Skip to main content

Cell phone made me a theater vigilante

By Kevin D. Williamson, Special to CNN
May 20, 2013 -- Updated 1337 GMT (2137 HKT)
Kazino, the venue of
Kazino, the venue of "Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812," where Kevin Williamson had it with a theater-goer's phone.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Theater critic Kevin Williamson is sick of rude audiences who talk or text during plays
  • A woman sitting next to him wouldn't stop using her phone, so he took it and threw it
  • She slapped him; he was kicked out. But he's glad he did it, calls it an act of criticism
  • In part he blames managers who let people in late and don't stop distracting behavior

Editor's note: Kevin D. Williamson writes the theater column for The New Criterion and is a roving correspondent for National Review. His new book, "The End Is Near And It's Going To Be Awesome: How Going Broke Will Leave America Richer, Happier, and More Secure," was published last week.

(CNN) -- I have the great privilege of writing the theater column for The New Criterion, the arts-and-culture journal founded by New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer and pianist Samuel Lipman in 1982. Some people have to be in an office at 8 a.m., but I get to be at the theater at 8 p.m. It is a pretty sweet gig.

The power of theater comes from its ability to surprise. Once or twice a season, I am treated to an unexpected discovery: While movies so often are cut, polished, CGI'd and market-researched to death, even the most commercial piece of tourist-bait theater -- lookin' at you, "Evita" -- contains within it an element of unpredictability.

Kevin Williamson
Kevin Williamson

The audiences, unfortunately, are drearily predictable. It's the old one-in-every-family phenomenon: They will be late. They will talk. Their cell phones will ring, and some of them, by God, will answer them. They will text, and they may even play a few rounds of Words with Friends during the third act. They are the enemy. They are depressing not because their bad manners surprise us but because they do not surprise us.

I found myself in the news this week after offering a surprise of my own at a New York theater: The woman seated next to me was on her phone throughout most of the show. (It was "Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812," in case you're wondering, a musical based on "War and Peace." You know what show you shouldn't see in New York if you have the attention span of a goldfish? One based on "War and Peace.") When she was not on her phone, she and her friends were engaged in a four-part imitation of a "Sex and the City" brunch conversation. I asked her nicely -- more than once -- but she did not respond to courtesy. She said: "Just don't look." So I took her phone from her and tossed it.

There was a moment of wonderful, shocked silence. She salvaged such self-respect as she could -- which is to say, she slapped me -- and then stalked off in search of her phone. A few minutes later, I was visited by an annoyed gentleman in a black suit and soon enough found myself out on the street.

Yes, it was worth it.

She salvaged such self-respect as she could -- which is to say, she slapped me -- and then stalked off in search of her phone.
Kevin Williamson

In part, I blame the theater managers. If you seat people who show up late, they will show up late. One or two high-profile ejections a month would go a long way toward beating some sense into the theater-going public.

But you can never design a perfect protocol. Audiences must behave. People are awful, of course -- somebody once observed that every civilization faces a barbarian invasion every generation in the form of its children -- and the Broadway and off-Broadway crowd is full of miscreants.

Theater is New York and New York is theater, and New York is not much like the rest of the country. (Shake Shack, a summertime favorite in Madison Square Park, has a menu for dogs.) New York is one of the world capitals of self-importance. And, with the possible exception of Washington, there is no city in the country where self-importance is more disconnected from actual importance. If I could buy New Yorkers for what they're worth and sell them for what they think they're worth, I'd own Fifth Avenue from Saks to Harlem.

That guy whispering into his cell phone? He isn't getting the news that little Timmy finally has a donor for his heart transplant; he's just another schmuck having a schmuck conversation with schmucks elsewhere. That guy tapping away on his smartphone isn't restructuring the derivatives markets; he's playing "Angry Birds." The lady to my right, I am willing to bet, was not receiving her orders from the Impossible Missions Force, and her phone did not self-destruct.

I destructed it. And I am not sorry.

I am advised that what I did was almost certainly a crime. And if the law, in its majesty, should decide that I need to spend a night in jail over this episode, then I will be happy to do so.

But I think of it as an act of criticism. Occasionally, a shocking gesture is called for, perhaps even a histrionic one. I may have met conventional-grade rudeness with thermonuclear counterforce, but I did it in the interests of civility, violating standards to preserve them.

Theater-goers on Twitter jokingly compared me to Batman: Not the hero Gotham deserves, the hero it needs. I don't know about that: Grumpiness is not much of a superpower. But we will live in exactly as rude and coarse a world as we will tolerate, and I do not intend to tolerate very much.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kevin Williamson.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1737 GMT (0137 HKT)
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1256 GMT (2056 HKT)
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1708 GMT (0108 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1825 GMT (0225 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT