Imagine going to see a play that directly criticized your national identity and your way of life. A performance so vile and so derogatory that you would be enraged enough to riot in the street all because of a play. This is what happened at some of the initial performance of J.M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World.
It is hard to imagine such outrage when reading the play in a modern context. Just like Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author or Ibsen’s Ghosts, our society has changed so much since their production that they no longer are appear shocking to a modern audience.
This poses the question, why do these plays at all? No one understands their impact any more. At best, they are museum pieces that show us how much our understanding of the world has changes. While this is important for us, the impact of something truly unsettling is not achieved by these old plays.
What would cause an audience to riot in their seats?
There isn’t much that we haven’t seen onstage by now. Add to that what we are able to see on TV or download over the internet and there isn’t much you can’t get your hands on. What would it take to make the patrons riot over a piece of art? Is there an issue that is so divisive that it would cause that kind of response today? And what medium would this message be delivered through?
Theatre does not have enough mass appeal to cause this kind of a stir. Even if a play was this earth shattering, it wouldn’t be seen by a large audience. So how does theatre provoke us?
Addendum (Published January 31, 2009): We learned today of some of the more specific triggers from Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac:
The audience was not happy with the insults to Ireland and the theme of patricide. But what finally set off a riot was the word shift — an Irish term for a female undergarment. Christy Mahon tells the pub owner's daughter that he would choose to love her even if he were "brought a drift of chosen females, standing in their shifts." The audience felt this was questioning the honor of Irish women, and it was the last straw. They began to riot.