10 Plays That Made Audiences Faint, Scream, and Riot
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
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.”
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.