At a friend’s house, I saw a video of Liebelei, Max Ophuls’s beautiful film of Arthur Schnitzler’s play which was shown on television some months ago. Made in 1932, this masterpiece is a rarity: although the Third Reich censors removed Ophuls’s name from the credits and he left Germany on the day after the Reichstag fire, it was banned by the Allied Commission when the war was over because its success had happened to coincide with the Nazi regime. It begins behind the scenes at the Vienna Opera House. The first act of The Abduction from the Seraglio has just ended: the stage manager anxiously looks out through a peephole in the curtain to survey the crowded stalls and balconies. We share his view – the spectators are now being spied on. Then, the chandelier in the auditorium flares alight to herald the arrival of the Emperor; the audience rise, turn their backs on the stage and gaze up at the Royal Box. Very subtly – almost subliminally – Ophuls has adumbrated a mystery central to drama: who is being watched, and by whom?

Went to a matinee of Re:Joyce!, Maureen Lipman’s brilliant impersonation of Joyce Grenfell at the Fortune Theatre. An odd experience. Grenfell, whose solo performances were based on the accurate re-creation of closely observed social mannerisms, is herself closely observed and accurately re-created by Lipman. The audience applauded every item with increasing enthusiasm, ending in a wild ovation – for whom? For Grenfell or for Lipman? Some of them may not have been quite sure. This element of doubt in their delight is typical of that teasing ambiguity which has always been inherent in the act of theatre-going – an ambiguity exploited to fullest effect by the art of Barry Humphries.

Perhaps because I have spent so much time over so many years watching television at home, the act of theatregoing now strikes me as more than ever peculiar, almost a little crazy – an excitingly ancient anachronism and an undertaking fraught with risk. It seems so perverse, somehow, to find oneself in the same room as the actors (for even in the cinema, where one is obliged to accept the equivocal role of being physically part of an audience, the more essential distances are decently maintained). Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria built a private playhouse so that he could watch Wagner’s operas quite alone; today, every owner of a television set enjoys a similar privilege. Indeed, one’s privilege is greater, for though the paranoid Ludwig could isolate himself from fellow spectators by refusing them admittance, he must have been uneasily aware that his lonely presence in the auditorium was perceptible – and potentially inhibiting – to the singers on the stage and the musicians in the orchestra pit.

If an actor works in an atmosphere of constant danger, it is also true that no member of an audience is ever entirely safe.

During Re:Joyce! a story is told of Grenfell on tour in Australia. Distracted by the persistent noise of sweets being unwrapped and consumed in the stalls, she stepped out of character and sternly informed her public that if they didn’t sit still and keep quiet she wouldn’t go on with the show. This is generally seen as a heroic gesture, in line with the legend of lady-like sanctity that has grown up around Grenfell’s memory, but to me it sounds unattractively bossy, in the worst manner of Edwina Currie. To be forbidden to eat sweets in the theatre is surely an encroachment on civil liberties ... I prefer the kind of theatrical anecdote which, though told as a joke, is offered as illustration of the deplorably unprofessional behaviour of some wayward monstre sacré.

Mrs Patrick Campbell, for example, hidden behind the screen in The School for Scandal while two elderly knights as Sir Peter Teazle and Joseph Surface crawled with maddening deliberation and pointless pauses through their scene. Suddenly losing patience, she boomed aloud for all to hear: ‘Oh, do get a move on, you silly old pongers!’ Or the one about John Barrymore as Richard III, after a heavy pub-crawl with his co-star Wilfred Lawson, making such a hash of his opening soliloquy that a member of the audience called out. ‘You’re drunk!’– on which Barrymore approached the footlights and conspiratorially replied: ‘Just wait till you see Buckingham!’

Re-read Chapter 47 of Great Expectations. Pip, like many a hero of more self-consciously paranoid novels, has a feeling that he is being followed but has so far failed to catch a glimpse of his pursuer. He visits a Thamesside theatre where his friend Mr Wopsle, an earnest but unsuccessful actor, is appearing in a mixed bill. Throughout the performance, Pip is uncomfortably aware that Mr Wopsle is looking straight at him – and sometimes, more puzzlingly, staring at a point just behind and to the side of where he is sitting. Afterwards, backstage, Mr Wopsle confirms this. He had been delighted to recognise Pip – less so to recognise the man who, for part of the time, had materialised ‘like a ghost’ in a nearby seat ... This is how Pip learns for certain that Compeyson is on his trail.

The whole thing is narrated in Dickens’s broadest comic vein (poor Mr Wopsle is ludicrously miscast in Grand Guignol and pantomime) and could be dismissed as a piece of obviously contrived plot-fabrication making shameless use of coincidence: yet its effect is deeply unsettling. The idea that Compeyson has been sitting so close to Pip without the latter being conscious of him is disturbing enough, but the fact that it is Mr Wopsle who has seen them both gives it an uncanny, aberrant dimension. For that isn’t what is supposed to happen in a theatre – it’s the wrong way round. Even with plays in which the audience is directly addressed from the stage, this audience is conceived as a composite, anonymous creature – and when actors, visited later in their dressing-rooms, politely say, ‘You were a wonderful audience,’ it isn’t the individual spectator who is being praised. By convention, each member of an audience is assumed to be either invisible from the stage or only vaguely discernible as part of an amorphous whole. But Mr Wopsle not only distinguishes Pip in the supposedly dark ‘out front’, he also notices something about him of which Pip is himself ignorant. The place of discreet concealment turns out to have been a scene of sinister discovery and exposure.

This complex, rather clumsy sequence of events could be interpreted as intending to suggest that the stage, while apparently a window onto other lives, can also sometimes act as a mirror reflecting our own, or even as a penetrating X-ray photograph revealing a secret danger. But Dickens, of course, means nothing so pretentious. His genius shows more intriguingly in the way that, for all its strangeness, the episode is completely credible. Pip is agonisingly embarrassed by the spectacle of Mr Wopsle making a fool of himself, but it does not occur to him to leave the hall or even to turn round. If he had done so, he would have spotted Compeyson for himself. Some fiercer imperative than mere good manners prevents his escape and imposes at least the pretence of attention on him as a duty. One may fall asleep at the theatre, one may eat sweets noisily and offend Joyce Grenfell, one may even hiss and boo – but one cannot, it seems, look away.

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