Food for Thought
A few years ago, my husband and I were at a production of Glengarry Glen Ross on Broadway when the woman next to me pulled out a bag of potato chips and proceeded to chomp away. Our discretionary income being what it is, any amount we paid for seats would have been a fair chunk of change. However, during this performance, I believe we forked over more than usual to see Alan Alda play the role of Shelly Levene.
The lights came up, Alda was on stage, and the scene began:
John…John…John (CRUNCH) Okay. John (CRUNCH) John. Look. (CRUNCH).
It was the beginning of the play. Act 1 Scene 1 and the woman beside me was having a picnic.
Life has taught me that asking people to act like decent human beings never goes well, no matter how well you phrase it.
"Excuse me, but I wonder if you would mind partaking of your Doritos during intermission?"
"I am so sorry to bother you as you chow down on that taco, but my inadequate hearing has rendered me helpless to understand dialogue over your loud mastication."
It's all useless. All people hear between bites is, "…would you mind…?" And "…inadequate…your loud mastication."
"Masturbation?" They scream, "What the hell are you accusing me of?"
I can think of only two instances where someone apologized for a mistake. One was a car that ran a stop sign just as I hit the intersection on my bike. On that occasion, the SUV literally had to drive up on the sidewalk to avoid what I perceived as my imminent death. Even then, it wasn't so much an apology, but rather two people hiding behind the dashboard with hands in the air gesticulating mortified mea culpas. I can't actually recall the other incident, but for good measure, I'll throw it in there on the assumption that someone has taken responsibility for a mistake at some point in my life. All the rest of the time, people tell me where to go or flip me the bird. Sometimes they tell me to "Get a life." This is ironic, because that is exactly what I'm trying to do. By now, it almost means nothing, so you'd think they'd save their breath. But no, attention must be paid…to the fact that it's really my fault for breathing.
Back to Glengarry Glen Ross:
LEVENE: All that I'm saying, things get (CRUNCH), I know they (CRUNCH)…
At this point, Kevin, my husband, can feel my insides begin to boil. "Do you want to switch seats?" he says and somehow manages to tolerate the unpleasantness, blocking out the insensitivity when I cannot. It doesn't matter anyway, because by now, the event has been ruined. All I can think about is that we paid all this money to hear someone eat. The musicality of Mamet's writing, now destroyed by an out-of-tune tuba in the brass section.
This very same thing happened to me a few years ago at a production of To Kill A Mockingbird at the Stratford Festival. There we sat amidst a group of teenage school kids. As the lights went down, the boy and girl beside me pulled out popcorn and began to eat. This time, I decided to act.
I looked for a teacher at intermission, but the class was divided into several rows, and it was impossible to distinguish pedagogues from patrons. Thankfully, the front-of-house manager came out and, before Act Two began, announced that food was not allowed in the theatre.
"Ah-ha!" I thought, "I'm not the only one." As she exited the aisle, the girl and boy beside me once more pulled out their popcorn and started to eat. "Seriously?" I thought. I turned to them,
"That means you as well, right?" I said, "The popcorn?"
Before I had time to turn my head towards the stage, their teacher threw aside the people in her row like a fire truck clearing parking meters to reach a four-alarm blaze. Then, leaning over the back of the chair in front of me, face dangerously close to mine, said, "What did you say to my students?"
When I was a kid, the teacher in charge would have dragged us by the ear from our seat and publicly humiliated us in the lobby without even hearing our side of the story. My parents would have been called, detentions arranged, and I'd be grounded for a year. Not that I'm in favour of that, per se, but this was something I'd never experienced before. She asked the question in the form of a challenge.
Matrix-like, I was standing on the mat with Laurence Fishbourne with his hand beckoning me to show him how much Kung Fu I knew.
"I asked your student to stop eating popcorn," I replied.
To which she repeated, "What did you say to my student?"
It was clear that I was dealing with someone suffering some sort of mental delusion, and as the show was about to begin, I ended the confrontation by saying, "I think we've established without any doubt what I said." The rules are pretty clear. No eating in the theatre. Now sit down."
On cue, the lights dimmed, and she took her seat. I was seething, but at least the kids put away their food. Sure, the production was terrific, the performances excellent, but afterwards, all Kevin and I could do was talk about that teacher glaring at me, a demonic smile on her face challenging me with, "What did you say to my students?" At the same time, the two guilty teens beside me slowly hid their food in the folds of their jackets. Kevin still has nightmares about it.
