As someone who has been in theaters where people have not turned off their cell phones, I have many long, elaborate fantasies about what I would like to do to those people.
In some of these fantasies, I merely clear my throat loudly or poke them a little with a sharpened umbrella.
In my more grotesque imaginings, I shout, “FIRE!”
“Where?” everyone else in the theater asks.
“Right here,” I say, touching a lit match to the hem of the offender’s coat.
And then there are the ones where I pluck the phone from their hands and toss it dramatically out of reach.
Well, National Review writer Kevin Williamson actually did just that. He seized a patron’s phone “utilizing my famously feline agility” and tossed it across the room. She slapped him. He was escorted from the theater. “There is talk of criminal charges,” he adds.
It’s an impulse to which I am intensely sympathetic, even if Williamson’s dismissive description of the cell-phone-using offenders as “two parties of women of a certain age, the sad sort with too much makeup and too-high heels, and insufficient attention span for following a two-hour musical” does little to endear him to the reader.
People are already hailing him as a hero, although the situation raises a few questions — she was texting, not talking, which I consider a lesser offense, and he did throw her phone, which given the amount of stock people place in our phones these days is almost but not quite like tossing someone’s right hand across the room, except that your right hand’s screen might not break when it landed.
Still, who hasn’t wanted to do something along these lines? To take the offending cell phone and toss it away, not caring where it lands! What rapture! What bliss! Why not? The person clicking or buzzing or ringing in the far corner of your vision is not respecting certain basic principles of civility. Why should you? At that moment when you are sitting in the third act of Hamlet as he tries to decide whether to be or not, and suddenly you grow aware of a faint buzzing noise, crescendoing to one of the more noxious default ringtones, who has not wanted to seize the offending instrument and toss it as far as possible, preferably into a large body of water? “Please silence that thing,” you think, “or you’ll push that poor Dane over the edge.”
The whole expensive illusion shatters. The glowing screen and the faint cricket clicking of a text being composed is enough to make the hardiest theatergoer’s skin crawl, although both offenses pale compared to the ringing. There she is, ruining the expensive suspension of disbelief you paid $50 for. If you wanted to see people texting, you’d have gone to a movie.
Then again, with phones almost second limbs these days, maybe this is unrealistic. Maybe glancing down to check a text midway through the third act is the price a doctor pays to go to the theater at all. Maybe that kid who appears to be ignoring the performance in favor of his phone is actually live-tweeting it and ginning up interest in the play and will Singlehandedly Save Independent Theater. Maybe, you think, as steam pours out your ears.
Maybe the people who are being rude with their phones would still be rude if phones were denied them, crinkling their candy wrappers and loudly whispering, “I DON’T UNDERSTAND — WHICH ONE IS SUPPOSED TO BE TOSCA?” to the people who brought them there in the first place and are just as mortified as you.
But how awful those cell phones are. Maybe as Alyssa Rosenberg suggests, there are better ways of discouraging people from using them than slapping them out of strangers’ hands. It’s a lovely visual.
But for most of us, this sort of dream stays in the realm of fantasy. Williamson might call it cowardice. I would call it politeness. The way to fight rudeness is not with vigilante rudeness of your own. But how much one wants to.