In the world of entertainment, audiences have a reputation for being a diverse bunch. While some patrons applaud and cheer, others resort to rather unconventional expressions of their feelings. From throwing rotten tomatoes to hurling eggs and even chairs, history is replete with instances of audiences disrupting performances. In this comprehensive exploration, we will delve into the intriguing and sometimes bizarre history of audience behavior, extending the discussion to provide readers with a deeper understanding of why and how these disruptions occurred.

The phenomenon of audiences expressing their discontent during performances is not a recent development; it has a rich history that spans centuries. However, before we dive into specific examples, it’s essential to understand the various motivations and factors that have driven audiences to disrupt shows. Audience disruptions, although seemingly chaotic, often have underlying motivations. These motivations can be classified into several categories:

  • One of the primary motivations behind audience disruptions is the audience’s dissatisfaction with the performance. This dissatisfaction can stem from various reasons, including poor acting, subpar production quality, or a general sense of disappointment.
  • Some audience disruptions aim to provoke change or draw attention to societal issues. In such cases, the disruption serves as a form of protest or a means to challenge the status quo.
  • In certain instances, disruptive audience members may seek attention for themselves rather than expressing dissatisfaction with the performance. They disrupt the show to draw focus to their actions.
  • The behavior of individuals in a crowd can be influenced by mob mentality. A small number of disruptive individuals can trigger a cascade of similar actions among the rest of the audience.

Now that we’ve explored the motivations behind audience disruptions, let’s take a closer look at specific historical instances where audiences expressed their discontent in unconventional ways. Contrary to popular belief, the act of throwing rotten tomatoes at performers is just one example of audience disruption. Throughout history, audiences have utilized a wide range of objects and tactics to express their feelings. We will examine several noteworthy instances, shedding light on the unique circumstances and motivations that led to these disruptions.

In Roman times, spectators at gladiatorial games occasionally resorted to throwing objects (non-food items, of course) at the gladiators when they were unhappy with the outcome of the games.

Notably, there were instances when the audience received precisely what they offered. Emperor Elagabalus, known for his eccentric and often cruel antics, would occasionally toss baskets containing poisonous snakes into crowds, either to disperse them or, disturbingly, for his amusement. Practical jokes of this nature were his specialty, showcasing the unpredictable nature of Roman audiences.

Fast-forwarding through history, we arrive in the Elizabethan era, a time when the renowned playwright William Shakespeare dominated the theater scene. While the Globe Theatre is synonymous with Shakespearean performances, it was not immune to audience disruptions.

During Shakespeare’s lifetime, audience members in the Globe Theatre were known to hurl various objects at actors, but not necessarily tomatoes, as tomatoes were not readily available in Britain until the middle of the 18th century. This surprising fact challenges the common misconception that tomatoes were a part of audience disruptions during Shakespearean times. The unavailability and skepticism surrounding tomatoes, stemming from the belief that they were toxic, make it highly improbable that a 16th-century audience member would have had a tomato on hand, let alone enough to launch at a performer. Despite numerous claims to the contrary, there is no substantial historical evidence to support this notion.

In the absence of tomatoes, eggs emerged as the preferred missiles for highly critical audiences. Eggs were not only readily available and inexpensive but also posed unique challenges for actors. They were easy to throw, emitted a foul odor when spoiled, were difficult to clean off costumes, and, most significantly, provided immense satisfaction to the audience when they landed a direct hit.

Historical records and observations from the Globe Theatre during Shakespeare’s time reveal that when the pit audience grew bored or dissatisfied, they would often resort to throwing eggs at the actors. To maintain audience engagement, Shakespeare strategically interspersed comedic or violent moments into his plays, acknowledging the disruptive potential of the audience.

Tomato Throwing in Nineteenth-Century America

While tomatoes may not have been a part of Shakespearean disruptions, they did play a surprising role in audience outbursts in nineteenth-century America. During this period, it became shockingly popular for American audiences to bring tomatoes and other objects as weapons to performances.

In addition to tomatoes, dissatisfied American audiences would tear up chairs and hurl them at the stage. Performers of that era were often threatened with the throwing of fruit, eggs, stones, and virtually anything that wasn’t nailed down. Curiously, actors were expected to repeat a speech as many times as the crowd demanded, even if the audience appreciated a performance.

One particularly notable incident occurred in 1883 when an acrobat named John Ritchie had to abandon his performance due to a barrage of tomatoes and eggs. The New York Times covered the event, describing the chaotic scene as Ritchie attempted a somersault, only to be knocked down by a hail of tomatoes. His subsequent attempt at the trapeze was equally ill-fated, with a huge tomato hitting him in the face and sending him tumbling to the stage floor.

The Ritchie incident marked one of the earliest recorded instances of tomato-lobbing during a performance and offers a vivid glimpse into the rowdiness of American audiences during that era.

The Psychology of Audience Disruptions

The intriguing question that arises from these historical instances is: why have audiences, throughout history, felt the need to forcefully express themselves, even if it led to the cancellation of shows they paid to watch and, on rare occasions, resulted in riots?

One significant factor contributing to audience disruptions is mob mentality. Research has shown that the behavior of individuals in a crowd can be significantly influenced by a small number of disruptive individuals. This phenomenon mirrors the concept of the “Claque,” where a small group of wealthy spectators would dictate the mood of a performance, subsequently influencing the reactions of the broader audience.

Performers discovered that by allowing a select group of influential spectators to shape the audience’s response, they could effectively control the overall reception of the show, regardless of its actual quality. This highlights the undeniable influence of human nature on the dynamics between performers and their spectators.

Audience disruptions throughout history paint a complex picture of the interaction between performers and their spectators. From ancient Rome to Shakespearean England and nineteenth-century America, audiences have resorted to unconventional means to express their feelings, driven by a variety of motivations. The phenomenon of audience disruptions offers valuable insights into the dynamics of crowd behavior, mob mentality, and the power of a select few to influence the collective response of an audience.