Tuesday, January 23, 2007

First Principles

Let's Hear It for the Audience

I've just finished writing a review for the San Francisco Chronicle of British playwright Michael Frayn's new book, The Human Touch, which is a book of philosophy. Though he writes nonfiction, fiction and screenplays, Frayn is most famous in the U. S. for his comic farce, Noises Off (which I saw on Broadway, and had a seat so far from the stage that I vowed never to economize again with rush tickets; I see Broadway plays so rarely that it makes no sense to ruin the experience with a bad seat) and his intellectual drama, Copenhagen (which I would love to see on stage; I saw the much truncated film version, and I admire the play I read.) Though this book is about the nature of knowledge and even reality, I see the playwright in it--or such is a premise of my review.

Though the central point of the book is a central preoccupation of many of his plays, it may have been especially inspired by aspects of the quantum physics and the ensuing philosophy in Copenhagen, which is about two giants of atomic and quantum physics, Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, in World War II. The uncertainity of what they each said about the Allied and German atomic bomb programs remains an international mystery and inspired the dramatic action of the play. (The mystery and Frayn's involvement in it became the basis of an elaborate hoax perpetrated on him, which he describes with good humor in his little book with David Burke, The Copenhagen Papers. )

However, the point of mentioning all this here is a passage I came across in the introduction to Frayn's first volume of his collected plays, and wanted to share. It's about the role of the audience in theatre. Here's Frayn:

"I sometimes feel that the skill of audiences is not always sufficiently noted. Some theatregoers arrive late, certainly, some of them comment on the performances aloud and wait for the laugh-lines to cough. But the suprising thing is how few behave like this, and how many understand the conventions and are prepared to abide by them. To find two, or five, or ten good actors to perform a play is difficult; to find two hundred, five hundred, or a thousand good people to watch it, night after night, is a miracle. So many people in one room who will sit quietly and listen for two hours---not calling out slogans, not breaking down under the strain of so much communal self-discipline! To be a member of a good audience is exhilarating."

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