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Emily Post (1873–1960). Etiquette. 1922.

Chapter VI

At the Opera, the Theatre, and Other Public Gatherings

EXCEPTING a religious ceremonial, there is no occasion where greater dignity of manner is required of ladies and gentlemen both, than in occupying a box at the opera. For a gentleman especially no other etiquette is so exacting.   1
  In walking about in the foyer of the opera house, a gentleman leaves his coat in the box—or in his orchestra chair—but he always wears his high hat. The “collapsible” hat is for use in the seats rather than in the boxes, but it can be worn perfectly well by a guest in the latter if he hasn’t a “silk” one. A gentleman must always be in full dress, tail coat, white waistcoat, white tie and white gloves whether he is seated in the orchestra or a box. He wears white gloves nowhere else except at a ball, or when usher at a wedding.   2
  As people usually dine with their hostess before the opera, they arrive together; the gentlemen assist the ladies to lay off their wraps, one of the gentlemen (whichever is nearest) draws back the curtain dividing the ante-room from the box, and the ladies enter, followed by the gentlemen, the last of whom closes the curtain again. If there are two ladies besides the hostess, the latter places her most distinguished or older guest in the corner nearest the stage. The seat furthest from the stage is always her own. The older guest takes her seat first, then the hostess takes her place, whereupon the third lady goes forward in the center to the front of the box, and stands until one of the gentlemen places a chair for her between the other two. (The chairs are arranged in three rows, of one on either side with an aisle left between.)   3
  One of the duties of the gentlemen is to see that the curtains at the back of the box remain tightly closed, as the light from the ante-room shining in the faces of others in the audience across the house is very disagreeable to them.   4
  A gentleman never sits in the front row of a box, even though he is for a time alone in it.   5

  It is the custom for a gentleman who is a guest in one box to pay visits to friends in other boxes during the entr’actes. He must visit none but ladies of his acquaintance and must never enter a box in which he knows only the gentlemen, and expect to be introduced to the ladies. If Arthur Norman, for instance, wishes to present a gentleman to Mrs. Gilding in her box at the opera, he must first ask her if he may bring his friend James Dawson. (He would on no account speak of him as Mr. Dawson unless he is an elderly person.) A lady’s box at the opera is actually her house, and only those who are acceptable as visitors in her house should ask to be admitted.
  But it is quite correct for a gentleman to go into a stranger’s box to speak to a lady who is a friend of his, just as he would go to see her if she were staying in a stranger’s house. But he should not go into the box of one he does not know, to speak to a lady with whom he has only a slight acquaintance, since visits are not paid quite so casually to ladies who are themselves visitors. Upon a gentleman’s entering a box it is obligatory for whoever is sitting behind the lady to whom the arriving gentleman’s visit is addressed, to relinquish his chair. Another point of etiquette is that a gentleman must never leave the ladies of his own box alone. Occasionally it happens that the gentlemen in Mrs. Gilding’s box, for instance, have all relinquished their places to visitors and have themselves gone to Mrs. Worldly’s or Mrs. Jones’ or Mrs. Town’s boxes. Mrs. Gilding’s guests must, from the vantage point of the Worldly, Jones or Town boxes, keep a watchful eye on their hostess and instantly return to her support when they see her visitors about to leave, even though the ladies whom they are momentarily visiting be left to themselves. It is of course the duty of the other gentlemen who came to the opera with Mrs. Worldly, Mrs. Jones or Mrs. Town to hurry to them.   7
  A gentleman must never stay in any box that he does not belong in, after the lowering of the lights for the curtain. Nor, in spite of cartoons to the contrary, does good taste permit conversation during the performance or during the overture. Box holders arriving late or leaving before the final curtain do so as quietly as possible and always without speaking.   8

  A “brilliant opera night,” which one often hears spoken of (meaning merely that all the boxes are occupied, and that the ladies are more elaborately dressed than usual) is generally a night when a leader of fashion such as Mrs. Worldly, Mrs. Gilding, or Mrs. Toplofty, is giving a ball; and most of the holders of the parterre boxes are in ball dresses, with an unusual display of jewels. Or a house will be particularly “brilliant” if a very great singer is appearing in a new rôle, or if a personage be present, as when Marshal Joffre went to the Metropolitan.

