Nowadays it’s the mobile phone, scourge of all live performance. There’s rarely a time when one can sit right through an entire show, in the theatre or the cinema, without the sudden and blinding light emitting from somewhere in the audience as somebody checks their phone/makes calls/receives calls even.
There’ve been famous occasions when performers on stage have stopped dead to give certain audience members an earful about their mobile phone behaviour. The (late) actor Richard Griffith interrupted a performance of The History Boys to demand a member of the audience whose phone had rung six times be thrown out. Patty Lupone stopped her own show on Broadway to do the same thing, to audience applause. Benedict Cumberbatch made an impassioned plea at the end of a performance of Hamlet, in which he played the title role, for audience members to film him asking them to please NOT film him during the performance. https://www.timeout.com/london/theatre/are-mobile-phones-ruining-our-theatres
Audience disruption is not a new thing however. The actor and director Stanislavsky relates in his memoir My Life in Art of a group of ‘clubmen’ (ie male members of a club) who caused maximum disturbance in an opera theatre in Moscow when they arrived in the middle of a performance expressly to hear the leading tenor singing a particular high C, which he did, several times over as a requested encore, before they caused similar disturbance by then leaving to return to their card game. (Stanislavsky’s account of this is below.)
Going back even further, to ancient Greece, audiences have halted performances and tried to fine playwrights when they did not approve of what they were seeing; and Elizabethan audiences chatted, solicited, ate and drank during performances (among other things) and took matters into their own hands when they spotted pickpockets operating in their midst. The actor David Garrick managed to remove audience members from the stage itself. https://theconversation.com/theatre-audience-etiquette-and-norms-have-always-shifted-with-the-times-169834. (And while some contemporary productions have the audience seated on the stage it is at least understood they are not part of the performance.)
Audiences at the modern Globe in London, especially in the early days, apparently took audience participation a step too far when they pelted the French soldiers in Henry V with foodstuffs. (Mark Rylance, then Artistic Director of the Globe and playing Henry, allegedly dealt with this by turning his back to the audience.) And riots were known to break out in French theatre between different groups of fans. https://howlround.com/noises-brief-history-unruly-audiences
Audiences don’t necessarily agree of course. During performances of the play Votes for Women at the Court Theatre in 1907 – which features in my current novel-in-progress – people in the stalls stamped their approval while those in the gallery yelled their complaints. Needless to say the stalls were filled with suffragettes and the gallery with – well, presumably people who did not support the cause.
The most I as a performer have suffered from audience behaviour – apart from gasps from shocked audience members in Harrogate when the title character in Billy Liar said “bloody” (this was back in the 1960s) – was the clatter of teacups and saucers in matinee days, when tea was delivered to audience members in the interval of a show.
Those were the days.
Audiences in my youth were terribly well-behaved. They never yelled, or fought, and of course mobiles were not yet a gleam in anyone’s eye. They certainly did not stand up at the end of a performance, as audiences now tend to do as a matter of course (an American influence I think), so much so that it’s become largely meaningless.
There is a difference, of course, between audience disruption that relates to the performance and the sort of behaviour that doesn’t. Staring at a mobile phone has to be the greatest insult to any live performer as it suggests whatever message the phone user is looking for is more interesting than what’s happening on the stage. A rowdy audience who think it’s okay to express their disapproval or otherwise of what they are seeing at least means they are engaged with it. And that, in the theatre, is all that matters.
‘The clubmen who subscribed to the Italian opera played cards almost all the evening while the performance was in progress, and came to the theatre only to hear the high C of a famous tenor, which he delivered in the last act. When the last act began the front rows were still empty, but a short time before the famous note was due there would begin the arrival, the crowding and the general disorder of the clubmen. The note was taken, and repeated for several encores, and then the noise would begin again. The clubmen were going away to finish their card games. They wanted to express their satiety and the remarkable sensitivity of their taste, which considered only the highest note of the most famous singer worthy of their attention in the whole performance.’ My Life in Art, Stanislavsky.