Returning to the theater after a pandemic-induced hiatus was something I wanted to stand up and cheer — until the very end of the performance, when all I wanted was the right to remain seated. Unfortunately, I quickly found out that the interruption of Covid-19 had done nothing to stop the wild proliferation of the standing ovation. As plays reopen for the fall season, I hope others will join me in standing up to the social pressure by staying seated.
Over my lifetime, the cultural norm of standing ovations has gone from rare to common, which makes it hard to acknowledge an actual masterpiece.
Over my lifetime, the cultural norm of standing ovations has gone from rare to common, which makes it hard to acknowledge an actual masterpiece. The now ever-present standing ovation seems to be part of the performance rather than a mark of appreciation for it. Has there been a single “Hamilton” show that did not get an ovation? At the performance I went to in Chicago, we were on our feet as the last note rang out. It was a good performance, but not a great one.
Indeed, it often feels as if the standing ovation is anticipated before the first line is spoken or the first note sung. Maybe it’s steep ticket prices that create a self-fulfilling prophecy; a performance has to be great to justify spending a week’s pay on a night out. Perhaps it just makes for a better selfie if you are standing at the end of a performance. Or it’s done unreflectively because performances can be staged in such a way as to manipulate this response. It’s also possible this phenomenon is an extension of the “everyone gets a trophy” culture. And if today’s audience grew up knowing only standing ovations, then this behavior can seem as appropriate to them as knowing not to clap between movements at the symphony feels to my generation. .
Whatever the cause, it generates another problem: the requisite encore. Rarely does an encore feel spontaneous these days. Instead, it’s often planned as part of the program. At a classical music concert I attended recently, the soloist left his violin backstage during his bows as a clear sign that there would be no encore despite the demands of the audience. As we headed out of the theater, I overheard grumblings of disappointment that he had not acquiesced to the call for more. We don’t expect every sporting event to go into overtime in return for giving the teams a standing ovation, so I am not sure where this sense of entitlement comes from for the performing arts.
I’m aware that by remaining seated it can appear as though I’m making a statement of displeasure or disappointment. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that I didn’t enjoy the performance or even think it well done. It just didn’t match my personal criteria for a standing ovation: an unforgettable experience of the highest caliber. I worry that my behavior comes across as snobby or unappreciative, perhaps even, dare I say, outdated.
But in my (perchance old-fashioned) view, the unexpected is part of the mystique of live performance. I prefer to allow the performance to move me rather than knowing from the outset that a standing ovation is expected. And I worry about how this affects the performers themselves. How does the audience response affect their self-assessment? Do they appreciate knowing they will get a standing ovation from the get-go, or are audiences seen as less discerning? Are the performers less motivated to perform? Would the lack of a standing ovation serve as a wake-up call that the performance is slipping or merely be written off as a commentary about the audience?
When I traveled to London in February 2020, moments before the pandemic put us all in front of our screens on a nightly basis, I had hopes that the ritualistic post-performance exuberance might not have made it across the pond. But at the first performance I saw there, a heartfelt production of the musical “The Prince of Egypt,” the crowd was on its feet as the last chord ended. Reluctantly, I joined in so that I could see the final bows, which were choreographed as part of the show.
Two nights later, though, I unexpectedly found myself surrounded by a theater full of people who, like me, remained seated at the end of a show. I was at one of the first performances of Tom Stoppard’s “Leopoldstadt,” based on the experience of the British playwright’s family in Vienna from 1899 to 1955. The play ended suddenly, the stage went dark, and the audience, stunned by the power of the play, was silent for several seconds. Then, as the weight of the experience sank in, hands began to clap, tears were dried, and actors took their bows. The audience filed out quietly as we tried to regain our bearings.
Ironically, the absence of a standing ovation that night added to how memorable an event it was. Because the content of the play is sober and dark, such a gesture would have felt like a celebration and been in poor taste. As I made my way back to my hotel, I wanted to tell everyone I saw on the Tube to go see it. But mostly, I wanted to reassure the actors. “You were great,” I wanted to tell them. “Please understand it was your forceful performance that kept us in our seats.”
When I saw a recent advertisement for the opening of “Leopoldstadt” in New York in early September, it gave me hope that maybe Broadway would be importing a more discriminating approach to appreciating a performance. Until then, I remain in audience purgatory.
Maggie Mulqueen, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice in Brookline, Massachusetts. She is the author of “On Our Own Terms: Redefining Competence and Femininity.” More of her work can be found at drmaggiemulqueen.com.