10 Plays That Made Audiences Faint, Scream, and Riot

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iStock

Any stage adaptation of 1984 was bound to make headlines in our current political climate. But the ones following the Olivia Wilde-starring show on Broadway have nothing to do with George Orwell or the current President of the United States. They’re all about the audience members, who are apparently fainting, screaming, vomiting, and getting into fights.

The extreme reaction is understandable to anyone who has seen the play: This version of 1984 constantly keeps viewers on edge with loud blares and bright lights, toying with the audience’s own sanity through its disjointed, fragmented structure. But that’s all just a prelude to the graphic torture scene, which features torrents of blood and a face mask full of scurrying rats (or at least, some very convincing rat sound effects).

This kind of shocking, visceral theater might feel new, but it’s been around for a while. Here are 10 other plays from the past that triggered an intense audience reaction.

1. THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD

By unknown (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Archive, Boston) -  Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

John Millington Synge’s play provoked an extreme audience reaction—but to be fair, he must have seen it coming. Before The Playboy of the Western World even opened at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1907, it was drawing ire. Synge wasn’t a popular playwright among Irish nationalists, who resented his language choice (Hiberno-English rather than pure Gaelic) as well as his themes (wives abandoning their husbands, sons killing their fathers). When the play’s premiere night arrived, that anger spilled into the actual theater. The mostly male audience members stormed the stage, outraged by the titular playboy’s weakened masculinity, as well as a group of scantily clad female cast members.

According to The Guardian, they screamed, “Kill the author!” over the actors’ dialogue. Sounds like every playwright’s worst nightmare, but Synge took a different view of the whole controversy: “It is better any day to have the row we had last night, than to have your play fizzling out in half-hearted applause,” he wrote to his fiancée and lead actress Molly Allgood the next day. “Now we’ll be talked about. We’re an event in the history of the Irish stage.”

2. DRACULA

By Work Projects Administration Poster Collection - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

If you’re not used to Dracula, he can be quite the ghastly sight. Audiences weren’t prepared for the blood-sucking count when Hamilton Deane’s stage adaption of the Bram Stoker novel hit London’s West End in 1927. For the run, Deane added a uniformed nurse to the theater staff. She would be on hand with smelling salts to revive any theatergoers who fainted. Many saw this as a publicity stunt—and it was—but the nurse came in handy. She once helped 39 woozy audience members at a single performance. Other theaters took notice; a similar nurse assisted American audiences when the play came to New York and San Francisco.

3. SAVED

Saved is a complex play about poverty, but it’s mostly remembered for one distressing scene. In it, a group of young men throw stones at a baby in its stroller, ultimately killing the child. The audiences who first saw this scene in 1965 at the Royal Court Theatre did not react well. According to The Telegraph, several people yelled, “Revolting!” or “Dreadful!” before storming out. Those weren’t the only negative reviews.

At the time, British theater was subject to a government censor, the Lord Chamberlain. He told playwright Edward Bond to remove the offending scene, as well as other obscenities, from the play. But Bond refused, which eventually landed director William Gaskill in legal trouble. There was a trial and a judge slapped the Saved team with a £50 fine. But it was the beginning of the end for theatrical censorship in the UK, which was abolished in 1968. Saved is often credited with helping artists win that battle.

4. THE GRAND GUIGNOL

The Grand Guignol is not a play, but a theater. Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol operated in Paris between 1897 and 1962. In that time, the theater mounted over 1000 productions that routinely made audiences collapse. It was such a famous and influential place that “The Grand Guignol” is now shorthand for theatrical horror. That’s largely thanks to Max Maurey, who served as the theater's director from 1898 to 1914 and who supposedly judged the success of his plays by how many audience members passed out. The horrors of The Grand Guignol included eye-gouging (in Crime in a Madhouse), “realistic” throat-cutting (in The Hussy), and corpses floating in acid vats (in The Corpse Merchant). No wonder Maurey kept a house doctor on hand.

5. DRY LAND

Ruby Rae Spiegel wrote Dry Land when she was still a student at Yale University. According to The New York Times, she was inspired by an article about DIY abortions to tell the story of Amy, a teen girl who asks her friend Ester to help her get rid of an unwanted pregnancy. Her eventual miscarriage is staged in extremely bloody fashion. Spiegel included a warning to audiences when the play was first produced on Yale’s campus in 2014, but a young woman still fainted. This reaction would follow the play as it moved to major cities. Men in London and Sydney also passed out during subsequent performances. 

6. THE ROMANS IN BRITAIN

Laurence Burns/Evening Standard/Getty Images

Like Saved, The Romans in Britain upset audiences so much that it ended up in court. This time, the controversial scene concerned a male rape. According to The Guardian, just the rehearsals of this scene caused a maintenance man to drop his paint can. But the first public preview performance in 1980 was mostly met with stunned silence, not the uproar everyone had been expecting. Then, a few prominent names made noise.

Sir Horace Cutler, a board member of the theater staging the play, loudly stormed out and complained that his wife was forced to “cover her head” during the scene. His reaction was nothing compared to crusading moralist Mary Whitehouse, who sent the police to The National Theatre three times. After the cops refused to press criminal charges, Whitehouse sued director Michael Bogdanov herself under the Sexual Offences Act. Since he had hired the actors, her lawyers reasoned, Bogdanov could be classified as a pimp. The case, unsurprisingly, fell apart mid-trial. But The Romans in Britain was not revived for nearly 30 years. Director Samuel West finally brought it back to the stage in 2006.

7. VOICES IN THE DARK

Voices in the Dark mainly takes place in a remote cabin. The lead character arrives there during a snowstorm. She also happens to have a psychopath stalking her. As you can imagine, things get scary. The thriller was so effective that it routinely had theatergoers shrieking during its original run in Seattle in 1994. “I just love to stand in the back of the theater and hear that audience scream,” playwright/director John Pielmeier told The Christian Science Monitor at the time. When the play made the leap to Broadway in 1999, it once again made headlines for its loud audience.

8. TITUS ANDRONICUS

There’s no exact date, but William Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus sometime between 1590 and 1593. Over four centuries later, the brutal play still has an incredible power on audiences. Case in point: the 2014 revival staged at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. The production was so gory, it made over 100 audience members faint or flee the theater during its run. Much of the show’s shock is written right into the original text—Shakespeare’s play contains 14 deaths along with rape and mutilation—but director Lucy Bailey apparently mounted this production with a particular aim to upset audiences. “I find it all rather wonderful,” she told The Independent. “That people can connect so much to the characters and emotion that they have such a visceral effect. I used to get disappointed if only three people passed out.”

9. BLASTED

Sarah Kane knew how to make a debut. Her first play, Blasted, premiered at The Royal Court in 1995 to horrified reviews and sensational headlines. Jack Tinker of The Daily Mail called it a “disgusting feast of filth” while Nick Curtis of The London Evening Standard described its ending as “a systematic trawl through the deepest pits of human degradation.” Although it played to packed houses, some audience members couldn’t withstand the show’s carnage, either. Lead actress Kate Ashfield recalled seeing people faint—and it’s little wonder why, considering the play features a scene in which a soldier rapes a reporter before removing his eyeballs and eating them whole.

10. CLEANSED

Sarah Kane caused controversy a second time when her play Cleansed was revived in 2016. During the first week alone, 40 people walked out and five required medical attention after fainting. What was making them ill? The play is about a sadistic doctor named Tinker who holds people in a torture den, so there’s lots of mutilation. Someone’s tongue is ripped out 20 minutes into the show. But there’s also rape, electrocution, castration, a forced gender reassignment surgery, and a fatal injection into someone’s eyeball. The revival received mixed reviews, but it was a notable achievement for the deceased playwright, who committed suicide in 1999. The revival marked the first time one of her plays was performed at the National Theatre.

Celebrate the Holidays With the 2020 Harry Potter Funko Pop Advent Calendar

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Funko

Though the main book series and movie franchise are long over, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter remains in the spotlight as one of the most popular properties in pop-culture. The folks at Funko definitely know this, and every year the company releases a new Advent calendar based on the popular series so fans can count down to the holidays with their favorite characters.

SIGN UP TODAY: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping Newsletter!

Right now, you can pre-order the 2020 edition of Funko's popular Harry Potter Advent calendar, and if you do it through Amazon, you'll even get it on sale for 33 percent off, bringing the price down from $60 to just $40.

Funko Pop!/Amazon

Over the course of the holiday season, the Advent calendar allows you to count down the days until Christmas, starting on December 1, by opening one of the tiny, numbered doors on the appropriate day. Each door is filled with a surprise Pocket Pop! figurine—but outside of the trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, the company isn't revealing who you'll be getting just yet.

Calendars will start shipping on October 15, but if you want a head start, go to Amazon to pre-order yours at a discount.

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10 Facts About David Fincher's The Social Network for Its 10th Anniversary

Jesse Eisenberg stars in David Fincher's The Social Network (2010).
Jesse Eisenberg stars in David Fincher's The Social Network (2010).
Merrick Morton/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

The Social Network—a movie made when Facebook was less than seven years old and the social media era was relatively new—seemed destined to age poorly. But in the decade since its premiere in October 2010, the film’s depiction of the website and its young founder, Mark Zuckerberg, is more relevant than ever.

Even if you haven’t logged onto Facebook in years, the film offers plenty to love, from David Fincher’s detailed direction to Aaron Sorkin’s Oscar-winning script. In honor of its 10-year anniversary, here are 10 facts about The Social Network.

1. Aaron Sorkin started writing the script for The Social Network before the book it's based on was published.

Aaron Sorkin makes a cameo in The Social Network (2010).Merrick Morton, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

The Social Network is officially an adaptation of The Accidental Billionaires, Ben Mezrich's 2009 book detailing the founding of Facebook. But according to screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, he had already completed 80 percent of the script by the time he read the book. The project came to him in the form of a 14-page book proposal the publisher was shopping around to filmmakers ahead of the title's release. “I said yes on page three," Sorkin told Deadline in 2011. "That’s the fastest I’ve ever said yes to anything."

Instead of waiting for The Accidental Billionaires to be completed and published, Sorkin started working on the script immediately, doing his own first-hand research for much of the process instead of referring to the book.

