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This article discusses the role of the audience in the theatre before explaining the nature of English audience -from the Elizabethan period to the contemporary time. It points out the features of each audience and their behaviour in the theatre; as well, it examines the English playhouse in terms of its evolution and development.

The Role of the Audience

The audience is a crucial aspect of the theatre because as Styan (1968: 251) argues, “the interplay between the actor and his audience brings the play to life”. The understanding is that drama is not possible without the audience. Jerzy Grotowski insists that at least one spectator is needed to make a performance.

The actors are aware that the audience is the first judge of the drama. Eze (2011: 25) states that “the dramatic event mandates the audience to get involved in the business of appreciation, interpretation and reaction. In full knowledge of this, the performers work assiduously to impress the audience by satisfying its needs, interests, and expectations. Vargas (1960: 12) underscores the role of the theatre audience thus:

Actors will tell you how important the audience is to them. But they are not only interested in whether the house is packed to capacity. Their interest is in the type of the audience before whom they are going to perform. Do they look lively and intelligent enough to catch the subtle shades in the play? Do they appear to have a sense of humour? Nothing is more chastening to an actor’s soul than to perform an excellent comedy before an audience who sit glumly in rows, with defiant expressions on their faces which seem to say; “Go on try, try and make me laugh”.

The audience can electrify a performance as much as it can lower its standard and quality. To further drive home the value of the audience in a dramatic presentation, Vargas notes further:

A lively and intelligent audience eager for the play to begin and tense and alert throughout the play, will elicit from the players the finest performance of which they are capable. A dull, unresponsive crowd in the front will give the players extra work to do, and tend to lower the standard of performance.

The implication is that the response of the audience can make or mar any drama. And this is the reason the actor does not take the audience for granted. Martin Esslin (1981: 25 – 26) elaborates on this when he posits that:

Positive reaction of the audience has a powerful effect on the actors, and so has negative reaction. If the audience fails to laugh at jokes, the actors will instinctively play them more broadly, underline them, and signal more clearly that what they are saying is funny. If the audience responds, the actors will be inspired by the response and this in turn will elicit more and more powerful responses from the audience. This is the famous feedback effect between the stage and the audience.

The electricity that is usually at the heart of any good theatre experience is not generated by the actor alone as Edwin Wilson suggests in his The Theater Experience. It results from the interplay between the actor and the audience body chemistry. Walter Kerr is cited by Wilson to have explained the actor – audience relationship in a dramatic encounter as follow:

It doesn’t just mean that we are in the personal presence of performers. It means that they are in our presence conscious of us, speaking to us, working for and with us until a circuit that is not mechanical becomes established between us, a circuit that is fluid, unpredictable, ever – changing in impulses, crackling, and intimate. Our presence, the way we respond, flows back to the performer and alters what he does, to some degree and sometimes astonishingly so, every single night. We are contenders, making the play and the evening and the emotions together. We are playmates, building a structure.

The pull and fascination of personal contact between the actor and the audience when at its best, creates a bond that elevates the dramatic experience into a kind of ritual. According to Esslin (1981: 26):

At its best, when a fine play in a fine performance coincides with a receptive audience in the theatre, this can produce a concentration of thought and emotional intensity that amounts to a higher level of spiritual insight and can make such experience akin to a religious one, a memorable high – point in an individual’s life.

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