Is there any more gruesome punishment these days than having to sit still, and listen? I’m beginning to believe we simply can no longer do it.
I’m old school. When I go to a performance, I arrive on time, take off my coat in advance, turn off my phone, put my program down before curtain, even unwrap any cough drops if I anticipate a tickle. Then, I put my hands in my lap and sit quietly. If I must move, or remark to my neighbor, I do it during a break or applause.
I am a shrinking minority. Theaters now sell candy and wine that patrons can take to their seats. People arrive late, leave early, talk throughout. I take deep breaths and try not to be annoyed, though I am. This is not a ten-dollar ticket at the Cineplex, it’s five times that, or more, for a live performance. Beyond bothering me, these distractions disrespect the performers.
I am intrigued by theories that human evolution is speeding up, in response to a world that gallops ahead even faster than our ability to absorb it. Perhaps our ability to sit still, like opera, is antiquated. We denote no value to passive absorption.
I recently attended an event where I anticipated a high level of attention: a two-hour poetry reading by two talented poet/friends. There were perhaps sixteen people in attendance on a bitter cold day, all middle-aged acquaintances of the featured poets. Over the course of two hours people came in late, fiddled with their phones, shifted their coats, whispered to one another, put their coats back on, and left early.
A guy passed the hat right in the middle of a poem. Then he noshed on a brownie brittle, then another, then another. The woman in front of me reached over as if to bring attention to his noise, then thought better of it. I held no such constraint; I tapped him on the back and asked him to stop. Meanwhile, the woman started chatting with her neighbor, which induced another woman to shush her. Instead of a contemplative event, the poetry reading felt more like designated quiet time in a fidgety kindergarten; no one could quite keep his hands or voice to himself.
Throughout the distractions two thoughtful people continued to share wondrous images of telomere, grasshoppers daubed into Van Gogh, November light, and queried how I greeted each day: cross or star-crossed? They wove constructs that challenge an audience under the best conditions. I had to work very hard to imprint their ideas.
Am I just an old crank? Why can’t I just put these distractions aside? Part of it is cultural, in a Western European sort of way; I was taught to sit and listen. Last year I attended a performance of an African-American play at The Strand in Dorchester, where the audience shouted out to the actors: a sort of call and response. It took me some time to adjust, but then realized what was going on was pretty cool, even if I didn’t feel comfortable participating.
When I was in architecture school, my acoustics professor described why it’s important to design a concert hall to be silent below the level of 15 decibels. This seemed extreme, given that 20 dB is a common threshold for human hearing. “When Pablo Casals reaches the final strain of sustenato in a cello solo, the room must be absolutely silent. Everyone will be so rapt, not a sound will be heard.”
I wonder if that design criterion still holds. I’m pretty sure we’re all going to sit still less, listen with less focus, create more meaningless noise, and learn to accept (endure) more distractions. The beauty of Pablo Casals, and of poetry, will simply have to be more persuasive if it is to rise above the din.