American theater-goers are more used to bad language than Irish people. Or maybe we're more polite!
At least that's my experience after I went to see the play "Terminus" by Mark O’Rowe.
I should’ve guessed something was up when I was reserving my tickets and the phone and the woman on the phone told me that there was “vulgar language” and asked, “Is that all right?” I’ve never been told that before a play. It seems that there’s so much violence and foul language in popular culture anyway that there’s not much point in warning.
Apparently Irish audiences do not share my immunity to vulgar language and descriptions of graphic sex and violence. About half way through "Terminus" there began a substantial exodus.
It began with a younger couple in the front and swept through the small theater like the “wave” at a baseball game. Some of the older couples seemed indignant, others outraged. A group of older women in front of me had a whispered debate because one in their group wanted to stay while the rest wanted to go.
I’ve seen people walk out of movies and one or two walk out of a play, but not this many. It got me thinking if Sebastian Barry was right about Irish audiences being different. Perhaps they take their theater more seriously, are not afraid to leave when they dislike something, while Americans politely suffer through.
It may not have even been the language that offended them. Perhaps it was the format: a play done in alternating monologues recited in rhymed couplets rife with internal alliteration. While I found both Mr.O’Rowe’s writing and the quality of the actor’s performances impressive, some might not enjoy the intensity of the experience. It was akin to having a story fired at you in a rapid succession of bullet like sentences.
Then there was the content of the monologues themselves with ranged from the Devil’s seduction of a killer, a mother’s seduction of her daughter’s fiancé and a woman’s seduction by her best friends husband. Throw into that mix a construction crane, a disembodied soul whose earthy form consists of a face full of worms and a gang of murderous lesbians.
A woman in the bathroom after the show described the play as “relentless.” This description seems fair enough but I’ve seen equal or worse, particularly in films. Plus the running time for Terminus was only 100 minutes, much shorter than similarly “relentless” plays like Long Days Journey.
The experience got me thinking, not only about the differences between American and Irish audiences but also about contemporary society in general. Is vulgar or explicit content somehow easier to take when there are visuals involved to distract us from just a person and their words? Was part of what made the play hard to take the fact that the story was delivered like poetry?
Sebastian Barry may pleasure in having the conviction of Irish audiences but playwrights take note, if you don’t win them over, Irish theatergoers aren’t afraid to walk out.