2. Shia LaBeouf turned down the role of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network.

When Transformers star Shia LaBeouf turned down the role of The Social Network’s lead character, Jesse Eisenberg was hired to play Mark Zuckerberg instead. Superbad's Jonah Hill was another star who came close to being cast in the movie, in his case as Napster founder Sean Parker; ultimately, Fincher decided Hill wasn’t right for the role and cast Justin Timberlake instead.

3. The Social Network wasn’t filmed at Harvard.

Harvard University is integral to the legend of Facebook, and setting the first half of The Social Network there was non-negotiable. Filmmakers ran into trouble, however, when attempting to get the school's blessing. The 1970 adaptation of Love Story been shot there, and damaged the campus; the school has reportedly banned all commercial filming on the premises since then. To get around this, The Social Network crew shot the Harvard scenes at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland and two prep schools, Phillips Academy Andover and Milton Academy, in Massachusetts.

4. David Fincher did sneak one shot of Harvard into The Social Network.

To convince the audience that they were indeed seeing Harvard, Fincher couldn’t resist sneaking in a shot of the campus’s iconic architecture. When Jesse Eisenberg runs across Harvard Square (which is not on Harvard property) in the beginning film, some nearby arches (which are on Harvard property) appear in the background. Fincher got the lighting he needed for this scene by hiring a street mime to roll a cart with lights on it onto the campus.

“If security were to stop him, the mime wouldn’t talk," The Social Network’s director of photography Jeff Cronenweth told Variety. "By the time they got him out of there, we would have accomplished our shot.”

5. Natalie Portman gave Aaron Sorkin the inside scoop on Harvard.

Natalie Portman attended Harvard from 1999 to 2003, briefly overlapping with fellow star alum Mark Zuckerberg. While enrolled, she dated a member of one of the university’s elite final clubs, which are an important part of The Social Network’s plot. When she learned that Sorkin was writing the screenplay for the movie, she invited the writer over to hear her insider knowledge. Sorkin gave the actress a shout-out in the final script. During one of the deposition scenes, Eisenberg's Harvard-era Zuckerberg is described as “the biggest thing on a campus that included 19 Nobel Laureates, 15 Pulitzer Prize winners, two future Olympians, and a movie star.”

6. Armie Hammer and his body double went to twin boot camp for The Social Network.

Armie Hammer and Josh Pence (as Armie Hammer) in The Social Network (2010).Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Armie Hammer is credited as playing both Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, but he wasn’t acting alone in his scenes. Josh Pence was cast as a body double and Hammer’s face was digitally pasted over his in post-production. For every scene where both twins appear on screen, Hammer and Pence played separate Winklevi, and then they would swap roles and shoot the scene again. This method allowed the characters to physically interact in ways that wouldn’t have been possible with split screens. Pence’s face may be missing from the movie, but his physical performance was still essential to selling the brothers' dynamic. He and Hammer worked with an acting coach for 10 months to nail down the characters’ complementary body language.

7. The Social Network's tagline was changed at the last minute.

For The Social Network’s main poster, designer Neil Kellerhouse made Jesse Eisenberg’s face the focal point. Over it, he superimposed the memorable tagline: “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.” Originally, the text read “300 million friends,” but it was changed under the assumption that Facebook would hit half a billion users in time for the movie’s October 2010 release.

“We were really hedging our bets," Kellerhouse told IndieWire. "But we scooped them on their own story because right as the film was coming out they got 500 million [members] so we got their publicity as well. It worked out super serendipitously.”

8. Fight Club’s Tyler Durden (kind of) makes a cameo in The Social Network.

Sharp-eyed viewers may have noticed the Easter egg David Fincher snuck into The Social Network. In the scene where Mark Zuckerberg is checking someone’s Facebook to cheat on a test, the name “Tyler Durden” can be seen in the top-left corner of the profile. Tyler Durden is the name of the narrator’s alter ego (played by Brad Pitt) in 1999’s Fight Club. Fincher directed both films.

9. The real Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t a fan of The Social Network.

Andrew Garfield and Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network (2010).Merrick Morton, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

The Social Network doesn’t paint Mark Zuckerberg in the most flattering light, and unsurprisingly, the real-life Facebook founder wasn’t happy about it. Following the movie’s release, he called out its “hurtful” inaccuracies, specifically citing the fictional Mara Rooney character that’s used as his motivation for founding the website. But even he admits that some details were spot-on. “It’s interesting what stuff they focused on getting right," Zuckerberg said at a Stanford event. "Like every single fleece and shirt I had in that movie is actually a shirt or fleece that I own.”

10. A sequel to The Social Network is not out of the question.

The Social Network premiered when Facebook was less than a decade old, and the story of the internet giant has only gotten more dramatic since then. Since settling lawsuits with Eduardo Saverin and the Winkelvoss twins, Facebook has been battling scandals related to privacy issues and its influence on the 2016 election. The last 10 years have provided more than enough material for a sequel to The Social Network, and both Aaron Sorkin and Jesse Eisenberg have expressed interest in such a project. As of now, there are no confirmed plans for a follow-up.