There’s no denying that human beings have changed through the years. For one thing no one has a tail anymore, at least no one in my acquaintance. I have read somewhere, either in various scientific journals or maybe it was Mad Magazine that people have grown larger over the centuries and live longer lives now than they once did. These are positive changes to be sure, but there have been other changes in people over the course of the past few decades that some of us don’t think are necessarily for the better. Grown men wearing flip-flops on city streets would be a case in point.
Technology has changed human behavior tremendously. People no longer visit with a person when they can phone instead. People no longer phone when they can text. And people don’t text unless it is to their advantage to do so. The recipient of a call no longer has to answer the phone; he lets the answering machine “screen” the call for him. Then he calls back only if he wants to. The same goes for texting. If a text comes in from someone he’d rather not communicate with, he simply doesn’t answer it.
E-mail replaced the old-fashioned letter. Twitter and Facebook replaced E-mail and made one-on-one communication a thing of the past. Now people speak to the world instead of each other. There are more ways to communicate these days and people are communicating less. The human of today has become more interested in the technology of communication than in actual communication.
Societal and cultural changes in the human being are so numerous and extensive that dozens of books could be written on it, in fact they have been. Next time you’re in a book store check it out, oh wait. There are no book stores anymore. You’ll have to check it out on the internet, or just trust me on it.
If you are over the age of say, fifty, consider some of the changes that you have witnessed first hand – the disappearance of civility and what was once referred to as “common courtesy;” dressing up to go out for dinner or to church or synagogue; respect for authority; going out “on a date” and going out dancing. And all the “new normals” like multiple tattooing, face piercing, having babies out of wedlock, and homosexual and lesbian marriage.
With all the changes however, there are still areas of human behavior that have remained constant throughout the last century or more. I have recently been reacquainting myself with an old book (it’s made out of paper, so you know it’s really old). It’s a compilation of Broadway theater reviews from Robert Benchley. Benchley was a noted humorist and wrote a theater column for Life Magazine and The New Yorker from 1920 until 1940. He was well known for his witty observations of the human condition. His essays are classics.
In his column dated Dec. 22, 1921, Benchley critiqued not a play but the audience when he suggested that most of the women should be eliminated from the audience because they tend to “laugh oftener at the wrong place than men.” He said women are “more startled than men at swear words or any frank remark made on the stage, and that when some women are startled in this manner they emit a nervous giggle, even though the words are uttered at the deathbed of the heroine or the scaffold of the hero.”
The masculine members of the audience were not spared by Benchley either when he accused them of being “bronchial boobs.” He wrote, “The blame in the matter of coughing is by no means on the women. Here the men assert their rights, and having a more raucous tonality at their command, completely dominate the situation.”
In a column one year earlier, Benchley told of a letter he received from playwright George Bernard Shaw complaining of over-enthusiastic audiences. Shaw wrote, “I wish you would start a campaign against the interruption of plays by applause and laughter. I have had my plays prolonged for twenty-five minutes beyond the rehearsal time by incontinent hee-hawings from the very people who complain afterwards that they had to leave before the end to catch their trains.”
“Why should a critic spend all his time picking flaws with people on the stage,” Benchley mused, “when fully as much harm is being done to the cause of the drama by the (audience)? They … loudly applaud every line that pleases them, evidently on the theory that if they make enough noise it will be repeated in a few minutes for their benefit. They hold up the performance when their favorite star enters, and prevent anyone from speaking a line until they have expressed their feelings to the utmost by beating the palms of their hands together. They think that practically everything in the play is funny, and laugh accordingly.
“And then, of course, there are the coughers. This department will continue to wage war against them until every bronchial sufferer exercises his unquestioned prerogatives under the Constitution and stays home from the theatre.”
It’s comforting to learn there are some things about human beings have haven’t changed, at least when they are part of an audience. They are as boorish as they ever were.