It’s hard to say how it all started. Perhaps it was the exercise craze. Maybe it was a symptom of shorter attention spans. Or maybe—more likely—people just don’t understand the proper way to act anymore. (That’s the Curmudgeon’s most reliable explanation for most behaviors.) Regardless of the cause, at some point, standing ovations at the theatre—once reserved for exceptional performances—became the norm, with people popping up from their seats as soon as the curtain came down. And now, just like the words “awesome” and “amazing,” just like the exclamation mark, and just like many of our most dead-end superlatives, like “best,” “top,” “perfect,” and “flawless,” the standing ovation has reached the very precipice of losing all its exceptionalism.
Here’s the tradition, properly observed: The show ends. The seated audience applauds as the performers bow. After the performers exit the stage, the houselights come up and the audience stands and exits. Occasionally, a theatre patron finds a performance so effective, so masterful, so entertaining that he or she feels moved to express an unusual level of praise, beyond the norm. And in those rare circumstances, traditional theatre-going etiquette offers the optional addition of a shouted “bravo” or “brava” and/or standing to emphasize one’s enthusiasm. In such cases, other patrons may or may not choose to join in agreement. It’s an individual choice. Joining is by no means expected or required. And when a performance or a production receives an audience-wide standing ovation, it is being blessed with the most special of audience tributes. If all that sounds familiar, it’s probably because it's been the agreed-upon behavior for a very long time.
And so, obviously, standing ovations are not merited after every performance, nor even after most of them. The fact is, 99% of the time, they’re not even vaguely warranted.
It’s not appropriate to stand after a show that’s good, great, fine, okay, nice, entertaining, interesting, fun, lovely, professional, sweet, amusing, average, or merely over. It’s not appropriate at the conclusion of the majority of school plays, theme park revues, church pageants, or community theatre offerings. It’s also not appropriate to give a standing ovation just so you can stretch your legs, you uncultured opportunists.
When tributes meant for excellence are bestowed indiscriminately, those tributes are rendered impotent. If every restaurant, from McDonald’s to The French Laundry, received three stars from Michelin, then Michelin stars wouldn’t be worth mentioning. If every new model of car was awarded Car of the Year, what would be the point? And if every student who participated in a sporting event was awarded a participation trophy, why we’d . . . oh dear. It’s starting.
Sadly, the frivolous ovation trend is somewhat entrenched at this point, and the cultured among us find ourselves attending theatre alongside an entire generation of uncivilized boors who’ll stand for anything.
But we must resist, fellow lovers of behaving correctly. We must stand firm against this misguided praise by remaining seated. Yes, we must sit to take a stand, pushing back against this plague of bad taste.
This battle calls for steely resolve. It’s possible we’ll get strange looks from others. And, too, with everyone else standing, we who are expressing the proper response won’t be able to see a damned thing. Somewhere beyond those walls of butts, performers are bowing. And it’s terribly tempting to give in, abandoning your obligation to instruct the rabble, just to get a view. But you must persevere. It’s our only hope for reestablishing seated applause as the norm, and the standing ovation as the exception. If we fail in our mission, we will have lost our only means of expressing unusual levels of praise for theatre when such expressions are merited.
But here’s some incentive that may help fortify your resolve. Standing, in addition to providing a view of the performers, also forces you to witness the heartbreakingly disappointing sight of patrons turning their backs on the performers and walking out of the theatre during the curtain call, a most disrespectful and, frankly, tacky behavior . . . but that’s another issue for another week.
That is the conclusion of this week’s presentation of The Weekly Curmudgeon. Please, for God’s sake, remain seated.