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'Grants always supported leading culture'

I wrote this story in 2003, following the publication of a major historical study on theatre attendance. I return to it often, this research. Because it keeps me with both feet on the ground while screaming for culture. And because it underlines the need to overhaul the system anyway.

'Nothing so constant as theatre audiences'

It took 15 years of research, but now scientifically established That there is nothing more constant than the theatre audience. Historian Henk Gras looked at audience data from 1699 to 1973 and must conclude that no measure of audience broadening has ever worked. 'People are bombarded to death with stories about the civilising effect of higher art, and turn away from it.'

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'Some families have been subscribing to the same theatre rows for at least two centuries,' Dr Henk Gras, historian and researcher at the University of Utrecht, now knows them almost personally. 'In 1959, for example, the Rotterdam Schouwburg still had nine people sitting in places that their families had already occupied in 1773.' He shows the list of names. 'A real Gleichman. The first one was already sitting there when it opened in the 18th century. If that's not loyalty, I don't know it.'

Burnt down

Gras, together with ICT specialist Harry van Vliet and econometrician Philip Hans Franses, investigated theatre audiences in the Randstad. The research began in Rotterdam, where, thanks to a minor miracle, all the archives of all the city's theatres survived the May 1940 bombing. Later, the research was expanded to include the records of Amsterdam, The Hague, Dordrecht and Leiden. Meanwhile, the records of Utrecht's Stadsschouwburg are also being looked at. Amsterdam barely participates, but that is logical, according to Gras: 'There, the theatre has burned down twice in the past centuries, with all the archives inside.'

From the data that do remain from the other big cities in the Netherlands, a striking picture emerges. The theatre audiences are unchanged from the well-to-do bourgeoisie, highly educated and middle-aged. Lower social classes can hardly be found in the theatres and the working class is almost entirely absent. And this has been the case since the first theatres opened in the mid-eighteenth century.

No workers

'What we have learnt is that theatrical innovations have by no means had the proportions that many people now attribute to them. Theatre historians constantly claim that the working class flocked to the melodramas that were popular in the 1920s and 1930s. That view is not tenable. The subscription lists show that the elite also went there en masse. The difference in taste between the ranks was very small, ticket sales show. Historians then say that in 1870, the elite came back to power and there was serious artistic drama to 'chase the hats off the first ranks'. There is no evidence of that at all. Real workers are rarely found in the lists.'

The only major historical fact, says Gras, is that the gallery audience left the theatre en masse in 1835, never to return. 'The cheapest seats never really became popular again. It can be assumed that the audience that once sat there, which was mainly lower-middle class and young people, simply lost interest in bourgeois theatre offerings.'


Of course, there have been wave movements in interest in theatre. In 1813 the auditorium was emptier than in 1870, and in the 1950s more people than ever visited a theatre. In the grand scheme of history, however, those peaks and troughs in attendance can be traced entirely to cyclical waves. 'We found a composite of a short wave movement that broadly follows the short trade cycle, changing about every 13 years, and there are longer wave movements, with lengths of 50, 74 and 124 years.'

'Such waves indicate a resistance to change independent of fads. Theatre is like a prison of the long run.'

Leading culture

There is no doubt that incentives, measures to get a more diverse audience for theatre, have really only helped within 'bourgeois' culture. 'Thanks to the introduction of subsidies during the twentieth century, theatre attendance among the wealthy middle class increased very significantly. So such schemes supported the leading culture.'

Another theme is ageing. 'Lately people have been complaining about the ageing of the audience. But the subscription lists show that as early as 1770, the audience was quite old. And in 1959, at Ton Lutz, 84% of the subscribers were over 50.'


'But, of course, it also remains bizarre that in theatres there is still a class and grade system, while in cinemas there has always been much less of one. Until the 1930s, the lesser classes sat on the galleries in the theatre on wooden benches, while in the cinema they hung out in the plush for less money.'

'The reason why certain groups always and other groups never go to the theatre is purely cultural in nature. It is therefore also pointless to strive to get cultural minorities and young people to watch our classics in our theatres. Why do they have to? Please let them find their own cultural identity in their own theatres, and at some point it will come together anyway. Imposed cultural broadening has never worked.'


So for punishment but austerity? 'And then? Do you then return to the situation of the ancien regime? Are you condemning theatre actors to beggary again? Theatre has become a completely uneconomic industry, so without subsidies, theatre does not survive. Even Joop van den Ende cannot survive without all the subsidies he collects directly and indirectly.'

Article originally written for Associated Press Services in 2003.

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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