- Performing Opposition: Modern Theater and the Scandalized Audience, and: Audience Participation: Essays on Inclusion in Performance
No matter the subject or style, the year or location of a performance, the presence of an audience is the key component that constitutes a theatre event. However, in much of theatre scholarship, the audience variable of the performance equation is treated as an implied factor, one that is quietly assumed to be (quietly) present, but rarely the focus of study. Reception theory has gained traction in recent years, but often studies resort to using a generalized "audience," extrapolated from the particular range of acceptable responses in the culture under consideration. The tendency to generalize may in part be due to perceptions about the audience as an unwieldy subject. The prospect of interviewing all or even a representative sample of an audience about their response to a theatre event on a particular evening is daunting—let alone trying to account for audience response to different individual performances in a production's run. The problem becomes just that much more complicated if the subject of inquiry is distant in time and / or geography. However, there is much to be gained by turning an inquiring eye out to the house, and in meeting the challenge of researching live performance; we in theatre studies have become well versed in attempting to document the undocumentable. Two recent publications take a few steps further down the path by addressing the audience gap.
In Neil Blackadder's rigorously researched volume Performing Opposition and Susan Kattwinkel's eclectic collection of essays Audience Participation, the role of the audience is given full consideration. Indeed, in these books, the audience is regarded as an active participant in performances that span several centuries and cultural traditions. Blackadder's study considers cases of notable audience response to first productions of West European plays between the years of 1889 and 1931. As he carefully considers these events, he notes that they "stood out as exceptional occurrences, when spectators overstepped the prevailing bounds of seemly behavior in order to express their outrage" (xi). By noting the exceptional status of these theatre events, Blackadder builds a case that these "protests against new plays of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries constituted acts of resistance to the—ultimately inexorable—transition toward a more passive form of spectatorship" (xi). Blackadder's argument is convincing and illuminates why audience participation is perceived as so difficult to gauge: theatre etiquette and architecture reduced audience response; opposition was redirected and dispersed to venues outside the auditorium itself. Perhaps such a shift in the conventions of spectatorship has contributed obstacles to its study.
In Performing Opposition, Blackadder sets out to "investigate a significant phenomenon in the history of western theater by way of a selection of representative examples—a series of encounters between specific plays and specific audiences" (xii). He reconstructs several scandals in the theatre for his reader by carefully considering the sociopolitical and cultural moments in which these events took place. Blackadder relies on a range of sources to set these scenes; he uses all available first-hand accounts of audience members in the form of private letters, memoirs, and interviews. In order to fully consider the context of the events, he relies on newspaper articles, city ordinances and laws, court records, published essays, prologues, and epilogues. Building on this rigorous historical work, Blackadder analyzes with nuance the protests and counter-protests that took place in the house. Because of his thorough investigation, he is able to unmask premeditated protesters and form solid [End Page 369] hypotheses about the expectations that groups of audience members brought with them.
Blackadder uses the horizon of expectations (associated with Hans Robert Jauss) in his analysis. He carefully differentiates the events he has selected for study from other "riots" in theatre history by noting that the latter resulted from audiences who "expressed displeasure because they didn't get exactly what they...