Are theatrical spoilers ever forgivable?

Spoilers 450x300by Simon Fearn

Forgive me reader, for I have sinned. I have inadvertently ruined glorious nights of theatrical enjoyment for innocent and unsuspecting Durham students. In my reviewing ardour, I couldn’t resist giving the game away. I am the author of theatrical spoilers.

The thing is, I couldn’t help myself. To neglect to rhapsodize about the post-plot twist section of the production would feel like a job half done. How could I justify my generous star rating with only a few vague comments about the first act, and neglect to take my hat off to a killer development in the second? Would you trust a coy reviewer, who in fear of reducing the element of surprise, tells you next to nothing about the production they are meant to be persuading you to see (or indeed, avoid at all costs)? Reviewing is a constant tight rope walk, and in my generous lashings of plot detail, I fear I may have toppled off into the abyss.

It’s not just me who you have to fear. Spoilers are everywhere, lurking around every corner in a dastardly attempt to catch theatre goers unawares. Despite being an offender myself, I often read theatre reviews with a sense of trepidation, and sometimes only after the event, so I can go into the auditorium fresh and waiting to be surprised. Reading the programme can also be a perilous experience: the Globe and the RSC make a habit of putting plot summaries slap bang in the middle of theirs. In cinemas, too, it’s common practice for upcoming movies to be squeezed like a lemon and diluted into a spoiler ridden trailer. It seems we are so hungry and impatient for information about upcoming productions that we often have no qualms about spoiling our enjoyment on the night.

Despite this bleak assessment of human nature, we need not despair quite yet. I am of the opinion that plays, unlike films and certain novels, often don’t rely on plot twists. Ever since its origins, theatre has been doing a very good job of compromising its own surprises, without the help of pesky reviewers like me. Imagine yourself as a theatre-loving Athenian on their way to the Dionysia. Would you attend a performance of Oedipus Rex, assuming Oedipus had a perfectly normal sex life? As you sat through Medea, would you expect the protagonist to be a model parent? These playwrights, instead of satisfying an audience’s insatiable demand for surprise, pillage plots from well-known myths.

The endings of many plays are utterly predictable, and yet we still flock to see them.

Not only that, the very genre of the play is liable to lead to a predictable ending. Comedies will undoubtedly end in multiple matrimonies: As You Like It has four! Even when Shakespeare was brave enough to hold off the wedding bells, he had to go and signpost this radical diversion from the formula by calling the play Love’s Labour’s Lost. Tragedies will undoubtedly end in at least the protagonist’s death, at best a complete bloodbath (fun fact: there’s twenty reported deaths in The Crucible). If a reviewer were to applaud a lead actor’s teary death scene in King Lear, this surely doesn’t count as a spoiler. The endings of many plays are utterly predictable, and yet we still flock to see them.

In a 2013 report by Ticketmaster, the primary reason for attending a performance was the content and storyline (51%), with the cast (5%) and the theatre company (3%) lagging significantly behind. It follows that, if plot is the fundamental reason for going to the theatre, then spoiling it in any way is a tremendous faux pas. But for me this doesn’t make a lot of sense. I’ve seen four productions of Hamlet and enjoyed the fourth just as much as the first, even though the prince died at the end every time. My evening was not ruined by having a foreknowledge of exactly where the plot was going.

Yes, some theatre is dependent on suspense. Agatha Christie was particularly irate about reviewers spoiling the endings of her plays, so much so that audiences of The Mousetrap are sworn to secrecy at the end of every performance. But not every play is a whodunit, waiting to be solved at the end with a flamboyant flourish. Theatre is not so much about what happens, but how you experience what happens. It’s about individual performances, set design and little directorial quirks. As a reviewer, I may have underestimated quite how important plot is for many people, and accidentally revealed key information so I could tell you all about how great so-and-so’s surprise character development was or how arresting an unexpected change in mood proved.

I hate spoilers as much as the next person, but sometimes they’re not worth getting hung up on. Unless you’re the sort of person who is genuinely shocked when Danny and Sandy get together at the end of Grease, for most productions there’s not a lot to spoil. If you are unlucky enough to stumble across a spoiler before an evening at the theatre, think of it as an opportunity to appreciate all the subtle hints the production drops before the big reveal. Look beyond the initial shock to see quite how deftly the production toys with our expectations and our heart strings.  Honestly, it’s lots of fun.

Illustration: Mariam Hayat 

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