Photo: Alastair Muir
“They applaud, even when it is good,” said Artur Schnabel, the great
Austrian pianist. These days, they stand to cheer, even when it is poor. The
standing ovation, which used to be a Broadway phenomenon, something we used
to snigger at, has become an increasingly unpleasant feature of theatrical
life in London.
Everybody who has seen a show on Broadway knows the form – indeed, in an
interview this week, Kathleen Turner singled it out as the greatest single
difference between audiences in New York and London. When the performers
return for their curtain calls, the American audience rises, not only for
the principals but also for the supporting cast. They may as well print the
instruction on the ticket: your business is rejoicing.
This unwritten code is not restricted to the theatre. At the Metropolitan
Opera, one of the world’s great stages, the whooping before the curtain
comes down is a curse. While next door, at Avery Fisher, the appalling
concert hall, I recall the worst orchestral performance I have ever heard
being received with a standing ovation that was only partly attributable to
the fact that people wanted to make an early spring for dinner.
Yet the virus has now crossed the mighty ocean. Despite Miss Turner’s
End audiences are standing nightly to acclaim both her (in Bakersfield
Mist) and Angela Lansbury – in the latter case, one imagines, simply
because the Dame is still alive, though understandably at the age of 88 she
has to go on stage (in Blithe Spirit) with an earpiece.
These ladies are fine actresses. Let nobody be in any doubt about that. But
the English theatre has been turning out great actors (of both sexes) for
centuries, and has got along pretty well without people feeling the urge to
stand. As Michael Billington, the long-serving theatre critic, told me
yesterday: “Olivier and Gielgud were quite good, but I don’t recall people
standing for them. They clapped a lot, though.”
Olivier, as it happens, was on Miss Turner’s lips this week as she recalled
Dustin Hoffman’s appearance on the London stage in 1989, as Shylock in Sir
Peter Hall’s production of The Merchant of Venice. At the end
of one performance, Hoffman informed the audience that Lord Olivier had
died, whereupon everybody stood to applaud. “You have to die, you have to
f—ing die,” the actor muttered in the wings.
As an occasional London resident, Hoffman is not ignorant of English customs.
He knows, as a distinguished mummer, that London is, broadly speaking, a
theatre town and New York a show town, where native traditions are
different. Chicago is probably the best city in the US for theatre.
It could be said that New York audiences are more generous, particularly to
plays that arrive from London. It could also be said that London audiences
are more discriminating. Although when you consider that We Will Rock You
(which closes tomorrow) seems to have run since the old king died, that is
not a claim one can make with much hope of a fair hearing.
Although the standing ovation purports to honour the performer, it is usually
about the person who stands. It is, more often than not, a gesture of
self-reward, or self-congratulation. It is a way of saying: “I have paid a
few bob for this ticket, and I have got my money’s worth.” And, it must be
said, anybody who has parted with a hundred quid to see a show deserves
that, at the very least.
But this canker in our theatre-going is also rooted in a narcissism that has
spread through all parts of life. In the theatre it takes the form of people
arriving late and leaving early, talking throughout the show, leaving their
phones on, and even eating. Beyond the theatre it is reflected in the urge
to proclaim “this is me” at every opportunity. Hence Susanna Reid’s dash up
the red carpet to snap a selfie with Tom Cruise at his film premiere this
This narcissism is at its most undiluted at sporting events. Consider the
television adverts plugging the World Cup, which starts next month. They
show people in states of despair, rage and excitement, blubbing and
cheering, like stroppy teenagers. It is about letting it all hang out,
without embarrassment – or, as some pop psychologist put it after the death
of Diana, Princess of Wales, it’s “emotional literacy”. Ah yes, of course.
At cricket matches, the cameras love to linger on those odd folk who dress up
as Saracens and cavemen. Even at the rugby, a game played and watched by
manly chaps, every try offers an excuse to let off rockets, metaphorically
and sometimes literally. And to think they used to shake hands and say:
“Jolly well done, sir!”
Me, me, me. It’s all about me. Not everywhere, thank goodness. There are still
blessed plots of earth where the old virtues hold sway. At Wigmore Hall, the
finest place in the world to listen to great music, the magnificent Takács
Quartet were recently honoured after a concert of Beethoven and Shostakovich
for four decades of music-making.
John Gilhooly, the hall’s manager, made a short speech, in which he uttered
not a single superlative. Then we all applauded. Not a single person stood.
The effect was more heartfelt than any standing ovation could ever be. Teach
us to sit still, wrote Eliot. Teach us indeed.
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