though it is. It’s a reciprocal relationship: we respond to the actors, and they respond to us. We laugh, we cry, we boo them offstage…they know they’ve had an impact. We suspend disbelief because we want to believe in what’s happening. When we see Prior in the hospital bed in Kushner’s Angels in America, we cry. We laugh when we watch The Play That Goes Wrong because we know what it is for a play to go ‘right’. When married couples manipulate one other in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or God of Carnage, we feel strangely voyeuristic, like we shouldn’t be there. Theatre allows us to be this voyeur.
Going to a play or a musical is an emotional, intellectual, sensory, physical experience – and that doesn’t just come from watching a play by itself. The very experience of theatre unites us.
Yes, we can tell stories and experience art in so many ways today. But just because we can read from a Kindle, doesn’t mean we are suddenly horribly averse to the idea of holding a book. In fact, we crave this feeling. We may love going to the cinema, but you cannot deny the uniqueness of the feelings that come with the stage and the people acting on it. Theatre brings us together in time and emotion. We want to laugh and we want to cry, because we’re people…and that’s what we do.