Sniffle. Snuffle. Snort. When did you last cry at the theatre?
DURING Galway Arts Festival I saw The Outgoing Tide at the Town Hall Theatre. About 10 minutes from the end something very unusual happened: the woman beside me began to sniffle. Just a little at first. A minor cold, perhaps, given the rain outside. Then a sniffle arose behind me. Then, in front, a snuffle. And then the woman beside me began to sob a little more loudly, and more frequently.
Soon, as if being made by flu-ridden crickets, in the dim light of the theatre the soundtrack to the finale became one of snuffle and sniffle and restrained snort. Until, by the curtain call and a heartfelt standing ovation from a Wednesday matinee audience, the only people not clapping were those blowing their noses.
On first glance my surprise might seem not only wrong but also naive. This was a play about Alzheimer’s disease, and it was clear that several people in the theatre recognised, or out of personal experience were drawn to, the scenario. It also starred a cast of three excellent actors, most notably John Mahoney.
That it is a far funnier play than you might initially suppose from the premise shouldn’t divert from what, in retrospect, might have seemed obvious: The Outgoing Tide is a weepy. The writing, by Thomas J Cox, is sharp and confident, but from early on it becomes clear that the tide is only going to pull people in one direction, and that it wouldn’t be to dry land.
Yet this was theatre, where crying is so rare because between audience and actors is a wide gap over which suspension of disbelief must cross but so often falls. In theatre, while many emotions are evoked, tears are perhaps the rarest and hardest earned.
Tears tend to come in reaction to “issue” plays, of which a proportion of the audience might even have some experience, such as the Darkest Corner strand at the Abbey, most notably Mary Raftery’s powerful No Escape.
At last year’s exceptional Laundry I found myself stunned, shocked, awed, almost beyond tears, but that might not have been a universal experience among its small audience of three at a time. Otherwise it is an unfortunate truth of much theatre that the word “tears” is still most likely to round off “bored to”.
Theatre has none of the advantages of cinema, which gives even the most mediocre of productions the potential to turn on the tap. There are entire channels of the things, running throughout the day and night so that anyone so inclined can, at a moment’s notice, wring out their ducts with some beautiful and uplifting death or other.
Nor is there is anything unusual about disappearing into a cinema on a weekday and leaving it a blubbering wreck. Stand outside a big city cinema at midday on a Tuesday and you’ll regularly spot hardened film critics emerging from 10am showings with eyes red and stinging from having lost the battle between emotion and cynicism. And they’ll still give the film two stars.
It shames me a little that I have remained dry-eyed to pretty much every medium, and over the course of my life have pretty much exclusively cried to moving images on a big screen, where I shed salty, buttery popcorn tears with ease. It began in childhood with an episode of Tarzan in which he seemed in genuine peril of not surviving, and continues on to that wordless montage of a marriage in Up and the weeping of mass destruction that is that final 10 minutes of Toy Story 3.
The only book I have ever cried over is Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever, a parental-themed companion to the Up montage, which tracks mother and son over a lifetime. And I did that repeatedly. But this is a reflection of how parenthood softens a person, and was equally obvious in how a particular Rufus Wainwright song became linked with the birth of my eldest, so that listening to it on a train was a dangerous flirtation with public humiliation.
Otherwise it has been ET and Pixar and a traumatic time in 1993 when I saw Philadelphia, Schindler’s List and In the Name of the Father in a single week.
In theatre, though, there might be people weeping to Uncle Vanya, but they stifle it well. Irish theatre, it seems, has developed a hardness and an etiquette that don’t encourage tears. And in that medium, opportunities for manipulation are fewer. There can be no close-ups in theatre, no slow swell of strings, no repeated takes. And you cannot hide your sobs in the surround sound.