  One gentleman, at least, must wait in the carriage lobby until all the ladies in his party have driven away. Never under any circumstances may “the last” gentleman leave a lady standing alone on the sidewalk. It is the duty of the hostess to take all unattended ladies home who have not a private conveyance of their own, but the obligation does not extend to married couples or odd men. But if a married lady or widow has ordered her own car to come for her, the odd gentleman waits with her until it appears. It is then considerate for her to offer him a “lift,” but it is equally proper for her to thank him for waiting and drive off alone.

  New Yorkers of highest fashion almost never occupy a box at the theater. At the opera the world of fashion is to be seen in the parterre boxes (not the first tier), and in boxes at some of the horse shows and at many public charity balls and entertainments, but those in boxes at the theater are usually “strangers” or “outsiders.”
  No one can dispute that the best theater seats are those in the center of the orchestra. A box in these days of hatlessness has nothing to recommend it except that the people can sit in a group and gentlemen can go out between the acts easily, but these advantages hardly make up for the disadvantage to four or at least three out of the six box occupants who see scarcely a slice of the stage.  12

  There is no more popular or agreeable way of entertaining people than to ask them to “dine and go to the play.” The majority do not even prefer to have “opera” substituted for “play,” because those who care for serious music are a minority compared with those who like the theater.
  If a bachelor gives a small theater party he usually takes his guests to dine at the Fitz-Cherry or some other fashionable and “amusing” restaurant, but a married couple living in their own house are more likely to dine at home, unless they belong to a type prevalent in New York which is “restaurant mad.” The Gildings, in spite of the fact that their own chef is the best there is, are much more apt to dine in a restaurant before going to a play—or if they don’t dine in a restaurant, they go to one for supper afterwards. But the Normans, if they ask people to dine and go to the theater, invariably dine at home.  14
  A theater party can of course be of any size, but six or eight is the usual number, and the invitations are telephoned: “Will Mr. and Mrs. Lovejoy dine with Mr. and Mrs. Norman at seven-thirty on Tuesday and go to the play?”  15
  Or “Will Mr. and Mrs. Oldname dine with Mr. Clubwin Doe on Saturday at the Toit d’Or and go to the play?”  16
  When Mr. and Mrs. Oldname “accept with pleasure” a second message is given: “Dinner will be at 7.30.”  17
  Mrs. Norman’s guests go to her house. Mr. Doe’s guests meet him in the foyer of the Toit d’Or. But the guests at both dinners are taken to the theater by their host. If a dinner is given by a hostess who has no car of her own, a guest will sometimes ask: “Don’t you want me to have the car come back for us?” The hostess can either say to an intimate friend “Why, yes, thank you very much,” or to a more formal acquaintance, “No, thank you just the same—I have ordered taxis.” Or she can accept. There is no rule beyond her own feelings in the matter.  18
  Mr. Doe takes his guests to the theater in taxis. The Normans, if only the Lovejoys are dining with them, go in Mrs. Norman’s little town car, but if there are to be six or eight, the ladies go in her car and the gentlemen follow in a taxi. (Unless Mrs. Worldly or Mrs. Gilding are in the party and order their cars back.)  19

  Before inviting anyone to go to a particular play, a hostess must be sure that good tickets are to be had. She should also try to get seats for a play that is new; since it is dull to take people to something they have already seen. This is not difficult in cities where new plays come to town every week, but in New York, where the same ones run for a year or more, it is often a choice between an old good one or a new one that is poor. If intimate friends are coming, a hostess usually asks them what they want to see and tries to get tickets accordingly.
  It is really unnecessary to add that one must never ask people to go to a place of public amusement and then stand in line to get seats at the time of the performance.  21

  The host, or whichever gentleman has the tickets, (if there is no host, the hostess usually hands them to one of the gentlemen before leaving her house), goes down the aisle first and gives the checks to the usher, and the others follow in the order in which they are to sit and which the hostess must direct. It is necessary that each knows who follows whom, particularly if a theater party arrives after the curtain has gone up. If the hostess “forgets,” the guests always ask before trooping down the aisle “How do you want us to sit?” For nothing is more awkward and stupid than to block the aisle at the row where their seats are, while their hostess “sorts them”; and worse yet, in her effort to be polite, sends the ladies to their seats first and then lets the gentlemen stumble across them to their own places. Going down the aisle is not a question of precedence, but a question of seating. The one who is to sit eighth from the aisle, whether a lady or a gentleman, goes first, then the seventh, then the sixth, and if the gentleman with the checks is fifth, he goes in his turn and the fourth follows him.
  If a gentleman and his wife go to the theater alone, the question as to who goes down the aisle first depends on where the usher is. If the usher takes the checks at the head of the aisle, she follows the usher. Otherwise the gentleman goes first with the checks. When their places are shown him, he stands aside for his wife to take her place first and then he takes his. A lady never sits in the aisle seat if she is with a gentleman.  23

  In passing across people who are seated, always face the stage and press as close to the backs of the seats you are facing as you can. Remember also not to drag anything across the heads of those sitting in front of you. At the moving pictures, especially when it is dark and difficult to see, a coat on an arm passing behind a chair can literally devastate the hair-dressing of a lady occupying it.
  If you are obliged to cross in front of some one who gets up to let you pass, say “Thank you,” or “Thank you very much” or “I am very sorry.” Do not say “Pardon me!” or “Beg pardon!” Though you can say “I beg your pardon.” That, however, would be more properly the expression to use if you brushed your coat over their heads, or spilled water over them, or did something to them for which you should actually beg their pardon. But “Beg pardon,” which is an abbreviation, is one of the phrases never said in best society.  25
  Gentlemen who want to go out after every act should always be sure to get aisle seats. There are no greater theater pests than those who come back after the curtain has gone up and temporarily snuff out the view of everyone behind, as well as annoy those who are obliged to stand up and let them by.  26
  Between the acts nearly all gentlemen go out and smoke at least once, but those wedged in far from the aisle, who file out every time the curtain drops are utterly lacking in consideration for others. If there are five acts, they should at most go out for two entr’actes and even then be careful to come back before the curtain goes up.  27

  Nothing shows less consideration for others than to whisper and rattle programmes and giggle and even make audible remarks throughout a performance. Very young people love to go to the theater in droves called theater parties and absolutely ruin the evening for others who happen to sit in front of them. If Mary and Johnny and Susy and Tommy want to talk and giggle, why not arrange chairs in rows for them in a drawing-room, turn on a phonograph as an accompaniment and let them sit there and chatter!
  If those behind you insist on talking it is never good policy to turn around and glare. If you are young they pay no attention, and if you are older—most young people think an angry older person the funniest sight on earth! The small boy throws a snowball at an elderly gentleman for no other reason! The only thing you can do is to say amiably: “I’m sorry, but I can’t hear anything while you talk.” If they still persist, you can ask an usher to call the manager.  29
  The sentimental may as well realize that every word said above a whisper is easily heard by those sitting directly in front, and those who tell family or other private affairs might do well to remember this also.  30
  As a matter of fact, comparatively few people are ever anything but well behaved. Those who arrive late and stand long, leisurely removing their wraps, and who insist on laughing and talking are rarely encountered; most people take their seats as quietly and quickly as they possibly can, and are quite as much interested in the play and therefore as attentive and quiet as you are. A very annoying person at the “movies” is one who reads every “caption” out loud.  31

  At the evening performance in New York a lady wears a dinner dress; a gentleman a dinner coat, often called a Tuxedo. Full dress is not correct, but those going afterwards to a ball can perfectly well go to the theater first if they do not make themselves conspicuous. A lady in a ball dress and many jewels should avoid elaborate hair ornamentation and must keep her wrap, or at least a sufficiently opaque scarf, about her shoulders to avoid attracting people’s attention. A gentleman in full dress is not conspicuous.
  And on the subject of theater dress it might be tentatively remarked that prinking and “making up” in public are all part of an age which can not see fun in a farce without bedroom scenes and actors in pajamas, and actresses running about in negligés with their hair down. An audience which night after night watches people dressing and undressing probably gets into an unconscious habit of dressing or prinking itself. In other days it was always thought that so much as to adjust a hat-pin or glance in a glass was lack of breeding. Every well brought up young woman was taught that she must finish dressing in her bedchamber. But to-day young women in theaters, restaurants, and other public places, are continually studying their reflection in little mirrors and patting their hair and powdering their noses and fixing this or adjusting that in a way that in Mrs. Oldname’s girlhood would have absolutely barred them from good society; nor can Mrs. Worldly or Mrs. Oldname be imagined “preening” and “prinking” anywhere. They dress as carefully and as beautifully as possible, but when they turn away from the mirrors in their dressing rooms they never look in a glass or “take note of their appearance” until they dress again. And it must be granted that Lucy Gilding, Constance Style, Celia Lovejoy, Mary Smartlington and the other well-bred members of the younger set do not put finishing touches on their faces in public—as yet!  33

  Most people are at times “obliged” to take tickets for various charity entertainments—balls, theatricals, concerts or pageants—to which, if they do not care to go themselves, they give away their tickets. Those who intend giving tickets should remember that a message, “Can you use two tickets for the Russian ballet to-night?” sent at seven o’clock that same evening, after the Lovejoys have settled themselves for an evening at home (Celia having decided not to curl her hair and Donald having that morning sent his only dinner coat to be re-faced) can not give the same pleasure that their earlier offer would have given. An opera box sent on the morning of the opera is worse, since to find four music-loving people to fill it on such short notice at the height of the season is an undertaking that few care to attempt.

