Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Commentary: Standing Ovations

This article was originally published in Primetime.

"Here it comes,” my friend Bob recently whispered when the curtain came down after a not-so-good Broadway production. What he saw coming was the obligatory standing ovation. I had become so obsessed with the strange and bothersome phenomenon of audiences standing to salute even the most soporific and egregious performances that I was planning an essay on the subject for Primetime. When Jesse McKinley’s recent article, “The Tyranny of the Standing Ovation,” in the New York Times beat me to the punch, I offered to withdraw my take on the rampant phenomenon. But my editor suggested that I go ahead and submit my thoughts on the subject.

The Times’s article offers several possible reasons for the proliferation of the dutiful ovation: These events might be motivated by “crowd psychology” or even “self-hypnosis.” Perhaps, too, it might simply be “a way to say thank you to the performers.” There is something else: Because ticket prices are so steep these days, standing up makes some patrons feel that they now have a damn good reason for leaving the theater with a lighter wallet. And yet, a few of the actors who were interviewed for McKinley’s article claim that they spent decades in the theater without ever having seen the audience on its feet. But would it be a significantly unique event if they were to experience it today?

McKinley talks about a time when the standing ovation was reserved for classic dramatic performances: For instance, the article mentions Frederick March in Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956) and Zero Mostel in Rhinoceros (1961). (I was there, too, and, yes, I enthusiastically participated in the deserved, explosive displays of gratitude after those performances.)

However, opera and ballet are not exempt, either, and I was included in and approved of the emotional ovations that were given to Leonie Rysanek at the old Met (February 5, 1959) after her debut as Lady MacBeth, to Nureyev and Fonteyn after their New York Swan Lake (April 30, 1969), to Baryshnikov following his first performance (July 27, 1974) in the United States, to Balanchine and a few of his exquisite dancers during the great choreographer’s reign and to Ethel Merman on the fabled closing night of Gypsy (March 25, 1961). And if I, like Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, were pinned to the wall and made to divulge the most exciting evening I ever spent at a theatrical event, I would most likely say it was Judy Garland’s legendary Carnegie Hall concert on April 23, 1961. (Listen to the gold compact disc set to get some idea of what occurred on that theatrically historic evening.)

“It is as though Antony and Cleopatra never had been played before.” That was the estimable Brooks Atkinson in the Times on December 20, 1951. And when Laurence Olivier, down on one knee, kissed Vivien Leigh’s hand and offered her some of the flowers that had been thrown to the stage during the curtain call, I doubt that anyone standing in tribute at the beautiful, old Ziegfeld had a dry eye. We had witnessed greatness; and we were swept up spontaneously, willing participants caught up in the magical gale.

“As the commercial world understands it,” Kenneth Tynan wrote, "theater is what pleases those who pay to see it.” But Brecht redefines that: “The modern theater must be judged not by its success in satisfying audience habits but by its success in transforming them....” Alas, we have lost the ability to differentiate, to set apart, and we are paying heavily for that deficiency.

When Bob learned that I was preparing this article, he said to be sure to mention that there’s at least one upside to the undeserved, ubiquitous standing ovation syndrome: While theatergoers are shouting their approval, you have clear passage to the exit doors that lead to a Manhattan street and to a din of another kind.