Gilbert's Letter to The Times of 5 January 1886
Issue 31648, pg. 7 col F


Hissing in Theatres


Sir,--I deeply regret to find that your dramatic critic is an advocate of the system of judgment summed up by himself as "whistling, cat-calls, singing, and other demonstrations that go to the "guying" of a piece." I had hoped that the brutal uproar with which the efforts of a most courageous and capable actress were paralyzed on Saturday night would have beenn as roundly condemned by him as it has been by his brethren of the Press.

On the occasion of the first night of Nadjezda I found a young lady--an utter stranger to me, and probably an utter stranger to nearly every one in the house--struggling with the difficulties of a part which, as an expert in such matters, I have no hesitation in saying would have taxed the utmost resources of a Rachel or a Bernhardt. This young lady played the first and most difficult act (it is described as a prologue in the bills) in a manner which aroused the honest enthusiasm of the house. I think I am right in saying that she received three distinct calls at the end of this act, and, as far as I was able to gather the opinion of the stalls, there was but one verdict--that in Mdlle. Rigl the management had discovered a most valuable actress of emotion. Her foreign accent, scarcely perceptible in this act, interfered in no way with the distinctness of her elocution, and her capacity for the expression of strong dramatic emotion appeared to be generally conceded. But as the play progressed the temper of the audience underwent a serious change. Rightly or wrongly, the story of the drama was not to their taste, and the whistling and cat-calling of the turbulent section of the audience seemed to exercise a distracting influence on several of the actors, and particularly on the poor young lady upon whose shoulders the burden of the piece had been placed. Her foreign accent became more perceptible as her nervousness increased, until at last the actress, overwhelmed by the brutal ridicule with which her efforts in the last act were received, burst into uncontrollable tears.

Now here was an instance, as I take it, of a skilled and thoroughly capable artist utterly unnerved, and therefore absolutely unfitted to do justice to herself or to her employers, through the barabarous interruptions to which she was subjected at the hands of a gang of coarse bullies whose opinion on a work of art would have been absolutely worthless if expressed in any other arena than the gallery of a theatre. On the occasion of the first performance of a new and difficult play, upon the success or failure of which so much depends, not only to the management, but to actors and actresses engaged for its representation, the nerves of the principal performers are usually in a highly sensitive condition, and a coarse interruption tends to unfit them for the discharge of their duties, and, consequently, to precipitate a catastrophe which, if their faculties were well under control, might possibly be avoided. The portion of the audience that expresses itself in whistling and cat-calling during the progress of an act is not always qualified to discriminate between a good play badly acted and a bad play well acted, and it follows that the censure which is incurred by the author is too often visited upon his hapless exponents. That this was the case at the Haymarket Theatre on Saturday night few who were present will be disposed to doubt.

I am anxious not to be misunderstood. I have no desire whatever to check an expression of disapproval given in its proper place. At the end of a play, or, if you will, at the end of each act, let the audience hiss their hearts out if they will. At such a time those who approve and those who disapprove meet on one platform, and both would be heard at once. But to howl, hoot, and yell at an actress who is simply carrying out an author's instructions, and to do this at a moment when she has need of her very utmost powers of self-possession to enable herself to do the simplest justice to her own abilities, is a course of action which I am sorry your critic should see fit to endorse. As a rule, the instincts of an average English audience are generous. They are more ready to over-praise than to over-condemn, and this is particularly the case when the acting of a lady is in question. But there are many elements of an exceptional character in a first-night audience, and among them a certain section of coarse, light-hearted fellows who would perhaps prefer that the play should be an extraordinary success rather than an utter failure, but who would rather the play were damned outright than that the evening should be absolutely uneventful. These people, few in number and as coarse in their tastes as in the means by which they express them, are gradually becoming the dictators of the modern stage.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,

W.S. GILBERT

19, Harrington-gardens, London Previous letter Next letter



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