I was recently at a hospital ward during the flu epidemic of 1918. No - wait a minute - that wasn’t it. I was actually at the Met for a performance of “L’Amour de Loin”. I guess all the coughing made me think of my years as an army nurse in the tuberculosis ward… wait a minute; I’ve never been a nurse in a tuberculosis ward! I guess I just thought I was for the two hours the opera (otherwise lovely) lasted. This was just another in a series of performances I’ve attended where the coughing is part of the show. Unstoppable, inevitable and yet mysterious, like whatever the upstairs neighbor is doing.
The coughter (to coin a new expression) falls into these various categories and seems to convey the following meanings:
Messages to the theatre at large.
Explosively loud knock-you-off-your-chair cough. Multiple times throughout the performance. Randomized.
“This is for my wife, who set up dinner with her boss and his wife and I can’t stand them and their pied a terre and his dental practice, and we had a big fight about it before we left and I’m still mad and I didn’t want to come to this pompous bloated walrus show, but my wife dragged me to it and so I’m going to make her life miserable.”
Go-to-hell-cough. If a cough can be a threat…
“I voted for Trump! Yes! I did! I’m a contrarian! I cough against the machine!”
Angry. Loud. Sharp. Cough!!!
“$150? For one ticket? You gotta be kidding me.”
COUGH. PAUSE. COUGH.
“I have a two-bedroom, two bath prewar apartment on the upper west side.”
Declarative cough. A shouted bark.
“My father coughed and his father before him. I too shall cough at the Met.”
Cough. Uh hem. Cough cough cough.
“I love show biz!”
Messages to people in nearby seats.
Throat-clear segues into surprise cough, which becomes proudly claimed.
“I don’t like these seats. And I don’t like this guy in front of me with all his opinions and his stupid laugh. Therefore I cough.”
Cough cough kaff kaff. Hmm. Hmm. Cough!
“Your arm is on my armrest.”
BLAT! COUGH!! KAW KAW!
“Don’t look at me like that, with your little hat! Why the hell do you think they put rests in the music? Sheesh.”
COUGH COUGH COUGH. Loud and wet.
“Your perfume is not making me cough, but I just don’t like it or you.”
Pathetic, realistic and wet: cough cough, cough cough.
“I’m old. Coughing is all have left – don’t take this from me!”
Public service. Ah-CHOO, COUGH, COUGH.
“This part is too quiet. It’s boring. I’ll help liven it up.”
Harumph into COUGH.
“I have power over all dominion: all that I see and sit near.”
Coughing sometimes spreads like the wave at a Yankees game. One guy starts it in the upper left balcony and it segues to some moron in the middle of the mezzanine and then two guys pick it up in the orchestra but they overlapped so one of those guys has to do it again, to make sure he gets his in free and clear (this is the same guy that says a joke twice if he thinks you missed the punch line). Someone else realizes it’s a coughing-wave, so he jumps in immediately after the two clowns in the orchestra seats, and then someone wants it back in the balcony so there’s a brief coughing tug-of-war until somebody’s wife puts an elbow in his ribs.
The Upper East Side Gang of 8. Kack, Coff, Coff!
They may not have stood up to Joe McCarthy but they are sure as heck going to stand up against that soprano!
Group Cough conversation.
Slight cough: “The fix is in.” Slightly louder cough, two times: “Trump will win it, Putin guarantees.” Throat clear that degenerates into coughing: “Great. Ok, now we’ve got that nailed down, what do you guys think of this show?” Loud but respectful series of coughs: “Not bad for classical music.” Gentle cough indicating someone should end the conversation: “Yeah it’s not Pavarotti (who I saw twice) but I’ve been to worse. Signing off – COUGH-GAG-HACK!”
I started to imagine that there were coughs written into the LED supertitles.
“What kind of man would love cough cough hack me, a simple peasant…” “I love you who has come to gag caw caw hack embrace me…”
Both the baritone and the coughing died at about the same time, and the duty of coughing was done for another day. As the curtain fell and the audience lumbered crankily toward the exits, and as I paged through my program trying to figure out what I had missed, I made a note to myself to bring an entire box of cough drops the next time; not for me, and not to gently offer a neighbor who might be inclined to vocally expel his phlegm, but so I could take aim at a cougher and possibly bean him with the full Smith Brothers Cherry Cough drops experience.