Exit, stage left

The issue of audience participation

 

The patience and forbearance of actors these days in the face of mobile phone and other interruptions to their performances is remarkable. Not surprisingly though, once in a while, they snap. Laurence Fox (of the famous theatrical Fox family, and known perhaps best as Hathaway in Lewis) did so on Tuesday night in London as he attempted to complete his rendition of Gen de Gaulle in The Patriotic Traitor. He turned on a persistent heckler in the front row, swore at him and walked off stage.

Apart from generating international headlines, his outburst brought to mind a recent Dublin Review of Books piece by the late Justice Adrian Hardiman in which the latter discussed the law and the theatre (The Irish Stage: A Legal History, by WN Osborough) and specifically the judicial protection of “the right of vocal disapprobation” – the little known right to heckle.

The articulation of this right goes back to the aftermath of the so-called “Bottle Riot” of 1822 in Dublin’s Theatre Royal, when 12 rioters were unsuccessfully charged with “conspiracy to murder” for throwing bottles at the viceroy. On the broader point Chief Justice Charles Kendal Bushe declared then that an audience “may cry down a play or other performance, which they dislike, or they may hiss or hoot the actors who depend upon their approbation, or their caprice ... Their censure or approbation, though it may be noisy, must not be riotous. [But] That censure or approbation must be the expression of the feelings of the moment; for if it be premeditated by a number of persons confederated beforehand to cry down even a performance of an actor, it becomes criminal.” To heckle is legal then, if not premeditated , in which case it is a conspiracy.

Indeed in 1906, following the Playboy riots in the Abbey – most clearly premeditated – over the frivolous portrayal of parricide and the perception that Pegeen Mike’s language demeaned women, the judge wondered why the rioters were not charged with conspiracy and the Abbey itself with provocation. One can almost hear Hardiman’s chuckle.

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