David Bruce: Audiences Anecdotes

At a schools’ matinee in 1974, actor Nicol Williamson gave an impressive performance in Macbeth. Unfortunately, he was annoyed by the chattering of the schoolchildren in the audience, so he stepped out of character and told them, “Shut up!” He then said that he could be making a fortune as a motion picture star in America, but that he had chosen to act in a great play by a great playwright in a great theater—so they could damn well be quiet while he acted. Furthermore, if the noise continued, he said he would start the play again from the beginning, and he would keep on starting the play from the beginning until he had gotten through it in absolute silence. The schoolchildren kept quiet after his outburst.

Adelina Patti and Etelka Gerster were rivals for the prima donna position in Colonel James H. Mapleson’s traveling opera company. In Chicago, both singers appeared in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, with Ms. Patti singing the role of Valentine and Ms. Gerster the role of the Queen. At the end of Act 1, huge bouquets of flowers were brought to Ms. Patti, even though she had had little to do in the first act, with most of the singing being done by Ms. Gerster. Finally, a small basket of posies was presented to Ms. Gerster—and the crowd went wild with excitement and applause. That evening, Ms. Patti swore that she would never again sing with Ms. Gerster.

Theodore Thomas traveled throughout America popularizing classical music in the 19th century. Of course, many of the people who attended his concerts knew nothing about music—one man told him that he was very impressed because all the musicians turned the pages of their music at the same time. Among the music he introduced in America was Richard Wagner’s “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde. Unfortunately, it wasn’t popular and Mr. Thomas was advised to remove it from the repertory. Mr. Thomas declined to do so, saying, “We’ll keep on playing Wagner until they do like it.”

British comic actor Kenneth Williams once appeared in a review written by Bamber Gascoigne. In the review, the actors introduced themselves as they came on stage, saying in turn, “I am brown, “I am green,” and so on. When one actor introduced himself by saying, “I am pink,” a man in the audience began heckling, shouting, “How dreadfully effeminate.” Therefore, as each new actor introduced himself, the heckler kept shouting things like, “Oh dear, another pansy.” When Mr. Williams came on, the man heckled him, but Mr. Williams quieted him by saying, “Be quiet, Madam.”

Gabrielli was a bad tenor in 18th century Italy. At the Teatro Argentina in Rome, after he had sang a few notes, the audience began hissing and shouting for him to get off the stage. Mr. Gabrielli responded, “You fancy you are mortifying me, by hooting me; you are grossly deceived. On the contrary, I applaud your judgment, for I solemnly declare to you that I never appeared on any stage without receiving the same treatment, and sometimes much worse.” Mr. Gabrielli may have been too honest—he never sang there again.

The pianist Vladimir de Pachmann was once disappointed with the audience’s reaction to his performance at a concert, so he threatened not to finish the concert because he was not appreciated. His manager begged him to continue, pointing out that he always appreciated his playing. Therefore, Mr. de Pachmann seated his manager on the stage, and after performing each piece, he stood up, ignored the audience, turned to his manager, and bowed.

Ethel Barrymore was performing on stage with the slightly deaf and elderly character actor Charles Cherry, when some loud late arrivers came into the theater and took their seats while still talking noisily among themselves. She expressed her displeasure by telling them, “Excuse me, I can hear every word you’re saying, but Mr. Cherry is slightly hard of hearing. I wonder if you would speak up for him.”

It’s a tradition to stand during the “Hallelujah Chorus” of Handel’s Messiah. The tradition started in March of 1743, when King George II liked the chorus so much that he impulsively stood up during the work’s London premiere. (Of course, when the King stands, everybody stands.) Since then, audiences everywhere have stood during the chorus.

Actress East Robertson once said in a play, “Oh, God, where will I be when my beauty fades!” A voice from the audience said, “In the gutter, love.” Ms. Robertson was well known for playing bitchy characters, and during another performance on stage, another voice came the audience, saying, “I bet you are a bitch off as well as on!”

Some music fans who have attended the New York Metropolitan Opera House in the past have not lacked in chutzpah. One woman requested that the Met perform the aria “Celeste Aïda” in the third act rather than the first because she was accustomed to arriving at the opera late.

In the Broadway hit The Streets of Paris, Lou Costello of Abbott and Costello fame occasionally stepped out of character. If a woman in the audience began to leave, Mr. Costello would yell at her, “Hey, lady, don’t leave; we ain’t finished yet.”

Alexander Woollcott and George S. Kaufman once collaborated on an unsuccessful play titled The Dark Tower. About this play, Mr. Woollcott said that “it was a tremendous success except for the minor detail that people wouldn’t come to see it.”

John Gielgud and Mrs. Patrick Campbell once played to nearly empty houses in Ibsen’s Ghosts, and so Mrs. Campbell occasionally remarked to Mr. Gielgud on stage, “The Marquis and Marchioness of Empty are in front again.”

Once, conductor Sir Thomas Beecham was annoyed by a noisy audience at a Covent Garden concert. In the middle of Fidelio, Sir Thomas suddenly whirled around, faced the audience, and shouted, “Stop talking!”

After the opening night performance of his play Home Chat, Noel Coward came forward to take a bow. A voice from the audience called out, “We expected better.” Mr. Coward replied, “So did I.”

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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