We are Americans. While we might be capitalists, who don’t have the best reputation, we are, generally, a very nice people. We say ‘hello’ to strangers, we say ‘I’m sorry’ for ever getting in someone’s way, we give “only” a 10% tip for crappy service and ALL of our kids get trophies, just for trying. I, an American, am a very nice person. But I am also sad that this overly congratulatory culture has demeaned a long-standing (oh, the puns are going to be fun in this one) tradition, dating back to Ancient Roman times, of the standing ovation. I attended two events recently that, while wonderful, were not standing-ovation-worthy in my opinion, and it has made me wonder what we do, in a culture such as ours, when we start giving everyone a standing ovation, how we display our gratitude when something is truly exceptional, as the definition says.
The WIKI definition is this: A standing ovation is a form of applause where members of a seated audience stand up while applauding after extraordinary performances of particularly high acclaim.
I would like to highlight the EXTRAORDINARY performance of PARTICULARLY HIGH ACCLAIM part of that definition. I have absolutely nothing against the standing ovation – I am simply frustrated by the over-use of it. It has devalued it both for those giving it and those receiving it. WIKI actually goes on to touch on this very subject, but in a very specific context – that “Some might say that the standing ovation has come to be devalued, such as in the field of politics, in which on some occasions standing ovations may be given to political leaders as a matter of course, rather than as a special honor in unusual circumstances.” But I will even give it to politics – if they want to use the standing ovation in their own rituals, I’ll let that go. Its roots are actually political in nature from the Ancient Romans, who used this gesture to welcome back military leaders who may not have won their battles, but who were still praiseworthy. I’m speaking about public performances where, due to the ovation over-use, there are no options to distinguish the great from the good. What shall we do now? Climb on to the backs of our theatre chairs? Somehow, I don’t think management would approve.
Just so you don’t think I am a total anti-standingovite, I would like to report that I have been part of / given a standing ovation at exactly two performances in my life. That seems like a pretty good ratio for a well-traveled, but maybe not SO cultured 40-year old with two small children (i.e. haven’t been to a lot of cultural events lately). In both of these instances, there wasn’t a moments hesitation, no reluctant standers. The first was a performance in Paris that was a combination Ballet and Opera. The music, dancing, costumes, singing…all of it was moving beyond expression. When it was over, there was a microsecond of silence, perhaps of awe, and then the audience was thrust to their feet by some inexplicable force – a creative energy that lifted people up in inspiration without an ounce of obligation. The other was a performance off Broadway, in New York, that traced the history of African Americans in America through dance. It was unexpectedly exceptional (I think much of the audience was there because it was what was available at the half-price ticket booth), and the entire theatre jumped from their seats, celebrating that we had just been part of something exceptional.
But now, evidently, we stand at the end of most live performances. Part of this, I think, may have to do with the fact that, as a society, we don’t see a lot of live performances. I’m going to exclude most big music concerts here because usually we are already standing at most of these venues. Concerts have their own rhythm and ending – I’m all for the Encore. But my point is that as our society has moved from one that relies on live entertainment in the days when the standing ovation started (plays, poetry readings, magician acts, etc.) to today, where we are mostly entertained by film and television (and live/reality entertainment on TV is not the same). So when we DO see actual people in front of us, we are compelled to, almost literally, throw ourselves at their feet in gratitude. I fully agree that there is something innately more pleasurable in “cultural” events such as plays and live events than watching them through our television sets, albeit our television sets are delivering images in larger and larger format. Perhaps one day watching television will be like going to play in that the figures in front of us will, in fact, be life-size. But in the meantime, we are not used to having actors and actresses, or speech-givers or dancers so close to us, and we want to ensure they know how much we appreciate them putting themselves out there for us – making themselves vulnerable to our otherwise judgmental ways (ultimately WHY reality TV is so successful). And this is nice.
There was another part of the WIKI description that I found interesting and that is historically, a performance may have been measured by the percentage of the audience that rose. Now, here’s an idea that I think has fully escaped us and actually fully redeems the frequent standing ovation for me. Perhaps there are some people who are ‘in the know’ who fully appreciate a performance for what it is worth (a performance in San Francisco of “Waiting for Godot” was torture for me, but I understood that more culturally literate people than myself probably fully enjoyed the rendition – it’s supposed to be torture. I don’t know if they got a standing ovation because I couldn’t wait any longer and left before the end), or people who are just very easily pleased, or very grateful sorts, then by all means, stand away. But what I’ve noticed is that it seems unacceptable, anymore, to stay seated during a standing ovation, such the whole room ends up standing. People look at each other in their seats, asking with their eyes, “are you going to get up? I know…I don’t really want to either, but…” and then you both reluctantly stand. I mean, really, who wants to be the last man/woman sitting? That’s just not nice.
So, I guess this means I need to be the change I want to see – I can’t stand for this any longer. I will have to be the stick in the, um, seat (sorry, I’ll stop). Will I be doing it alone? Here’s what I propose: if it’s not truly inspired, then just clap louder, clap longer, hoop and holler, but please, let’s reserve the standing ovation for, as the definition says, the truly extraordinary.