  A big theater party is one of the favorite entertainments given for a débutante. If fifty or more are to be asked, invitations are sometimes engraved.

  But—and usually—the “general utility” invitation (see XI41) is filled in, as follows:

  Or notes in either wording are written in hand.  37
  All those who accept have a ticket sent them. Each ticket sent a débutante is accompanied by a visiting card on which is written:
“Be in the lobby of the Comedy Theater at
8.15. Order your motor to come for you
at 010 Fifth Avenue at 1 A. M.”
  On the evening of the theater party, Mrs. Toplofty herself stands in the lobby to receive the guests. As soon as any who are to sit next to each other have arrived, they are sent into the theater; each gives her (or his) ticket to an usher and sits in the place alloted to her (or him). It is well for the hostess to have a seat plan for her own use in case thoughtless young people mix their tickets all up and hand them to an usher in a bunch! And yet—if they do mix themselves to their own satisfaction, she would better “leave them” than attempt to disturb a plan that may have had more method in it than madness.  39
  When the last young girl has arrived, Mrs. Toplofty goes into the theater herself (she does not bother to wait for any boys), and in this one instance she very likely sits in a stage box so as to “keep her eye on them,” and with her she has two or three of her own friends.  40
  After the theater, big motor busses drive them all either to the house of the hostess or to a hotel for supper and to dance. If they go to a hotel, a small ballroom must be engaged and the dance is a private one; it would be considered out of place to take a lot of very young people to a public cabaret.  41
  Carelessly chaperoned young girls are sometimes, it is true, seen in very questionable places because some of the so-called dancing restaurants are perfectly fit and proper for them to go to; many other places however, are not, and for the sake of general appearances it is safer to make it a rule that no very young girl should go anywhere after the theater except to a private house or a private dance or ball.  42
  Older people, on the other hand, very often go for a supper to one of the cabarets for which New York is famous (or infamous?), or perhaps go to watch a vaudeville performance at midnight, or dance, or do both together.  43
  Others, if they are among the great majority of “quiet” people, go home after the theater, especially if they have dined with their hostess (or host) before the play.  44

  When you are dining before going to the opera or theater you must arrive on the stroke of the hour for which you are asked; it is one occasion when it is inexcusable to be late.
  In accepting an invitation for lunch or dinner after which you are going to a game, or any sort of performance, you must not be late! Nothing is more unfair to others who are keen about whatever it is you are going to see, than to make them miss the beginning of a performance through your thoughtless selfishness.  46
  For this reason box-holders who are music-lovers do not ask guests who have the “late habit” to dine before the opera, because experience has taught them they will miss the overture and most of the first act if they do. Those, on the other hand, who care nothing for music and go to the opera to see people and be seen, seldom go until most if not all of the first act is over. But these in turn might give music-loving guests their choice of going alone in time for the overture and waiting for them in the box at the opera, or having the pleasure of dining with their hostess but missing most of the first part.  47

  Considerate and polite behavior by each member of an audience is the same everywhere. At out-door games, or at the circus, it is not necessary to stop talking. In fact, a good deal of noise is not out of the way in “rooting” at a match, and a circus band does not demand silence in order to appreciate its cheerful blare. One very great annoyance in open air gatherings is cigar smoke when blown directly in one’s face or worse yet the smoke from a smouldering cigar. It is almost worthy of a study in air currents to discover why with plenty of space all around, a tiny column of smoke will make straight for the nostrils of the very one most nauseated by it!
  The only other annoyance met with at ball games or parades or wherever people occupy seats on the grandstand, is when some few in front get excited and insist on standing up. If those in front stand—those behind naturally have to! Generally people call out “down in front.” If they won’t stay “down,” then all those behind have to stay “up.” Also umbrellas and parasols entirely blot out the view of those behind.  49