Maybe it’s just me, and if so, then you can ignore this observation. But I’m beginning to think that contemporary, especially young audiences have no idea how to respond to live theater. The serious kind, as in Shakespeare.

Worse. It’s entirely possible, at least based upon what I’ve seen lately, that actors and directors themselves are drifting away from creating coherent contexts for the spectacles they mount. Let me speak plainly: given postmodernism’s trashing of history, historical background and/or consideration for any and all authorship, the state of English-language theater seems to be suffering from serious identity issues.

Audiences raised on screen-mediated ‘entertainment’ are little inclined to suspend disbelief and dive into the midst of a text whose roots go all the way down into the European collective unconscious. We are a culture of surfaces, celebrities and digital addictions, and the results can be as alarming as audiences giggling at tragedy and tearing into bags of Cheetohs during scenes of strategic intimacy.

Take a hypothetical audience I might have encountered last week. Pretend this audience was gathered to enjoy a play written in 1603. The audience I have in mind – many of whom no longer read anything in print, much less Shakespeare – had no idea how to engage with the words, the drama, the action on a generic, reference-free stage.  So they responded to the surfaces offered, gestures, shouts, etc.  In short, the audience laughed at all the wrong moments, as if they were watching a sit-com on TV.  They had no emotional or intellectual inclination to enter the drama/text deeply – and they had absolutely no help in this regard from visual design.

But since it takes two to tango, I also felt the missing traction was equally the fault of actors brandishing disparate styles and backgrounds and suddenly showing up in a single space. No unifying direction had been provided, and no insight as to the words, the emotional import, the historical background (another pomo no-no) was in operation. A group of actors seemed to have stepped out into the evening from many separate planets. Lost in lack of translation.

(Never have I so longed to hear these words spoken with an English accent, by actors trained in old-school traditions.)

No one quite knew why they were saying or doing what they were. Neither actors, nor audience. In almost three decades years of watching live theater here I have seen audiences gradually uncouple, disengage, and now, become ignorant (or at least heedless) of what these magnificent texts, these bits of cultural revelation, might mean. But boy can they picnic!

And in all that laughing and eating, no one seemed to miss the play that failed to materialize.