Skip to main content

Cell phone made me a theater vigilante

By Kevin D. Williamson, Special to CNN
updated 9:37 AM EDT, Mon May 20, 2013
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
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT