Roman audiences had a great need for visual excitement, and the need to be entertained was more important than any intellectual stimulation a performance would present. Feeding Christians to lions and chariot races were popular events, and many Roman dramas included dreadfully bloody scenes.
Other types of audiences, like those of Commedia dell 'Arte plays, depended on improvised accounts of events that were really going on in the community, and often included the names of real people in town. By researching the characteristics of audiences through the ages, a picture of what attracts our audience may help determine the types of drama that work well in today's theaters.
The theatre of the French Revolution has interested historians more than the theater of other periods because of its political make up. According to Emmet Kennedy, in his "History of the Problem and the Method of Solving It" (a most detective-like title if there was one), it bears noting how plays were produced for other reasons than for merely entertainment. "Although a good up-to-date political history of this theater remains to be written, it appears appropriate to us to question the extent to which political drama permeated the stage between 1789 and 1799." 5 Kennedy also writes that many playwrights of the era "have all supposed that this theater was essentially revolutionary; that it became a political club, a school of good citizenship and republican mores, a tribune, a mirror of the assemblies and popular societies, an organ of 'pure propaganda', or a reflection of the class struggle." 6
Victorian theater of the late 19th century, particularly Edwardian dramas, used a psychological approach drawn from neoclassicism and ultimately, Aristotle. In this type of theater, social conventions were an essential foundation for personality, and many of the works contained characters that were clearly defined as "good" or "bad". Fred Matthews, in "The New Psychology and American Drama" states that "Theater was more than entertainment; it was a means of socializing and maintaining socialization, and a potent one just because it entailed intense emotional expression and confrontation." 7 He continues in his essay to write how there was a sensed danger in the new cleverness of social comedy which began to appear in early twentieth century plays.
At the start of the twentieth century, observers worried about the commentaries about the moral code in many new dramas, particularly those being performed at the Provincetown Playhouse. Considered to be avante garde, this theater produced experimental psychological plays, and writers like Belasco and O'Neill would gain great fame from having their works produced there. Matthews writes: "The self-consciously young intellectuals in Chicago, Greenwich Village and Provincetown insisted on the truth and reality of immediate human feelings against the crushing demand that they be subordinated to such abstract ideals as social stability." 8 Such revolutionary plays by these new writers were influenced by the ideas of psychologists Freud and Jung, and later towards Nietzsche, and as audiences experienced the abandonment of classical formalism a new age of Modernism emerged. Focused on the breakup of social conventions, the new theater audience sought newer, more self-consciously based plays, which emphasized individual standards and personal ideologies.
20th Century Criticism
In his essay "An Audience of Critics and the Lost Art of Seeing Plays", Theodore Hoffman reports on the problems of the theater in the 1950's. This time period was considered a golden age of Broadway Theater, and even then critics predicted the demise of the live theater and the eventual take over of television and movies. Little did they know that to add to all of these would come the age of the computer and the Internet. Mass media even then was infiltrating popular culture, and as a result, more people preferred to turn on their TV's, unknowingly isolating themselves into the confines of the living room. As fewer people went to see classic plays produced on live stages, they were swept into reading the famous scripts of the great playwrights, and were mesmerized by the great dramatic works as literature.
This tendency to admire works by the great artists like Shakespeare through the written pages became a dangerous practice, for it weakened the audience's aesthetic sense of live performances in the theater. Hoffman called this appreciation of theater as literature a picture of "an audience of critics which, when it goes to the theater, converts what its sees into a series of printed pages." 9 He goes on to say that the picture is of a cultural situation at a certain point of time, and he answers how we got that way by explaining that in the last quarter of the nineteenth century great acting enhanced the writing of plays. "The actors of that age brought a talent to plays that often elevated them on the stage to a degree of meaning and beauty that the plays did not (and do not) possess on paper."10 The audiences of this time then, saw the play not in terms of its text, but in the production of it.
As directors and producers became forces in the theater, playwrights spent less time with actors and more time apart from the working ensemble. As this separation grew, plays became more literal and much less theatrical. Playwrights would not be able to change their scripts as they rehearsed what was on stage, and oftentimes they had to envision what feelings their words would convey without the use of experimenting with them at rehearsals. The more plays a writer would be commissioned to write, the less chances he would have to try them out on actors, and eventually the plays were distanced indeed from the cast of actors that were called on to play the parts.
Hoffman believes, then, that theater exists as a means to attempt a sort of "imitation" of the text. "One must add to the text a knowledge of how the theater worked when the play was written and a live understanding of the creative techniques which cause a play to exist as a work of art."11 He explains that the stage directions, published within the text of many plays, give the illusion that only one possible authentic production exists, and that readers should accept this as the definitive work. However, a majority of stage directions are created by the stage manager and director of the original production, not the playwright, and what the audience reads as gospel truth is merely a textual reference of the first theater company's staging of the play. He calls for experimentation, and urges playwrights to work in repertory companies as European playwrights do, so they can write in more theatrical terms, not literary ones.
Robert Corrigan, in his "Theater in Search of a Fix", applauds the Absurdist writers for their reaction against naturalism by emphasizing that content of a play lies in action, and not in words. He credits Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco for discarding language altogether, and believes in the need to revitalize the dramatic language of the theater, but not to abandon it altogether. "But more important than this is the audience's loss of imaginative power, its inclination not so much to share in a dramatic experience as to have it served up as diversion. The consequence of this dulling effect is that more and more of our audiences find it difficult to comprehend anything but the most colloquial and explicit dialogue. They tend to reject anything that demands an active effort or response. One reason for this, I suppose, is that the language of visual images is easier to assimilate but more equivocal than that of words."12 In this last statement, Corrigan explains how mere cliches of gestures or fadeouts to end a scene are substitutions for any real artistic solutions which writers neglect to include in their works.