I never considered how impactful the laughter of audience members can be, not only to the performers, but to the other audience members as well. Our first show we saw as a class was “The Goat or Who is Sylvia?” written in 2002 by Edward Albee. It was an absolutely shocking piece of absurdist theatre which took on very serious topics, such as bestiality, incest, adultery, and betrayal. The plot of the play is quite literally about a man who engages in sexual relations with a goat, and the chaos and conflicts that ensue in the family as a result. While the show begins by introducing a comedic tone, there is an obvious shift that occurs with the supposed ‘fall’ of the tragic hero, and it appeared that a considerable portion of the audience did not grasp the switch.
Laughter intermittently occurred throughout the production and to the end of the play, which left several of my classmates upset and unsettled, particularly the ones who had studied the play prior to our trip. The fact that the laughter continued even after the tone of the show turned serious gives rise to several speculative questions for me. Why were people laughing when Stevie (the betrayed wife) threw pieces of furniture to release her pain and despair? Why did people laugh when the murdered goat was revealed on stage at the play’s end?
There are several theories as to why humans laugh and lots of research about different circumstances that cause laughter. According to Dr. Lickerman in Psychology Today, nervous laughter has been “noted to occur in many psychological experiments when subjects found themselves placed under a high degree of emotional stress” (Lickerman, 2011). For example, there is a famous study conducted by Stanley Milgram to discover why people blindly follow authority; the test subjects were made to deliver painful electrical currents to an “unseen” person. Milgram noted that a majority of the subjects began to laugh nervously when they heard the screams of pain, as they became extremely uncomfortable. This draws an effective parallel to the audience of “The Goat”, seeing as laughter occurred at very serious, but also uncomfortable, moments in the show.
The day after we saw the play, my class had a discussion where we had the opportunity to debrief the show; as I previously stated, many of my classmates were bothered by the incessant laughter of the audience. There were various reasons for their distaste, largely due to what kind of personal histories and experiences they had coming into the experience. Some of my peers were offended by some of the laughter throughout the audience because they felt that those spectators were not being sensitive to the grim topics being very bluntly discussed.
For others, the laughter caused them to be annoyed because it seemed to take them out of the moment. (These were primarily the students who had studied the show academically and therefore knew when the switch from comedic to tragic tone occurred.) They were trying to engage in the moment seriously but were distracted and floored by the clear lack of understanding of the audience as a whole.
The audience laughter did not necessarily evoke any feelings of disturbance in myself personally, but I think that was because I was extremely shocked for the majority of the play. While it was a very enjoyable experience, the subject matter covered topics that I was not comfortable with and therefore I was far too hypnotized by the absurdity before me to react to the laughter surrounding me. For a moment try and imagine an entire play where you are constantly bombarded by dialogue which inevitably causes mental imagery of bestiality. Then imagine being provided an actual image of the helpless animal who was taken advantage of as the final picture of the play, and tell me; would you laugh at the ‘kid’?
Lickerman, Alex. “Why We Laugh.” Psychology Today. 2011. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/happiness-in-world/201101/why-we-laugh