One of the many definitions of the word 'theatre' describes it as a performance on stage surrounded by spectators. One of the origins of the term also traces it back to a word which means 'behold.' These quite emphatically establish it as something to be looked at, and, in whatever part of the world, a theatre has always been defined by its audience. Those who produce it have always had their audience in mind and the nature and behaviour of the audience have been responsible for what the theatre is like. This is true for Guyana today as it has been for any other part of the world throughout its social history.
The audience for theatre is therefore an infinitely important study, and what multiplies its interest is that its influence on what dramatists do has not only been artistic, but commercial. The origin of all theatre has always been associated with religion, and even when it was in its primordial state of religious ritual, it was performed for the good of the 'audience.' It glorified god(s), appeased the elements or forces of nature, seeking divine or supernatural intervention for the betterment of its worshippers.
It became art (or employed art) because of art's power as communication, as transmitter of meaning, as means of expression and as a most effective medium through which to reach an audience. Further, it was the audience factor that made it into entertainment, and once this developed, the demands of the audience gained ground as a major preoccupation. These same factors drove theatre to become commercial, further complicating the preoccupations of dramatists. Yet this does not tell the whole story, since theatre is also education, a means of upliftment, a source of engagement with one's environment. And still there is more, much more than limitations of this discussion will allow us to get into, but at the core of every dimension there is the audience.
A general unawareness of this complexity has led to a number of misconceptions about the playwright and his audience. In one of these, it has been spread abroad that an engagement with commerce, entertainment and audience appeal is a preoccupation only in the popular theatre where there is no intellectual depth. But this engagement has driven the best of the canon in western theatre. The great Greek tragedian Sophocles knew he had to interest and entertain a popular audience in order to communicate his lofty humanistic and religious themes in the drama of Oedipus Rex. The strategies he used resulted in one of the great tragedies of western drama which is also probably the first suspense thriller known to the theatre.
Similarly, like his contemporaries, the greatest dramatist known to western theatre, William Shakespeare, always wrote for the popular audience even in some of his gravest tragedies. In addition, Shake-speare was part-owner of a theatre company, a professional actor and director fully aware that the most intellectual of his plays had to sell tickets. The strategies he em-ployed include dramatic devices that are now well known, added to comic relief, clowns, sub-plots and puns. Later playwrights like John Gay crafted a satirical form called the opera, which, while artistically expedient for him, was primarily driven by commerce and the popular audience. In fact, one of Gay's semi-serious themes in the play The Beggar's Opera, has to do with the playwright's struggle to earn his daily bread.
Another of the misconceptions is the belief that audience participation in the form of direct exchanges with the audience instigated by the performers, as well as heckling and talking back to the actors by members of the audience was a characteristic only of the traditional enactment. By extension, it was thought to exist only in the popular forms such as those known in West Africa and the Caribbean.
To show that this is not true, we may return to Shakespeare. There are se-quences of his, such as the performance of the Porter in Macbeth, in which the audience is directly engaged or taken on. Even more convincing is what may be found in other textual evidence. Dickens includes a sequence in Great Expectations in which Pip goes to the theatre to see Shakespeare's Hamlet. The performance was subjected to a continuous barrage of back-talk and heckling from some members in the pit, which suggests, at least, that the practice was alive and well in the London theatre of the nineteenth century.
Going back earlier and across the Channel, one finds further evidence in the theatre of the Spanish Golden Age. Miguel de Cervantes in the novel Don Quixote, includes an extended treatise complaining about the depraved state of theatrical performances in his time.
Talk-back and heckling have even found themselves in the hallowed halls of British theatre in modern times. The story has been told of one of London's legendary actors performing King Richard, and exclaiming "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse," whereupon some wit in the audience uttered a loud "neigh-eh-eh!." The actor never lost a stride, but calmly and still totally in character commanded his valet, "Go harness yonder braying ass and bring him hither."
It is true, however, that direct audience engagement is a feature of the traditional theatre. Those performances are still highly ritualistic and very often there is no boundary between performers and audience. They interact. In many cases the performance itself consists entirely of this interaction. Sometimes the objective is spiritual and depends on the direct involvement of all who are present at the event. Members of the working and peasant classes are known to be the participants in this kind of theatre and it is members of the same groups who have had a habit of talking back to the characters on screen in the cinema. They do the same to the actors on stage and the more mentally nimble performers will respond in extempore fashion with their own witty retorts.
This would have happened unplanned in such arenas as the calypso tents and vaudeville performances, but it also found its way into dramatic performances of plays. These interventions were witty and in keeping with the plot and situation.
Contemporary dramatists found it so attractive that they sought ways of incorporating this kind of audience interaction into their scripts or texts. It is common in the dancehall or roots theatre of Jamaica, and the actors are prepared to entertain it and respond to the hecklers. Barbara Gloudon and other scriptwriters in the Jamaica Pantomime have been known to make allowance for actor-audience bandying even in the scripted dialogue.
This, therefore, is the background to the phenomenon that has developed in the Guyanese popular theatre. Audience heckling began to creep (back) into dramatic performances a few years ago and has surely intensified over the last two. Sometimes the remarks are fairly choric, sometimes an expression of moral support when some message in the play seems to have scored. But of late it has more than ever been exhibitionist. Members of the audience wish to upstage the performance and draw attention to their own ability to entertain the crowd.
This tendency has progressively become anti-social. In some cases those who talk back and laugh loudly are giving unrestrained, uninhibited responses to what has amused or moved them on stage and they are thoughtless enough not to remember that they may be either preventing the (sometimes inexperienced, often untrained) actors from continuing with the dialogue. But at other times the hecklers do not care for any discourtesy they may be committing. Their interventions are loud, raucous and lengthy, no longer bothering to make any attempt or pretence at wit. They are plainly disruptive.
The theatre is itself very traditional and ritualistic. It has been observed, however, that some of the age-old customs are not bothered with any more in the Guyanese auditoria. The audiences walk out in the middle of curtain calls. Neither performing cast nor audience observe the tradition of repeated or extended curtain calls to signify the extent to which the performance was appreciated.
They hardly consider standing ovations. It is difficult to describe what is now taking place in the theatre in Guyana as changing or passing traditions, or any systematic considered practice. It might very well be the result of the absence of training among producers and actors and the loss of a culture. It more resembles a breakdown in discipline and courtesy, a disregard or an ignorance of any tradition. Or most likely both.