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The Audience's Role In Theater

Updated on September 18, 2011

Storytelling has been around since the dawn of time. For humans, the ability to tell stories is innate and primal. But “in order for a story to be successful, it has to engage the audience’s own sense of narrative” (O’Donnel 72). As time progressed, some storytellers rose above the rest. Who emerged are the novelists, playwrights, poets and more recently the screenwriters. These groups, who have transformed their stories into something more, construct narrative in a way that appeals to mass audiences. Whatever the medium is, the audience is a very crucial factor that gives life to the story and characters.

It is one thing to read the words but it is a whole other entity to see the characters from the pages come to life. In watching a performance, whether it be a play or film, the story becomes more concrete, jumping off the pages and into the realm of real life. As W. B. Worthen describes in his book Modern Drama and the Rhetoric of Theater the visualization of a story calls for an objective response from the audience.

As the literary world moved into the realm of realism, the techniques of playwrights and directors changed as well and “this parable presents theatrical change as an evolution in engineering, with playwrights, technicians, and directors collaborating to render the world on stage with increasing fidelity and precision” (Worthen 13). Whereas the previous playwrights created melodramatic stories and character, the realist writers created characters who were more real, in situations that were relatable. Worthen describes this better by saying that “unlike earlier modes of theater, realism not only asserts a reality that is natural or unconstructed, it argues that such a reality can only be shown on the stage by effacing the medium—literary style, acting, mise-en-scène—that discloses it” (Worthen 14). It was no longer about telling merely a good story that was exciting and entertaining but instead transforming the story into something so much more. The playwrights approached their trade in a more technical way in which they considered the audience when writing their characters and story. To this idea Worthen states that “the history of stage realism is often told as a narrative of technical mastery, in which playwrights from Henrik Ibsen to David Storey find their theatrical expression through the practical innovations of great directors” (Worthen 12).

The audience gained extreme importance in viewing a performance. The purpose of a play transcended entertaining and escaping from mundane life to providing a function for the audience. Worthen observed that “stage technology and acting practice in the late nineteenth century enabled the realistic theater to place the audience before an integrated, freestanding tableau, "leaving the spectator free to draw his own moral from the picture"” (Worthen 21). This makes the audience a crucial part of not only the performance but the writing of the plays. They become part of the cast “as an impartial observer, construed outside and beyond both the drama and the theatrical activities—including his or her attendance, participation—that produce it” (Worthen 20).

Before looking at some examples of plays that support the idea of audience participation, it is imperative to know what realism entails. Realistic drama includes “prosaic dialogue, bourgeois setting and subject matter (or, if the setting is drawn from another class, an implied bourgeois perspective on that class), a conflict between internal psychological motives and external economic or social pressures, a rigorously "causal" plotting, predominance of incident, and so on” (Worthen 15). The goal of the realistic stage is to assign “interpretive power and freedom to a class of patrons identified as absent, largely by imposing a certain kind of activity on the audience as the sign of its freedom” and “provides the audience with a complex and contradictory role, one that invites both empathetic engagement and a pacifying separation, a summons to action and an actual paralysis” (Worthen 23).

Three such plays that are labeled as realist works include Isben’s The Wild Duck, Shaw’s Candida and Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata.

Worthen sees Isben’s approach to realism as “his use of theatrical space, particularly the loft area, that stagey playground whose scattered props and tawdry trees offset the insistent verisimilitude of the studio downstage” (Worthen 25). In doing so, Isben hides things from the audience “like chiaroscuro in painting, the obscure garret space—never fully seen by the audience—works to highlight the "reality" of the more visible forestage area” (Worthen 25). What the audience cannot see becomes just as important as what it can. The duality of light versus dark calls the audience to ask what is most important to the story. And as Worthen suggests that the spectators must look at a performance objectively he feels that Isben is conveying another approach in The Wild Duck because “Gregers implies that objective interpretation is impossible, that all schemes claiming objectivity will in fact conceal unacknowledged agendas. To take Gregers as a model would lead us to look for other examples in the play where observation is shown to be a form of self-deluding blindness” (Worthen 26). It is the same blindness in which the audience lives its everyday life because the members of the audience are merely characters within their own stories.

Though Worthen does have valid evidence regarding the audience’s participation in viewing The Wild Duck I have found another way to view drama and stories in general. First, it is important to understand the definition of story as “a social ritual that has the power to bring about a sense of shared experience and of social values” (O’Donnel 71). With this definition established it is safe to say that stories are appealing to audiences when they can recognize or relate to the characters, plot or experiences. This places the audience within the narrative, giving it a more active, emotional role or response.

