What Is Up With Not Sitting Down

A humorous look at the rise of the standing ovation … guess this is just what we do now.

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The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet directed by Matthew Warchus, Plácido Domingo in a solo concert of arias, the premiere of Neil Simon’s Rumors, the launch of Broadway’s Footloose, Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Firebird with *the* Virginia Johnson as Firebird – this recognizable, mostly legendary list (sorry, Footloose, you weren’t legendary, but we still liked you) shares an interesting feature: not a single one ended with a standing ovation. We know because we were there.

These were fantastic shows—amazing, jaw-dropping, soul-igniting performances, all hitting the boards in the late 90’s and all worthy of sitting ovations. Standing ovations happened during rare, once-in-a-lifetime occurrences. They signified an honoring of the highest possible achievement. An artist or performance had to surpass perfection.

Twenty years ago we didn’t stand for Sir Ian McKellen (a.k.a. Gandalf, Magneto) in a one-man Beckett play, but today we jump to our feet as soon as the third place winner from American Idol finishes a set of radio cover songs. Nowadays, attend any performance from the meh to the miraculous and it matters not: the audience stands, ovating, some even walking and clapping to get to the parking lot before everybody else.

What’s changed over the years? Is it the end-of-show equivalent of an A for effort? Is it, as some psychologists have argued, our attempt to justify paying for a live experience now that we’re spoiled by so much free online entertainment? Or maybe that same online entertainment is such rubbish we leap in gratitude by seeing decent art? Perhaps we are just more enthusiastic supporters of performing arts than our possibly more stiff-shirted predecessors.

We attempted researching this change, starting with the history of the standing ovation, yet we found no clear answers. The most interesting factoid, though, traced back to Roman times. After war, any leader who racked up the most impressive battle victories returned to Rome for his “triumph,” a parade celebrating his clear victories and spoils. The guy who came in second-place for battle greatness earned an “ovation,” a parade acknowledging he did alright out there and deserved props for whatever destruction, pillaging and land usurpation he wrested by force. A sheep (“ovis” in Latin) died in bloody sacrifice to his win, thus the origin of “ovation.”

What we did, find, however, were some very clear, hilariously vicious opinions penned by theater critics here and abroad scorching the now common practice of standing to clap at the end of a show.

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Ben Brantley, the well-known theater critic at The New York Times, wrote an urgent call for the return of the sitting ovation after he witnessed the audience staying seated *gasp* for a perfectly good Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 2012. “Pretty much every show you attend on Broadway these days ends with people jumping to their feet and beating their flippers together like captive sea lions whose zookeeper has arrived with a bucket of fish,” he wrote in his column “Theater Talkback: Against Ovation Inflation.” His argument, snarky as it is, ends with noting that “staying seated has become the exceptional tribute.”

London, England’s theater critics mince no pies about who is to blame for this moral deterioration (Broadway—a notable scapegoat for moral deterioration). They make Brantley look p.c. in their direct seat-shaming over the normalizing of the “s.o.”—a “curse,” as critic Michael Henderson noted in The Telegraph, and “an unwanted tradition spreading from America,” as if the s.o. is an STD (socially transmitted disease). Michael Billington, a British critic from The Guardian, likewise points his blame finger across the pond: “I am all for spontaneous enthusiasm but the standing ovation is a filthy American habit that I think should be discouraged.”

Henderson explains that Britons, proud of their ability to curb the need to overly-reward actors, reputedly did not stand for Laurence Olivier, except upon the notification of his death in 1989, which Dustin Hoffman delivered to an audience in attendance of The Merchant of Venice. At this point, Hoffman muttered that the only way to get a standing ovation in England was “to f—ing die.” Henderson, whose article “The Curse of the Standing Ovation,” claims “it is … a gesture of self-reward … this canker in our theatre-going is also rooted in a narcissism that has spread through all parts of life. …Me, me, me. It’s all about me.” Sitting still, sitting quietly, he concludes, reflect the “old virtues,” a time before all this “blubbing and cheering, like stroppy teenagers.”

For Billington, the infection of the American need to present the s.o. to everything evokes probing issues of identity. “What’s come over us?” he asks in his 2008 theater blog “The Standing Ovation is a Filthy American Habit.” “Is it a result of rising ticket prices, the touchy-feely society in which emotions have to be displayed, or simply a product of a show-off culture in which you have to prove you can ovate more noisily than your neighbour? The argument against the standing ovation is simple. If you do it for virtually everything, it soon becomes valueless.”

The Brits are great at a cutting remark, but former St. Paul critic Dominic Papatola once quipped that “Minnesotans would give a standing ovation to a Schwan’s truck.” Ouch. We hope the beloved audiences in MN aren’t bleeders. Later, though, Papatola came clean about his feelings as he aged and had a little perspective. In the Duluth News Tribune, he said “now it’s not one of those things I can really let myself get worked up about . . . Mainly I am grateful that there are people in the audience at all.”

Mostly likely, we’re in an evolution of response. We don’t snap like the old Greco-Roman or Beat days. Maybe the standing ovation is returning to its Roman origins and is acknowledgement of a job well done, a hearty thank-you for participating in something not many others do.

If so, sitting for the performers at the curtain becomes what? A triumph?