Three cheers for booing in the theater

In the theatre, booing is taboo. There was an exception last week when Andrew Lloyd Webber’s name was booed by the crowd during the final performance of his musical Cinderella after a letter written by him to the cast, in which he called the show a “costly mistake”, was read on stage. But it’s rare. Outside of panto season, the West End generally prefers a play to be received in sepulchral silence.

It is curious that boos are absent from modern theatre, because they are as old as European drama. The first reports of audience boos were recorded at the annual Dionysus Festival in Athens, where playwrights competed to win prizes for their efforts. The verdict was delivered by the crowd who roared (i.e. booed) at the worst dramas and cheered on the best.

These days, we reserve our boos for politicians. The Platinum Jubilee has sparked new interest in the ramifications of boos. Almost all of the guests arriving in St Paul for the Thanksgiving service were cheered on by the crowds, but it was the negative ruckus that got the most attention. Boris Johnson was booed. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex also attracted some derogatory noises. Television recordings of these honks were repeated and commented on ad infinitum. She brought out a whole new field of expertise: boo analysis. Self-proclaimed consultants have clashed over the intensity and duration of the boos aimed at Boris and drawn comparisons between his reception and the mockery directed at Harry and Meghan.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex at St Paul’s Cathedral (Getty Images)

Some claimed the boos aimed at Boris were removed by the BBC to give him an easy ride. Others insisted that dark forces within the Beeb had turned up the volume to make the Prime Minister more unpopular. It was an amazing way to discuss the news: a few groans and hisses from a handful of protesters turned into a debate about Boris’ political longevity.

And yet no one boos in the theatre, no matter how awful the spectacle. The public has developed other means of expressing its displeasure. Coughing is the most common method. With each performance of a Harold Pinter “memory piece”, at least a quarter of the crowd seems to develop an instant lung infection or throat tickle. These discomforts mysteriously vanish at the beginning of the intermission to recur in the second act.

More subtle options are available. Loudly turning the pages of the program tells your neighbors that you are not impressed by the antics on stage. Playing with candies or shaking your ice cubes has the same effect. Snoring is sometimes heard in the stalls – surely the deadliest form of theater criticism.

Most people who don’t like a play are polite enough to walk away quietly at intermission. However, an irritated and agitated show-off can perform a mega-steal in the middle of the action. The beauty of this form of “booing” is that it is quiet but visible to everyone in the theater, including the actors. The most recent exodus I witnessed was during the scruffy and chaotic update of The Wuthering Heights. At different stages of the first act, I saw three women, each on her own, heading for the escape hatch. And the whole crowd could tell that the thugs weren’t coming back: they had taken their handbags with them. No doubt many others aspired to join them in a general stampede.

Audiences’ tendency to fidget and yawn during performances suggests that it’s natural to express distaste for a lousy performance. This simple human desire could be usefully exploited. If spectators downloaded some sort of applause, unique to each show, they could record their admiration or disgust over the course of the evening. (The cast, for obvious reasons, would be banned from subscribing.)

Or perhaps a more direct method could be tried. Each armrest could be equipped with a large red button marked “boo-horn”. That would certainly put an end to most conceptualist drivel in our subsidized theaters. Then again, that could make producers more self-conscious as they strive to put together the safest, blandest shows they can find.

We are confused about boos. We enjoy the sound because it represents a revolt against authority, against celebrities who misbehave and against bad taste. Yet we also consider him discourteous and even vulgar. A genre has found the solution. Every year, Eurovision brings together the worst living artists and encourages them to embarrass themselves on television. And nobody boos. We only hear “null points”. That says it all.

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