Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Sounds of the Audience

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Sounds of the Audience

Article excerpt

The sounds that audiences make, of laughing, booing, or cheers, can be heard in early-twentieth-century novels and periodicals. There is also the rustling of dresses and playbills, the shuffling of feet, coughing, and conversation. This era of changing styles and tastes is the age of the phonograph, the telephone, and recorded sound. Texts reflect how mediated sound unfolded in a new period of transmission and reproduction of sound, the final decade of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth. Much has been written about the innovations of the phonograph, the telephone, and the sound recording in the context of the emergence of sound movies. Less has been said about what audiences heard and how they adjusted to these changes in their aural world. Literary texts, reviews in periodicals, and the journals of attendees offer us some general insight into fin de siecle audiences and how their theatrical and concert worlds sounded. These texts reveal that audiences were crucial participants at a variety of performance venues as the modern era began. We can see in them an emerging difference between the Victorian and the modern that reflects a change in the aural world.

This essay explores the social expression of sound by considering the fin de siecle audience. Michael Booth has pointed out that "when society changes, the theatre changes" ("Soldiers" 57). By looking at how technology interacted with the expansion and changes of the turn-of-the-century audience, the intention here is to consider how audiences "performed" in live performance venues. I look at the collective responses and habits of audiences as they were portrayed in newspaper reviews, in fiction, and in journals. I point to the turn-of-the-century audience's fascination with the sound of the human voice, a fascination expressed by public interest in the gramophone and in elocution. Audiences in London and New York adapted to the new media of the phonograph, the telephone, and sound in motion pictures. Class, gender, and ethnicity intersected in these theatres, as well as in society, and new voices began to sound themselves in public. This was a time of the gradual emergence of formerly suppressed voices: new women's voices, the heteroglossia of voices from the Empire, and the voices of working-class literacy.

To begin, let us go back to the 1890s. The theatre then was a social centre; there was much conversation and movement. Many sounds in a British music hall were not a direct reaction to what was occurring on the stage. Whistles and clacks from the audience were common. People sitting next to each other would tell each other what they might have missed onstage. There were fragmented, delayed responses and missed lines. The print programs the audience held could be read alongside the action occurring onstage. Booklets, which could be easily read, cued the audience, letting them know the dialogue and action that would unfold on the stage. These auditoriums were lit, not darkened as we have our auditoriums today during performances. The audience was no longer easily divided by class, and audience participation occurred throughout the house. One heard sound everywhere at the theatre and opera. Audiences were energetic, vociferous, and active: they too performed. The social ritual of watching a show was quite auditory.

One restless and impatient audience at Queen's Hall can be heard in Bernard Shaw's diary entry of 13 March 1894: "I looked in at a charity concert [...] and found a band of Coldstream Guards desperately playing one selection after another to keep the audience amused until the arrival of the artists who were first on the program" (Diaries 1016). Shaw later observed that a few attendees, whom he called the "gods of the gallery," had been disrupting performances at the Globe Theatre since January 1895. In the Saturday Review of 6 March 1897, his article "Gallery Rowdyism" described this: "For some time past the gods have been making themselves a more and more insufferable nuisance. …

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