Whenever I'm in London, as I was for a few days last week, I make it a point to see a play. Which I did last week.
The play was the West End hit "War Horse," an astonishing piece of theater in which very sophisticated puppetry creates the illusion of real-life horses on stage.
The play, the story of a boy and his horse, and how that horse ends up as a charger in the last hopeless days of cavalries during World War I, tends toward the overly sentimental. It's "Black Beauty" meets "All Quiet on the Western Front."
But the puppetry is nothing short of astonishing. If you know how a horse moves and behaves, you soon begin to believe you are looking at real horses. (It's a great play to take kids to, especially girls who are into riding.)
The house was packed at the New London Theatre near Covent Garden. Packed and utterly silent (except for some teary sniffles here and there) till the end, when it erupted in great cheering.
I'm always struck by the comportment of English theatergoers. In short, they know how to behave.
By contrast, going to the theater in New York has lost most of its appeal for me because increasing numbers of the audience simply do not know how to behave. Some people act as if they're at a ballgame. Last year, my wife went to a much anticipated production of "Hamlet" and fled after about an hour because a good number of people in the audience seemed to think it was a situation comedy.
Many formerly loyal Broadway theatergoers learned years ago to avoid any serious play in which a well-known movie or television actor appears, mainly because a celebrity name draws in people who don't know how to behave in a theater. It only takes a few louts to ruin it for everyone.
There is an excellent story in today's Wall Street Journal on the decline in good comportment among Broadway audiences. The headline is classic: "Are Misbehavin'" David Hyde Pierce tells of a group in the front row passing a bucket of chicken back and forth, for example. Patti LuPone blows a gasket over bad behavior. Some idiot arriving late during the Holocaust drama "Irena's Vow" shouts to actress Tovah Feldshuh to halt her monologue onstage while he makes his way to his seat. And so on. (I think the link works, though if there is a pay wall I apologize.)
In London they've still got theater manners. But it's a long way to go for a show.