Why do American audiences love theatrical duds?

(<a href='https://www.bigstockphoto.com/image-42316423/stock-photo-splattered-splashed-tomato-vegetable-food'>PicsFive</a>/Big Stock Photo)

(PicsFive/Big Stock Photo)

Richard Strauss’s opera “Der Rosencavalier” first performed in 1911 attracted rave reviews internationally and in cities throughout the United States, including Philadelphia.

But a critic, reviewing London’s Royal Opera’s recent production of “Der Rosencavalier,” described the performance as “having all the subtlety of a howitzer.”

What is it though that causes professional critics to pen such vitriolic commentary about what they’re seeing on the stage, while at the same time, American audiences accept — and even applaud — theatrical duds.

In her book “No Stone Unturned,” veteran actress Diana Rigg (remember her as Emma Peel in “The Avengers”?) has collected some of the worst barbs aimed at her thespian colleagues, such as Laurence Olivier, Katharine Hepburn, and Glenda Jackson. Dorothy Parker, for instance, described Hepburn’s performance in “The Lake” as “running the gamut of emotion from A to B.” Olivier didn’t fare much better; his costume and makeup as Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” is described as giving him an appearance modeled on Scrooge McDuck; and the same for Glenda Jackson, playing Gudrun in “Woman in Love,” accused of as “having the face to launch 1,000 dredgers.”

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Commenting on performances, critic William Archer said, “We have each our private ideal of Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, Lear; we have all of us read of, if not seen, great performances of these parts; so that every actor who undertakes them has to pass through a triple ordeal, encountering first, our imagination, kindled by Shakespeare; second our idealized memory of performances which to used to please our, perhaps unripe, judgment; third our conceptions of the great actors of the past.”

Why then, oh why, can’t theater audiences bring the same critical judgments and responses to what they’ve paid good money to see? As a young lad living within a stone’s throw of London’s famed Royal Court Theatre in the 1960s, I became aware of the literal stones that could be thrown at theatrical productions. John Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger” opened to mixed reviews, and he was jeered when he appeared on stage after the disastrous opening night of his “The World of Paul Slickey.”

Booing and heckling enjoy a long theatrical tradition. Audiences threw tomatoes and other projectiles at the cast of Shakespeare’s plays that displeased them. And during a particularly turgid production of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” one audience member greeted the arrival of the German soldiers by shouting “She’s in the attic!”

I thought of all this after visiting, some years ago a New York production of The Anarchist, David Mamet’s 70 min. play about a former member of a radical movement seeking parole after 35 years in prison. Having sat through this stilted production, I turned to the readers’ reviews in the New York Times to see if my negative reaction had been unduly harsh… and found that all but 2 of the 27 critiques I read were negative, including one from a respondent who asserted that he’d been going to Broadway shows since the mid-70s and had seen some real stinkers. “But this one takes the cake” Another called it the worst play ever and an insult to the audience while others called a waste of money and time, and logorrhea personified.

Heaven knows, the two actresses Patty LuPone and Debra Winger tried at least to do their best with the convoluted material. If anyone could do it, they could. What got me thinking though is how kind American audiences are to dreadful performances. A European audience––those who remained in their seats to the end––would have booed lustily and then demanded their money back.

As it happened, The Anarchist was released from incarceration after a few weeks. Or, as one reviewer said about a Broadway comedy: the play opened late 8:40 sharp and closed at 10:40 dull.

Next time you’re in the theater witnessing a mediocre performance and your fellow audience members give it a standing ovation, remain steadfastly in your seat. That’s about as much of a stand you can make in the interest of dramatic standards.

But take a few tomatoes, just in case.

David Woods, Ph.D., is a Philadelphia-based medical writer and editor. A former editor in chief of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, he is the author of four books and more than 200 articles, editorials, and reviews in peer-reviewed health care publications.

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