The actor is in the first instance company, and we thank him for the pleasure of it.
But he is company of a very peculiar kind. I enjoy his company but he does not enjoy mine. He does not even know I am there. And this is agreeable to me, and partially accounts for the whole complex. In life, one is often lonely, and yet when company comes, one feels put out, “crowded.” While life will never let one have anything both ways, it is the mission of art to do just that. And here one finds the theatre assuaging one’s loneliness without imposing the pest of company. The actor cannot pick one out of the audience and speak to one. If that ever does happen – when, for example, a comedian picks on a spectator – this is specifically an aggression against the convention, an exception that proves the rule. Having the actors’ company, it is a pleasure not to have to do anything about it, to be polite, to respond visibly, and so on. In the theatre, one does not have to be grateful, because one’s gratitude has been paid off in cash beforehand, as in houses of even worse repute.
One’s relations with the other members of the audience are equally ambiguous. Here one is, sitting down with total strangers to share experiences of considerable intimacy. It is rather promiscuous of one.
Then there is one’s relation to other members of one’s own party in particular. Is it sociable to invite people to the theatre? The motive is likely to be in part sociable but can just as easily be in part antisocial. One is relieved of the responsibility, after all, not only of talking to the actors, but of talking to one’s friends. Once the curtain is up, in what sense is one even still “with them”?
In what sense, indeed, is one there at all? Who, at the theatre, is related how to whom? For a couple of hours, I bask in the pleasure of my friends’ company, I also relax in the pleasure of their imagined absence, while I turn my attention to a brief romance I am enjoying with – did I say actors? It is actually the characters I am experiencing, and the actors will drop their roles at eleven o’clock and become characters I do not know, handing me back to my friends who suddenly are very much “there” again.
Eric Bentley, The Life of the Drama