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
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1225 GMT (2025 HKT)
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1128 GMT (1928 HKT)
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1241 GMT (2041 HKT)
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2218 GMT (0618 HKT)
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2231 GMT (0631 HKT)
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT