All things considered, a visit to a concert hall or theatre implies the close proximity of many people (often several thousand), for a period of time (sometimes almost five hours) and at a distance (left, right, in front and behind, and always very close) that could be called unique.
Of course, we do not deny that other common situations, such as the train or the supermarket, are also characterised by unavoidable contact with other individuals. However, the person concerned can easily adjust the period of time to the degree of aggravation. If it’s too noisy in the supermarket, you can go quickly to the checkout. The same applies to distance. If, for example, you happen to sit down next to someone who smells disagreeable, it’s usually fairly simple to change places. If the worst came to the worst and the train was crowded, at least the train journey takes less than 60 minutes in 95% of cases, whereas the average opera or ballet performance can easily last 140 minutes.
The enormous number of individuals also plays a role here. The fact that a full auditorium contains almost 2000 people is not unusual in itself, as there are many thousands of people at airports or in shopping centres. But nowhere else is there such a limited physical distance between so many individuals at one time. After all, in the concert hall you have a neighbour on either side who is barely 20 centimetres away! Measurements have shown that during a performance, no fewer than 45 people are located within the radius at which the senses function at maximum capacity. A spectator is forced to observe and undergo all sorts of behaviour from these 45 people, for a long time and without a means of escape, as it were.
My own empirical research, which extends over almost twenty years and has taken place in many a concert hall and theatre, has revealed several extraordinary phenomena and modes of behaviour, which crop up in every auditorium and can lead to irritation and stress in other members of the audience. This behaviour is best described using a number of types of concert and theatre-goer.
One common and oft-described source of irritation is the cougher; a fellow member of the audience who continually clears their throat or coughs, especially in the quieter passages of the performance.
Along with this cougher, we should also mention the crackler, who comes into operation to prevent a new coughing attack by searching in their handbag for a cough sweet, which is then extricated from its plastic wrapper with all the crackling sounds involved in such a procedure. For fear of making a noise, the crackler does this as carefully as possible, thus unnecessarily protracting the disturbance for all concerned. This is a very common phenomenon.
The snorer, too, has been observed at many a performance – although never at one given by the Dutch National Ballet, of course.
And then the wobbler is a familiar cause of stress to other members of the audience. This concerns a fellow theatre-goer who can’t sit still and keeps shifting around, often bumping his or her neighbour.
A milder variation of the wobbler is the rubber. This complaint concerns the unconscious and continual rubbing of hands over a leg or the other hand. Sound measurements have shown that the noise this produces can drown out the quieter orchestral passages.
A version of the rubber peculiar to men is the beard scratcher. Without the bearded theatre-goer realising it, he strokes his beard or moustache. Depending on the roughness and length of the beard, this produces an annoying rasping sound that can drive others mad if exposed to it for any length of time.
We are also familiar with the sniffer, who breathes strongly through the nose. Sitting next to a sniffer throughout the many hours of a Wagner opera can produce the effect of a bike tyre being continually pumped up next to one’s left ear. This provides a simple explanation for someone spontaneously erupting in cheers at the end of the performance.
Female members of the audience sometimes present a case of the jangler. Here, the spectator is wearing a bracelet or other piece of jewellery consisting of several parts (e.g. charms) that jangle against one another at every movement of the lower arm.
I would also like to point out the existence of the sing-along; the neighbour who hummingly lets you hear that they know the music in question, although unfortunately it usually proves quite the reverse. A variation on this phenomenon is the conductor, who appears to be giving all sorts of instructions to the orchestra through hand, finger and foot movements.
Besides all the different forms of agitation and annoying noise described above, smell also plays an important role. The perfumer has misted over many a fellow spectator through over-spraying, especially after a top-up during the interval.
And thanks to an apparently liberal use of garlic in the meal preceding the theatre visit, the Mediterranean can ensure that his or her neighbour has to face the other way throughout the entire performance, which can lead to cramp and hinder one’s reading of the surtitles.
All these archetypes of annoying fellow audience members are well represented in our theatres. I have been able to establish that fact at first hand. And I haven’t even mentioned some of the new phenomena that have sprung up in recent years, such as the beeping watch, the caller and the twitterer.
The conclusion that must be drawn from my lengthy research is that going to a concert or theatre performance can be regarded as an extremely stressful experience in all respects, which makes disproportionate demands on the resilience of those concerned. Academically speaking, therefore, it is a complete mystery as to why so many people willingly subject themselves to this pressure.
However, I hope yet to find an explanation for this in my subsequent research.< blog archive