News & Opinion

Manners maketh man

Please Just Shut the Hell Up at the Theater & the Cinema

The Daily Beast

July 29, 2017

Angels in America is many things: beautifully written by Tony Kushner; a searing drama about AIDS, faith, and loyalty; an indictment of bigotry and interrogation of faith and hope; very funny, very moving; a kaleidoscope of our culture; all of those things, a standout piece of theater.

It is also an epic, eight-hour drama best viewed nowhere near the same gentleman who sat in my proximity at the Union Square 14 cinema in New York City these last two Thursday nights, munching his way through super-size buckets of popcorn, flavored with things so stinky and warm they wafted clammily over the front rows. Was it cheese? Ranch? Cheesy ranch?

Then came what sounded and smelled in his endlessly grinding, mulching jaws like nuggets and hot sauce.

He drank, and gulped, and slurped, and burped, and then got up for more food and drink, and then shifted in his seat and began zipping and unzipping his bag, then more burping.

There is nothing like the silence of a highly dramatic moment—such as when a young man, seriously ill with AIDS, finds a point of contact with his ex-lover’s lover’s Mormon mother—punctuated by a man burping and gurgling, and sounding as if he is going to gag.

This gentleman is not alone in his unwitting mission to destroy the experience of going out to watch a play or movie.

Anyone who goes to the theater or cinema knows all the signs to turn off mobiles, to silence things, are fruitless. People treat both venues as extensions of their own homes. For them, regular life must continue play or no play; and so one sees and hears eating and barging and drinking and chattering and a general lack of thought among audiences.

It is not just the young; it is also the middle-aged and old. It is those with money as much as those without.

Indeed, on Broadway, eternal thanks to the lady next to me, who during one of Willy Loman’s most intense speeches in a revival of Death of a Salesman thought it the ideal moment to open with an agonizingly extended wrenching of plastic a bag of pretzel shapes. And then the crunch, crunch, crunch, as Willy Loman’s heart split open, far more lyrically, on stage.

Or there was the lady who, sitting next to me at the revival of The Front Page, said out loud, barely whispered, “Is he famous?” when Nathan Lane walked on stage, and when I nodded as tightly as possible continued, “What’s he been in? Should I recognize him?”

This she repeated as an enquiry for each of the famous faces on stage. “I don’t have a television,” she explained in the middle of a play out loud.

Or there was the couple who snogged through The Babadook at the IFC getting themselves into such contortions and whose bodies would rise and rearrange themselves so bizarrely that I had to look around and over them to fully engage with what was happening on screen, which I now understand to be a transgressive coming-out story.

It’s hard to arrive at any other conclusion than people just cannot, or have forgotten how to, behave themselves in public spaces. They insist on taking up too much room. They make too much noise. They talk. They impose and intrude. They have no awareness of others, or appear not to.

The ownership of their space in public is as proprietary as their domestic space, which may explain the poor standards of behavior at theaters and cinemas: People believe themselves to be at an extension of home, so why not just lounge, munch, slurp, and chat as you do on the couch?

Well-publicized are the actors who have taken it upon themselves to berate audience members for talking on phones and texting. But out there in the stalls, “the phone thing” is now lost. People do not turn them off. I have lost count of the plays where they ring and ping, despite the pleas of house staff to silence them. There then follows a rustling of handbags and papers as the offender tries to terminate the ring and ping, as if they have been inconvenienced.

What a surprise this has come to them! This phone wasn’t supposed to ring!

And people talk; they cannot stop talking, even though they are there watching a play. These chunnerers and chatterers make it worse by talking in urgent whispers, again willfully not realizing that this too counts as talking. This too counts as an interruption to the people sitting next to and around them, trying to watch the play or movie.

Here’s an idea: Shut up till the movie or play ends, then talk about it afterward. It’s amazing. It’s this thing called conversation we do when we have views or opinions to share, and it is made all the more sweeter when we do it having experienced something. In peace.

But of course, these chatterers can’t wait. In our immediacy-obsessed society, they must make immediate their views on this actress’ bodice, or the shock at the sight of those men kissing, or that lady from The West Wing cussing.

Going to the cinema and theater shouldn’t be as unpleasant as it is. You shouldn’t feel stressed or apprehensive about taking a seat to see something you have bought a ticket for, unless the themes disturb you—and that is what you are buying into and for.

But you worry: Who will be sitting next to me? Who will sit in front of me? A tall person (evening wrecked)? Someone who laughs maniacally. Someone who rustles. Someone who clasps their program and fiddles with the pages? Someone who drapes themselves round their partner, or who whispers or chunters in their ear. Or that person who kicks your chair from behind, toying with it, not thinking or caring that they are a metronome of disturbance.

The ultimate irony: If an objection is raised to any of this, the look on the offender’s face suggests that you are the offender for seeking to proscribe their activities.

Quite apart from the noise, the racket, the mess, and the spatial idiocy of people, something else strikes you every time you go into an auditorium spattered with thoughtless people.

Every rustle, every whisper or word, every kick on the seat, slurp, burp, interruption, ping of a phone, or barging person, is yet another sign of what a selfish, stupid society we have become.

How we conduct ourselves around strangers every day—at shops, restaurants, on public transport, in theaters and cinemas, on the street—is a test of the social contract. When we sit down somewhere to watch something, that refines the contract. Someone is about to perform for us. Our job is to drink it in, to experience whatever it is.

We do that together. We’re no longer in the domestic hive. We’re not at home. We’re out. We’re among others. We actually have to turn off the stuff and distraction of life—our phones, our babble with our buddies—and focus on the astonishing fact of the thing that has been written and is being performed or screened in front of us.

The cinema and theater are civilizing tests for groups of strangers, and currently we have a collective fail.

At this weary point it feels far too late for a return to peace in the stalls. So, instead, from and for those of us who like to go to the theater and cinema to actually watch something, here is the simplest, easiest instruction to follow: Sit down, shut your phones down, shut the hell up, respect the space of others around you, and watch the damn play or film.

Or do the rest of us a favor—it will be most appreciated—and stay at home.