The specific choices the playwright makes are crucial to the audience’s participation as well. Their goal is to “draw the viewers in, engage them, and keep them watching the program. Stories are structured so the scenes build on one another as the viewers gradually learn more about a character or the plot” (O’Donnel 74). There are many ways a writer can achieve this but in the first two listed above, there is a similar approach to the audience’s participation in which both put the audience a step a head of the characters. The audience is privy to information that feed directly into the conflict. This causes the audience to speculate what will happen next. The spectators formulate their guesses by the way they have grown to know the characters as presented by the playwright. Simply put “the audience senses what will happen next” (O’Donnell 76). It is not solely the audience’s faculty to be intuitive. Instead, the information provided about the characters and plot lies on the shoulders of the author. Taking Isben and Shaw as examples, they have first provided the audience with solid characters and incidents that qualify the audience to make such judgments. It is the “repitition…in the narrative of a number of redundant signs that reinforce a point, a characters’s personality, a theme, and suspense” that actively engages the audience (O’Donnel 78). It is the playwright or author’s job to provide “texture and tone for the audience and deepen the consistency and believability of the narrative” (O’Donnel 78).

In Shaw’s Candida the audience is aware that Morrell knows of Marchbanks love for Candida but he does not confess this knowledge to Candida when she brings up Marchbank’s crush. Morrell’s treatment of Marchbanks look unwarranted to Candida and the other characters, but the audience knows better. They can take the time to sympathize with which ever of the men they chose and await the impending auction at the end of the play. The way in which Shaw presented his characters and conflicts engages the audience in such a way that they are like jurors trying to decide which of the men is worthy of Candida. Even in her dialogue when revealing her choice, the statement is left up to the interpretation who really the weaker of the two suitors really is. The emotional response elicited from the text or performance lays entirely in Shaw’s dissemination of his message.

Allowing the audience to be a step ahead of the characters is not the only way to keep them engaged and participating with a performance. In the case of Strindberg and The Ghost Sonata, the audience really is not sure what is going on. What they can pick up on are the characters. As Milton Mays compared the play to a fairy tale, it is easiest to relate to the story this way. Mays pointed out that Strindberg included the crucial characters in a fairy tale. These key characters are known as archetypes. Archetypes are “significant unconscious figures to which all people can relate” (Indick 114). They are ingrained in society and are timeless.

The Student acts as the hero, the central archetype. He can be seen as “the primary symbol of the self” (Indick 114). There is something lacking in his life so he is on this quest, whether conscious or unconscious, to fill that hole. He encounters the Old Man who, in turn can be seen as the wise old man archetype who gives the Student the knowledge he needs to achieve his goal. As an audience he is seen as the mentor, someone the spectators might encounter every day. The Student finds himself after the Daughter, who is the anima archetype or simply, the damsel in distress. In order for the Student to feel fulfilled, he has to save the girl to, in essence, save himself. By releasing her from her constraints of the house, even though it is by death, he is able feel resolved himself.

The reason that archetypes are so engaging and useful is because the symbols reach mass audiences, beyond the confines of a theater. The more a viewer connects with a character, the more he or she works to see this character find happiness because it is a projection of self. Therefore, even though The Ghost Sonata is too fantastical to be real, the audience is nevertheless just as engaged because the characters Strindberg created touch viewers on a deeper level. The idea can best be described as “an action code that makes complex ideas and feelings immediately recognizable to the audience while, at the same time, their significance becomes apparent in the narrative” (O’Donnel 76). As Worthen pointed out, this is exactly what playwrights like the ones discussed above used in order to produce successful plays.

Although all of the stories differ not only in content but cultural backgrounds, the characters and conflicts are universal. This universality engages audiences and calls them to participate in the story. It is because of realism and the way it “provides a way to hold audiences, performers, and drama in a particular relationship; the stage deploys its dramatic and theatrical style to shape certain forms of audience attention, experience, and interpretation” that theater was transformed from the melodramatic style previously used (Worthen 14). This paved the way for modern drama, television and film but “in the theater, the hegemony of realism is challenged not simply in terms of the style of the drama, but in the terms of stage production as well—different strategies of theatrical production challenge realism’s way of framing a picture of the world and controlling the audience’s reading of it” (Worthen 13). And just as it has always been, the root of all story lies within the audience and when structured correctly and interestingly, the audience will actively participate.

Works Cited

Caputi, Anthony F. Eight Modern Plays: Authoritative Texts ...Backgrounds, and

Criticism. New York: Norton, 1991. Print.

Indick, William. Psychology for Screenwriters: Building Conflict in Your Script. Studio

City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2004. Print.

O'Donnell, Victoria. Television Criticism. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2007. Print.

Worthen, William B. Modern Drama and the Rhetoric of Theater. Berkeley: University

of California, 1992. Print.


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