It is the last week of school, and it has been one damn thing after another, so I didn't really have time to follow the Mike Daisey dust-up. Yesterday, I watched the You Tube video, and today followed a few links.
To my amazement, given that Garrett Eisler and I didn't really see eye-to-eye on the Rachel Corrie issue, I found myself sharing Eisler's evaluation of the situation. Often in this space I have engaged my fellow bloggers over what seems to me to be the hypocrisy of theatre artists who create performances that are designed to provoke and then are outraged when somebody actually responds to the provocation! Such artists love to be outrageous, but then are outraged when their spectators adopt the style themselves. So much of In-Yer-Face theatre is built on the assumption of the passive audience who will sit quietly while the artist assaults it. This is a fairly recent model.
Theatre audiences at least since Shakespeare's time, and probably long before that, have regularly thrown all manner of projectiles at the stage when dissatisfied. In many ways, this kept the artists honest. They knew that their job was to address the people in the seats, and please them in some way. It didn't have a "chilling effect" on the playwrights -- Shakespeare didn't start cranking out dozens of simple-minded comedies as a result -- but it did keep them mindful that the audience is an active and central part of the theatrical experience.
This tradition of an active audience continued through the Romantic Era (when spectators regularly rioted -- c.f. the Hernani dust-up) and throughout the era of melodrama. At some point in the 20th century, politeness became the default. And on the one hand, actors breathed a sigh of relief because they felt safer -- but on the other, they may have mourned the loss of a truly involved spectator.
Eventually, playwrights began to use that passive spectator for their own purposes, using them as a theatrical punching bag knowing that retaliation was unlikely. Peter Handke, in Offending the Audience, was not the first or last to do this, but certainly was the most forthright about his intentions. Unfortunately, I don't think that the spectator who poured water over Daisey's manuscript represents a movement back towards a more active audience, and I think that is a shame. It might lead to a level of respect between stage and auditorium.
Garrett has taken a lot of heat over his opinion, but it is entirely consistent and serious, and I applaud his courage in taking a position that will likely allienate him from many so-called right-thinking bloggers.
For my part, while I sympathize with Daisey's disorientation of the departure of 1/3 of his audience, and I suspect I would find few points of agreement between myself and the water-pourer, I think it is about time that audiences reclaim their right to not only walk out, but to disrupt performances they feel unworthy. And I think it is time that artists learn to deal with it.