New Audiences and the digital fourth wall

Working on the forthcoming book. Here’s a teaser the changed media environment…

The theatres of the Elizabethan and Stuart eras were venues where ‘a thousand townsemen, gentlemen and whores, porters and serving–men together throng’, according to one contemporary account. The decorum of the modern theatre did not apply. Heckles and sometimes projectiles came at the players from every direction. To the fore of the playhouse massed before the stage stood the ‘groundlings’: poor people who stood exposed to the elements in the centre of the theatre, and who were known as ‘stinkards’ in summer due to their rich aroma in warmer conditions. Above and about the stage were the elite, only slightly less rowdy, sitting in sheltered areas variously assigned to lords, who sat behind the stage itself; to gentlemen, who sat in raised side areas about the stage; and those who could afford a seat and sheltered vantage in the tiered gallery that faced the stage over the heads of the groundlings. In the midst of all of these people, suffering their outbursts and vying for their attention, were the playwright and actors.

The involvement of the audience at the theatre was so pronounced and the hackles so outrageous that one playwright was moved to satire. In 1607, Francis Beaumont wrote a play, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, in which a character called ‘the Citizen’ plays a member of the audience. The Citizen leaps on stage shortly after the play begins and demands that the actors change the plot. Thereafter, absurd demands contort the plot in to a populist pantomime. The Citizen, himself a grocer, tells the actors that the lead character should be a heroic grocer who would ‘do admirable things’. Curious as to what the newly minted grocer character should do to entertain the audience, the actors ask the Citizen for ideas. His wife shouts from the audience that the grocer should kill a lion. Furthermore he should dispatch the beast with a pestle – the small, blunt tool that grocers use to mix ingredients. Having joined her husband onstage to direct proceedings personally, the wife admits that she has never been to a playhouse before. Ignorance does not prevent her from elaborating further on the grocer’s exploits.

This, it might be assumed, was Francis Beaumont’s swipe at the ‘cult of the amateur’. Yet, swipe or not, proximity forced he and his audience to accept the intimate relationship between entertainer and entertained. Theirs was a smaller world. In 1608, only one year after The Knight of the Burning Pestle was staged, the first English ship arrived off the cost of India. In sixteen months the voyage had completed a journey that today would take under nine hours. It would be a century before prototype steam locomotives made their debut. The London audience’s world was necessarily local, and its performers proximate. In the squalid environs of London’s Southwark, content producers and consumers wallowed in the same muck. Separated from player and playwright by only meters, the public roared and cheered and interjected. Unsurprisingly, the publisher of Beaumont’s play lamented that the audience ‘utterly rejected it’. Perhaps heckling was so commonplace that the audience was incapable of ‘under[s]tanding the privy mark of iron[y] about’ the lion–killing grocer dreamt up by the audience of a play within a play. Four hundred years later, with the advent of the Internet, a new generation of assertive audiences is again crowding the stage. Grocers are unsheathing their pestles, and lions everywhere fear the worst. To understand why, one must first reflect on the emergence of digital distribution and the move from push broadcasting to pull downloading.

More anon…

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