I told this story to a friend who teaches at a college.
"Oh yeah," he said, "It's crazy. I asked some kids who were talking to be quiet during a performance of Oklahoma, and the next thing I knew, I was being called into the Dean's office to explain myself. Apparently, the teens in question complained. "In the end, " he said, "I had to apologize."
"For what?" I asked
"For insinuating that what they were doing was wrong?"
"Wasn't it?" I asked
He shrugged his shoulders in dismay.
It seems that theatre patrons have somehow confused plays for film. Movie theatres have conditioned us to associate eating and entertainment. Yes, you want to see the latest James Bond film or to check out a Science Fiction Thriller, but secretly you think about the popcorn, the heavenly confection, which, no matter how hard you try, you can never reproduce at home. Is it food? Is it a snack? No matter, on movie nights, it's considered a meal. Long after the plot has worn off, the taste of salt and butter lingers on your tongue.
"That film left a bad taste in my mouth," you say, "but the popcorn was delicious."
When we were kids, my brother and I were not allowed treats, except on special occasions. We didn't eat lollipops in the car or gummy bears in church. My parents were united in the belief that whatever we were doing demanded our full and undivided attention.
"I can chew gum and say the Lord's prayer at the same time," I'd exclaim
"No, you can't!" my mother would say. "Now sit still, be quiet, and behave."
If someone had reported that I'd eaten food during a production at the Stratford Festival, she would have been mortified.
"People will think I don't feed you at home," she'd yell, "not to mention it's rude."
As punishment, she would serve me liver for a week. Even today, the mere idea of liver makes me gag, yet my Mother would prepare it at least twice a month. We were expected to eat everything on our plate. To leave anything behind was tantamount to talking back to your parents and punishable by death.
"I slaved over a hot stove," my mother would say. "Starving children in Ethiopia would kill for that food.You will sit there until your plate is empty."
There was no question that all these platitudes were correct, but it still didn't make it possible for me to eat liver. I'd stare at my plate, elbows on the table, willing the vile piece of meat to evaporate. Finally, when it was congealed and not fit for human consumption, I would be excused from the table. Did this stop my Mother from serving it? Not on your life. Sometimes she would cover it in bacon, which was just a waste of perfectly good food that never disguised the disgusting meat underneath. Not to mention, wasn't all that bacon undoing whatever good the liver was supposed to have?
"Don't get smart with me, Missy," my mother would say as the clock ticked away in the kitchen.
Did I mention my Mother was not a good cook? Our dinners were as basic as they could be. Pork chops, peas, potatoes…I don't think I saw anything resembling a sauce until I was twenty.
Back at Glengarry Glenn Ross, the woman next to us had moved on to dessert, hard candy, which she chomped while absent-mindedly toying with the foil wrapper between her fingers.
LEVENE: Moss gets me last night over (CRUNCH, CRACKLE, CRUNCH) and says, "(CRUNCH, CRUNCH, CRUNCH.)
I can still remember when drinks weren't allowed in the theatre. Now consuming alcohol during a production is part of the experience. While working on Broadway a few years back, I was fascinated by how many people drank during the show. It wasn't unusual to observe a patron order a glass of wine before the production (sometimes two glasses), then pre-order a cocktail for intermission, followed by a trip to a bar afterwards for a nightcap. You can be sure, if they just came from dinner, they drank there as well. If I had that much alcohol, I'd be drunk. And maybe that's the point? But does it really take this much liquor to get through Jesus Christ Superstar? Moreover, why not just save the money and go to a bar?
Of course, food and drink aren't new to the theatre. People ate and drank during Elizabethan times, throwing rotten vegetables at the stage to show their dislike.
In 1883, a headline in the New York Times read, "An Actor Demoralized by Tomatoes"
…The first act opened with Mr. Ritchie trying to turn a somersault. He probably would have succeeded had not a great many tomatoes struck him, throwing him off his balance and demoralizing him… a large tomato thrown from the gallery struck him square between the eyes, and he fell to the stage floor just as several bad eggs dropped upon his head. As the tomatoes flew thick and fast, John Ritchie fled for the stage door.
So maybe this is simply evolution. Polite society has gone from throwing food to show their dislike to ingesting it in hopes of anaesthetizing themselves enough to withstand a lousy performance or intolerable play. For the theatre to survive, what's next? It's probably only a matter of time before a Burger King or Pizza Hut shows up at the back of the foyer. Until then, come on everyone-pack yourself a picnic and support live theatre.