Stephen Hough’s blog for the Telegraph the other day quoted Grant Hiroshima as being “so disturbed” at people laughing at Phèdre and Helen Mirren’s tragically doomed character that he almost walked out. Hiroshima “wonder[s] if this represents the inabililty of these audiences to register tragedy. Have we come to that point at which tragedy has lost the battle with irony and cynicism?” Well, I for one certainly have the ability to register tragedy – when something is tragic. “Has modern entertainment so dulled the consciousness that an entire audience can just miss the point altogether?” asks Hiroshima, which seems rather snobbish to me. It seems to imply that his reaction to the play is more ‘right’, more ‘worthy’, than those who laughed. I am on the side of the audience here. I saw the play two weeks ago, and I laughed. I didn’t laugh because I missed the point – I knew the play was a tragedy and that there was going to be a high body count at the end. Not a good start for those expecting laughs. But the play is so far removed from anything realistic or naturalistic that the overblown language and distraught gestures did become laughable. Hiroshima seems to be missing the point that people will laugh if they find something funny – and the fact that he didn’t find it funny is no fault of anyone else’s.
I admit that the giggles can stem from the fact that it too uncomfortable to watch someone else in pain (a tribute to Mirren as an actress) and the natural way to relieve the tension is to giggle. But there are moments when the sheer ridiculousness of the play is funny. The melodramatic, sweeping scale of the drama and tragedy piling up to totally screw up everyone and everything has its funny moments. We, as audiences, are not used to Greek tragedy, and as a genre it often seems false and removed from real human reaction, which lessons the impact of the tragedy.
To suggest that we are desensitised and no longer able to feel tragedy is absurd – I have cried like a baby at Romeo & Juliet and countless other plays. In most plays where someone dies/something tragic happens, the audience is saddened – but it has to be done well and believably. The fault likes with this production rather than with the audience or with society as a whole. It didn’t have enough conviction in its own tragedy to carry it off. The last scene (where the body of Hippolytus is dragged across the stage leaving a bloody trail) was genuinely sombre, but the rest was just too hysterical for it to be possible to empathise with any of the characters, and this remove makes it much easier to see the funny side of the dramatic irony.
I also object to the point about “these audiences”, which seems to differentiate theatre audiences from cinema audiences, and as such is elitist and foolish.