There’s a running gag through this Ernst Lubitsch classic. The joke is two-fold. One part of the joke relies on Joseph Tura being a notoriously bad actor in wartime Poland. He draws out soliloquies, hams his way through every scene, and is easily rattled by any critique of his work. The other part revolves around Stanislav Sobinski, who is secretly carrying on an affair with Tura’s wife. Because she knows how long Tura will take to deliver Hamlet’s most famous monologue, she tells her paramour to use that as his cue to come visit her backstage.
When you put them both together, what you get is an actor who thinks he’s great, but sends the same audience member running at the same point every night.
What’s really twisted is that while this is a carefully constructed gag, in some ways it’s emblematic of the attitude of a lot of live theatre these days.
Given the theatre nerd I married, I actually find myself in playhouses more often than most. Part of it involves me being a good sport, but most of it allows me to see shows that really give me special things to take away. It’s a pretty good arrangement actually. The downside is that it subjects me to live audiences, who are behaving worse and worse with every passing year. You know all of those complaints we have about unruly movie audiences? At live performances those complaints come into play too…except there, your annoyance is heightened by a much higher cost of admission.
I don’t understand how this became so prevalent how we became such a self-centred audience that we feel like it’s okay to talk, text, and disrupt everyone around us – including the performers.
When I was a boy, it was drilled into my head that attending such things was something special, and it came with special rules. One had to dress-up, keep quiet, keep still, and show appreciation. Now? People show-up in sweat pants, provide a running commentary, shuffle about at will and barely know how to show their appreciation.
Tura might deserve his disruption, so brutal is his skill (“What he did to Shakespeare, we are doing now to Poland” says one Nazi), and to this film’s credit, all involved do an amazing job at selling the gag – especially Jack Benny, whose incredulity you can slightly make out in the image above.
Unfortunately, nowadays Tura might be gifted with the acting chops of Olivier, and he’d still have to put up with interruptions like Sobinski’s. The hitch is that nowadays, the interruptions wouldn’t be for something as charged as a secret rendezvous with a beautiful lover; they’d be for Instagram photos or comments to our companions about how something was “SO funny!” Really, it needs to end, and maybe we can all lead by example.
As a great man once said: “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite,/That ever I was born to set it right./Nay, come, let’s go together”
Three more from TO BE OR NOT TO BE for the road…
This series of posts is inspired by the “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series at The Film Experience. Do check out all of the awesome entires in their series so far