Features Published 3 February 2011

A Cough and a Spit

The fuss about coughing in theatres.

Daniel B. Yates

It was Keats that reported a winter’s day, “where the frost has wrought a silence”. A peaceful and familiar image, and yet not the whole truth. You’d have thought that, out of anyone, the poet might have known that prior to stillness invariably lies a spasm. That under the frost blanket; a shiver.  One thing’s for certain, young Keats clearly wasn’t attending a matinee that day. Because at this time of year, in the darkness before the spring, there is no silence.  Larynges are loosened, and audiences who had quite obediently spent the warmer months in perfect quietude, erupt in fits of theatre coughing.

Attending a season’s turn production at the National Theatre last year, I was reminded how devastating coughing can be to a production. The crisp idiolect of the script was almost entirely obscured with the rushing sounds of sputum-laden guff, a tide of ropey human noise, “a platoon of elephants galloping through a swamp in Wellies full of vomit” as John Lahr once described Billy Connolly’s cough. If as Shakespeare had it a cough could “drown the parson’s saw”, there was faint hope for the small actor on stage that night, conveying the news of his character’s tuberculosis in little more than a young, healthy squeak of the pips.

This irritation puts me in certain company. Last year at the Royal Court, Julian Fellows exploded at a fellow audience member whose diaphragm had risen to the condition of the intolerable. “You must stop coughing” he declared loudly, halting the play in its tracks, cowing the poor lunger into silence. Famously John Barrymore responded to a noisily coughing audience by sending for a large fish during the interval. Reappearing onstage he heaved it into the front row. “Busy yourself with that you damned walruses, and let the rest of us get on with the play.”

Barrymore’s father, Lionel, was well received in 1921 for his lead in “The Claw”, yet did not prevent a Times theatre critic recording “the most bronchial audience of the season that coughed competitively through each scene and applauded with vehemence at its conclusion.” In the same year Parisian actors went so far as to organise a “campaign against coughing”, backed by specialist testimony which maintained that only 25% of coughs in theatres were biologically necessary.

Dubious “specialist testimony” notwithstanding, theatre typically gives little room to the flat empiricisms of medical science. Disease can be subject to the will, something to be conquered in the spirit of the show going on. Disease can be a narrative event. A consumptive aesthetic. An affront to art. That the Times critic linked coughing to applause is perhaps telling. There is a widespread belief amongst actors that coughing is as unnerving a sign of depreciation, as applause is a comforting measure of validation.

It’s a sensitive environment that encourages so many to follow Pinter’s attribution of the cough to an “act of aggression”. This is born out by the reputation of the playwright Lillian Hellman, who would sit in rehearsals coughing her disapproval, until her Broadway director approached her one evening with the words; “go home and fire us all if you don’t like it. But don’t sit there coughing. It scares the hell of out of them.”

David Hare recounts his time as an actor performing his one-man show Via Dolorosa in his book Acting Up. “A man in the front row didn’t just cough, he racked and rattled the phlegm from his lungs, filling every tender moment with the expectorant hawks of a dying mammoth. At one point I resorted to gesturing towards him to hold him under while I worked. I reminded myself of how often I have told actors, ‘don’t worry if it’s a bad audience. Audiences are made up of individuals. For ten people out of the five hundred it’s going to be an important night in their lives. Play for them.’ I came off swearing to Simon, the ASM, that they were the worst bunch of motherfuckers I’d ever encountered.”

Whatever makes up this psychosomatic linking of audience to stage, it need not always be rendered as hostile. Hare describes a run where Anthony Hopkins had a tickle in his throat, causing the audience to cough all the way through in a sympathetic, unconscious attempt to clear the actor’s throat. Ian McKellen also felt no need to apportion blame when he wrote “if the audience is coughing don’t blame the weather or nicotine, blame yourself for not retaining their attention.”

Correspondingly there are ways to quell coughing that don’t subscribe to the Julian Fellow’s method of righteous entitlement. As one theatregoer wrote in a letter to the Daily Telegraph from the 1940s, “Sir – Persistent coughing and sniffing at the theatre can be dealt with by passing the offender a cough sweet and a tissue”, recalling the offer to Elmire in Moliere’s Tartuffe “Your cough is very bad … would you accept this piece of liqourice?”.

Moliere’s own cough he would attempt to integrate into his parts to comic effect. Until, of course, he died onstage from a tuberculotic haemorrhage, ejecting fountains of blood up the curtains while playing the hypochondriac Argan during a royal performance of his Le Malade Imaginaire. A parallel story can be found in the British Music Halls of the Edwardian era. George Formby Senior, the equally famous father of the ukelele vaudevillian, bore the consumptive marks of sulphur on his lungs from his days working in a Manchester steel foundry. His trademark was a deep racking cough, with which he would frequently break his routine and observe “coughing better tonight – coughing summat champion”. One night in Newcastle in 1921 he coughed so hard he broke a blood vessel and promptly died.  A reminder, as if one were needed, that coughing can be both a social and a medical condition at once.

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Daniel B. Yates

Educated by the state, at LSE and Goldsmiths, Daniel co-founded Exeunt in late 2010. The Guardian has characterised his work as “breaking with critical tradition” while his writing on live culture &c has appeared in TimeOut London, i-D Magazine, Vice Magazine, and elsewhere. He lives and works in London E8, and is pleasant.