The audience as critic : a study of audience responses to popular theatre
To begin with, the role of theatre, and especially popular theatre, is contextualised within the theory of art and society and the debate about 'popular' and 'mass' culture. The thesis attempts to reassess the possibilities for positive and dynamic relations between audience and theatre within this context, through an investigation of some actual relationships between them. What is defined as 'mainstream' theatre is the basis of the research. The three major productions studied are A Day in the Death of Joe Egg by Peter Nichols, Bloody Poetry by Howard Brenton, and Blood Brothers by Willy Russell. Qualitative research on audience responses for each play resulted in 37 in-depth interviews. A chapter is devoted to the problem of methodology for such a qualitative study; in particular, to the lack of any model method for analysis. The interview material is presented and discussed play by play. Initially, a broad 'consensus' view of each play, provides a background to the description and analysis of responses. Analysis is carried out under the headings of different 'cultural profiles', determined in relation to the play as 'accordant', 'discordant' or 'neutral' in orientation. The influences of such cultural profiles are shown in some cases to predetermine the perceived meaning or effect of the play, independently of the executants' intentions. Some responses are more readily understood as determined most importantly by a personal 'inner history', which can be even more resilient to change. Despite the predominance of habitual notions, it is found that particular kinds of theatrical technique are more successful than others in overriding biases corresponding to cultural profile. This is especially true of theatricality which raises the emotional identification of respondents with characters or events on stage without mobilising stereotypes. Findings indicate the importance of the cultural profile and personal history of audiences in any theory of the theatre's social function. The innate conservatism which characterises cultural profiles is seen to be a crucial factor. Conclusions suggest a need for models which do not rely on preconceptions or hidden assumptions about audience response. In addition, the emphasis which emerges on the autonomy of audience as critic and creator raises questions about the function and aspirations of certain types of theatre.