In these trials by fire, “The audience was involved more in dramatic collusion than dramatic illusion.” Instant feedback was incessant. People clapped or hissed throughout. “Naturally enough, actors tended to address the audience rather than one another, even though this threatened the believability of the spectacle.”

Postshow discussions often became scream-outs; the audience thumbs-downed scripts to oblivion or demanded changes — usually trimming speeches or literally killing characters. Intrepid playwrights attended these discussions, took notes, and — to earn the approval of the self-proclaimed literati and the chance for a second-night staging — promised faithful revisions.

But not to improve the play as a whole. Changes were character-based. “Watching a series of parts brought together,” theatergoers thought “in part terms rather than in terms of the play as a unity.” Even into the late 18th Century, when ensemble acting emerged from newly experimental rehearsals, “The audience was left with a fragmentary knowledge of sections and moments from the great plays.”

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