My friends and I, being nerds, like to sit around, drink wine, and read classic plays out loud. (Our group, the No Nude Men salon, got a nice shout-out on the Bay Guardian blog last week!) A few weeks ago, the play we read was J. M. Synge's The Playboy of the Western World. After we had stumbled through the play in our horrible mock-Irish accents -- and our Irish friend, who read the role of Pegeen, tried not to make fun of us -- we discussed the play, and in particular the "Playboy Riots," that occurred after its premiere in 1907.
Then someone asked if we could ever imagine theatergoers in 2011, in San Francisco, rioting in response to a play. What kind of play would it have to be, to get them so riled up?
It was hard to imagine a play that could provoke a genuine riot in the theater. A sufficiently violent, disgusting, or disturbing play might provoke an audience to walk out en masse, but is unlikely to start a riot.
San Francisco audiences are notoriously left-wing, so would we riot if a conservative play was produced here in town? (I mean a play that explicitly promoted right-wing talking points. Of course many "classic" plays are conservative in their outlook in a more general sense.) Well, I can easily picture San Franciscans getting all huffy and protesting outside the theater where the conservative play was being performed. But that is still somewhat different than spontaneously rising up in the theater and starting a riot. We would be offended that someone was trying to produce a conservative play in San Francisco, but we would not feel personally indicted by the play.
After all, for an audience to riot, it must be touchy. Insecure. On the defensive. Whereas San Franciscans are a largely contented (some would say "smug") bunch of people.
Again, consider the example of The Playboy of the Western World. In 1907, the Irish were extremely touchy and insecure. After hundreds of years of subjugation, they were finally beginning to take pride in their cultural heritage, and to see it as a fit subject for playwrights and artists. But rather than glorifying Ireland and its people, Synge wrote a hilarious black comedy that portrays the rural Irish as gossipy, libidinous, and completely amoral. Coming from an English author, such insults would have been tolerated. Coming from an Irish author at the Abbey Theatre, it was seen as high treason. Synge was becoming famous, and the good citizens of Dublin worried that his play would present a skewed idea of Ireland to the rest of the world. So, they rioted.
Therefore, I think that in order to riot in the theater, the audience must feel that the play has personally insulted them as a group, and must be an insult that they cannot easily dismiss. For instance, if a right-wing play were produced in San Francisco that told us we were a bunch of sodomizing, fornicating coastal-elitist heathens who would go straight to hell, we wouldn't take it seriously. We know that that is how half of the country thinks of us, and we accept that -- we even take pride in it. In order to cause us to riot, a playwright would have to discover a way to truly get under our skin and make us feel uncomfortable -- to condemn us in subtle ways, to damn us with the truth, rather than with caricature.
In light of this, I was extremely curious to see how the S.F. audience reacted to Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park, currently being staged at A.C.T. Norris has a reputation as a provocateur who enjoys making fun of the hypocrisies, the coded language, the white privilege and white guilt of city-dwelling liberals. If any play could get a San Francisco audience to riot, I thought, it would be something like that -- an insult lobbed at us by one who knows our kind too well, produced by the city's most prominent theater company.
Tomorrow: my experience seeing Clybourne Park, and proof that the smugness of San Franciscans is really a wonder to behold.