Should I be standing now?

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. In Ancient Rome returning military commanders (such as Marcus Licinius Crassus after his defeat of Spartacus) whose victories did not quite meet the requirements of a triumph but which were still praiseworthy were celebrated with an ovation instead, from the Latin ovo, “I rejoice”. The word’s use in English to refer to sustained applause dates from at least 1831 (source: Wikipedia)

In a recent article, the theatre critic of The Telegraph laments the fact that the standing ovation, an import (he says) from Broadway, has become an all too common and unpleasant feature in London theatres and concert halls. For my part, I found the critic’s argument to be unnecessarily curmudgeonly, in which he claims that the increasing trend of standing up no matter how good or bad the performance is a form of narcissism on the part of the audience, akin to the mass (and crass) exaggerated display of public grief following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

I beg to differ. First, if the Wikipedia definition is to be believed, the standing ovation is not an American construct, but has an ancient provenance, as does the giving of applause. Secondly, I do not think the spontaneous reaction to a play, opera or concert is as considered as the author of the article claims: are people really thinking “I’ll stand up now so everyone around me can see how much I enjoyed this performance”? I’m not sure….. I agree with the author that the standing ovation does seem to have become more common in British venues (I never go to the theatre, so I cannot comment on this specifically), but personally I don’t have a problem with that – because you don’t have to stand up if you don’t want to! As regular readers of this blog know, I am a voracious concert goer (and someone with a fascination for “audience behaviour” at concerts), but the standing ovation still seems pretty rare in London venues that I frequent (I am trying, and failing, to recall the last time I stood to applaud at Wigmore Hall). We applaud to show our appreciation of the performance and performer/s; we stand, while continuing to applaud, to amplify our appreciation and to celebrate what we have just heard/seen. At a recent concert by Paul Badura-Skoda, the standing ovation came almost before the final note of Schubert’s last sonata ceased to resonate around the hall (St John’s Smith Square). No matter that there were quite obvious errors in most of the pieces Badura-Skoda performed, we were celebrating the fact that at 83 he was still performing and obviously thoroughly enjoying himself. And throughout his performance he exuded such warmth, wit and pleasure, and created such a wonderful intimacy in the big space of St John’s Smith Square, we felt bound to show gratitude for all of this (and I am not alone in feeling this).

At my first visit to the opera in over 15 years, for the world premiere of Julian Anderson’s Thebans at ENO, my companion and I were surprised when, as the cast took their curtain calls, the audience did not rise to its feet. “Isn’t that what you do at the opera?” my friend remarked. But given the narrative – a story of violence, murder, incest and political plotting – perhaps the audience felt a standing ovation was inappropriate, despite fine performances by the cast and orchestra (it will be interesting to see how the audience reacts at the first night of The Pearl Fishers, also at ENO, in June). And that’s something else that interests me – how a collective feeling can quickly sweep through an audience (in the way it does with football fans who suddenly seem to be singing You’ll Never Walk Alone or You’re Scum and You Know You Are! in tune) causing people to stand up to applaud, or not. It is this collective impulse, impelled by some unseen force, which suggests that the mass ovation is not necessarily a premeditated or narcissistic act, as the Telegraph critic claims. (Much has been written on crowd psychology – and indeed on why people cough at concerts…..)

A reviewing colleague on Facebook made an interesting point in response to my link to the Telegraph article – that at political party conferences and rallies the standing ovation has become de rigeur, regardless of the quality or content of the speeches. And here I would agree with the Telegraph critic: these ovations are very obvious toadying to one’s party leader, rather than any sincere display of commitment or belief.

Perhaps the most amusing incidence of the standing ovation – and one which has become ingrained in our concert culture – is the collective rising to one’s feet during the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus from Handel’s Messiah, a tradition which stems from one of the first performances of the work when King George II mistook the chorus for the national anthem. In keeping with royal protocol, the audience had to stand during the chorus too.

(picture source: Teton Music Blog)