I've always been rather taken by Erving Goffman's central methodological poser, 'What's going on here?', which can be used to interrogate any social situation. Obviously it can turn you into a bit of a weirdo. I hadn't realised until I read this that the man himself was considered a little tricky in social situations, but it stands to reason.
And in a new series of potlatch posts, I invite my readers to answer the question: what's going on here. I will be selling the gameshow TV rights to the highest bidder. Latecomers may want to consider this previous experiment.
Last week I went to see the brilliant Jerusalem with my mum at the Apollo, Shaftesbury Avenue. As we wandered through the foyer, I remarked to my mum "wow, it's a bit hectic in here". Everyone seemed excitable and the noise levels were high.
As we took our seats in the circle, the buzz had risen further. Then people started to wave at each other across the room, occasionally even beckoning at each other, raising their drinks in the air like Oasis fans. They were generally smartly dressed, and were of all ages, from early twenties to sixties. Work outing, Erving?
After the lights had gone down and the curtain had gone up, each time a new character appeared on stage, someone around us would cheer. As the first half went on, some even began to heckle at the actors. In a play about drugged-up woodland revellers, was some of the cast scattered around the audience? "Go ornnn!" someone slurred loudly from behind me. A woman across the aisle was cackling demonically. Further to my right, a young man was snoring loudly. Professor Goffman senses alcohol (my mum meanwhile was drawing somewhat improbable conclusions about people thinking they'd bought tickets for an old Victorian music hall, and ended up at a play by mistake; you can't be called a snob if you're 130 years out of date).
At the interval, I, my mum and various posh ladies scattered around us decided enough was enough (yeah, mate? you want some?). We found a manager and asked just what the bleeding heck was going on. "I'm terribly sorry, there's nothing I can do," she replied, "They're guests of the producer". Do producers often invite 30 guests on the same night, several weeks into a play's run, who turn up absolutely obliterated on booze? And are these guests so important that nobody can speak to them? Hmmmm. Erving suspects he's being lied to.
The play itself is set in a woodland in Wiltshire, outside a small historic village, at the site of traveller John Byron's caravan. Wasters half his age pass through in order to buy drugs off him and indulge, while he tells improbable (and occasionally racist) stories about his adventures and past glories. Meanwhile, the local police are trying to move him on and develop the land.
He's a hero of sorts, but certainly not a role model. In that respect I found it all quite Nietzschean, inasmuch as Nietzsche suggested we destroy our own heroes (his being Christ and Socrates) rather than mimic them. Byron is lawless, high-spirited and self-destructive, not to mention hugely entertaining. I was vaguely conscious of the implict appeals to a lost, more primal England, the anti-government politics, the pagan machismo and wondered whether this might rather appeal to a survivalist version of the BNP (or would that simply be UKIP?). The politics of the play are certainly ambivalent (or perhaps not, according to The Telegraph.)
So afterwards, on the way out of the theatre, I approached one of the more sober members of the group that was scattered around us, and asked "I'm sorry, but...who is this group? Why are they all drunk? I suppose what I really want to know is...[drum roll]... what's going on here?"
Her brief reply instantly explained all. Correct guess wins a signed potlatch tie and blazer-badge set.