Rioting over cultural works and ideas: Blackboard Jungle and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring

Even though I have heard multiple times about the groundbreaking 1955 movie Blackboard Jungle, I finally watched it recently. (Side note: watching the film without commercials on AMC was excellent. Watching movies on TV is often so frustrating as they drag it out.) After watching the movie (and noting how “inspiring teacher” movies of recent years seem to build upon this film), I read on Wikipedia about riots that took place when the movie was first shown in theaters:

The film markedthe rock and roll revolution by featuring Bill Haley & His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock”, initially a B-side, over the film’s opening credits, as well as in the first scene, in an instrumental version in the middle of the film, and at the close of the movie, establishing that song as an instant classic. The record had been released the prior year, garnering tepid sales. But, popularized by its use in the film, “Rock Around the Clock” reached number one on the Billboard charts, and remained there for eight weeks. The music also led to a huge teenage audience for the film, and their exuberant response to it sometimes overflowed into violence and vandalism at screenings. In this sense, the film has been seen as marking the start of a period of visible teenage rebellion in the latter half of the 20th century.

The film markeda watershed in the United Kingdom. When shown at a South London Cinema in Elephant and Castle in 1956 the teenage teddy boy audience began to riot, tearing up seats and dancing in the aisles.[2] After that, riots took place around the country wherever the film was shown. In 2007, the Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture published an article that analyzed the film’s connection to crime theories and juvenile delinquency.

This reminds me of the riots that accompanied the premieres of classical music, such as at the opening of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” (and detailed in The Rest Is Noise – though this description comes from Wikipedia):

The première involved one of the most famous classical music riots in history. The intensely rhythmic score and primitive scenario and choreography shocked the audience that was accustomed to the elegant conventions of classical ballet.

The evening’s program began with another Stravinsky piece entitled “Les Sylphides.” This was followed by, “The Rite of Spring”. The complex music and violent dance steps depicting fertility rites first drew catcalls and whistles from the crowd. At the start, some members of the audience began to boo loudly. There were loud arguments in the audience between supporters and opponents of the work. These were soon followed by shouts and fistfights in the aisles. The unrest in the audience eventually degenerated into a riot. The Paris police arrived by intermission, but they restored only limited order. Chaos reigned for the remainder of the performance.[6] Stravinksy had called for a bassoon to play higher in its range than anyone else had ever done. Fellow composer Camille Saint-Saëns famously stormed out of the première allegedly infuriated over the misuse of the bassoon in the ballet’s opening bars (though Stravinsky later said “I do not know who invented the story that he was present at, but soon walked out of, the première.”). Stravinsky ran backstage, where Diaghilev was turning the lights on and off in an attempt to try to calm the audience.

After the première, Diaghilev is reported to have commented to Nijinsky and Stravinsky at dinner that the scandal was “exactly what I wanted.”

Some scholars have questioned the traditional account, particularly concerning the extent to which the riot was caused by the music, rather than by the choreography and/or the social and political circumstances. The Stravinsky scholar Richard Taruskin has written an article about the première, entitled “A Myth of the Twentieth Century,” in which he attempts to demonstrate that the traditional story of the music provoking unrest was largely concocted by Stravinsky himself in the 1920s after he had published the score. At that later date, Stravinsky was constructing an image of himself as an innovative composer to promote his music, and he revised his accounts of the composition and performances of The Rite of Spring to place a greater emphasis on a break with musical traditions and to encourage a focus on the music itself in concert performances.

While we could do without the violence at these events, it suggests an era when ideas and cultural works prompted vigorous reactions. Today, do we have an equivalent? People going home and writing on their blogs (guilty as charged)? Critics spreading popular or contrarian interpretations? The occasional talkback session after a theater production?

I suspect that if people today read about these reports, they would do something like this: shake their head and ask why these moviegoers or concertgoers got so animated. But perhaps we could ask the opposite question: why don’t new ideas, particularly ones that push us to think beyond our accepted categories, animate us? Are we just so numbed by novelty and a plurality of ideas that nothing really shocks us anymore? Do we have space in our society to truly think through and debate the ideas presented in “entertainment”?

Of course, not all cultural productions are intended to push us in new directions. Some are there just for entertainment. But others push beyond typical boundaries. Take a recent movie like The Tree of Life: I saw it on the recommendations of a few friends and I’m still not sure what to think about it. But it certainly was thought provoking and wasn’t a “typical” movie. Is this simply an “art film” in its own category or is it more like what all cultural productions should be doing?

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