There should be a difference between a good performance and a great one. Sensibly, one applauds at the end of the former and rises to one’s feet for the latter. About which is which, one knows in one’s bones. Or does one?
I don’t recall seeing in the old days audiences bent on rushing into a standing ovation even for a mediocre, sometimes indeed dismal, play, as if they were goosed by their seats. But nowadays standing ovations are as common as dirt, and strike me as a dirty joke. Why, even at a performance much later than the premiere, benighted souls will leap to their feet, clapping and cheering, as if to stand were standard procedure. This raises a number of questions.
Are audiences particularly stupid? Or did they spend so much on their tickets that they must resort to this device to prove to themselves that the money was well worth it? Or are they lusting for some sort of participation in the creative process and deluding themselves that this is it? Or are they just trying to show off with how much smarter they are than their still sedentary neighbors? What they certainly don’t realize is that they are devaluing the standing ovation, and often adding insult to injury by their shrieks or howls, or whatever you call the throat complementing the feet.
Of course, once a fool thinks up a new trick like that shriek or howl or whatever it is, there is never a shortage of copycats or lemmings to follow suit. We have seen it happen even in the refined sport of tennis, where after Monica Seles started the grunt, it took hold of any number of distinguished players, women first but eventually some men as well. Whatever it means in tennis, in the theater and concert hall it indulges the herd’s need to be heard. Forget about I think, therefore I am: Descartes is discarded. The new motto is: I make noise, therefore I am. And the standing ovation, sometimes also accompanied by foot stamping, is the shout made visible.
Alas, that is not the only sound we hear from audiences. Any number of people talk during the show. It is argued, not without plausibility, that because they watch so much on television, they have lost the sense of difference between the theater and the living room. Some people, more commonly but not exclusively at the movies, randomly get up and leave, and sooner or later return. I doubt that it can all be to the toilet. But it can disturb, like two heads in front of you repeatedly coming together, which is talk made visible.
Some such people can be shushed. Others get furious, glower at you, and continue as before. The supposed option of complaining to an usher is useless. Even in the remote possibility of finding one, it means missing too much of the play or concert. And just what can an usher do? The culprits know that they won’t be physically ejected; a reprimand mostly earns the usher and you the wrath of other audience members who, until now, were not disturbed.
For so many hidebound people in the audience, from whom you might hope for support, the misbehaving persons in front of them don’t matter, and neither do the ones behind them. So perhaps new ways of dealing with the talkers must be invented. Perhaps one could have an index card ready to thrust at them, reading “If you’ll kindly stop talking, I’ll give you a monetary award at the end of the show.”
Sometimes if you hear what they are saying, you can score. At a Truffaut film, where the camera raced around sights of Paris, a man behind me kept identifying them for his companion. “The Eiffel Tower,” he would say, or “Notre Dame Cathedral,” and the like. Finally, when he announced the Triumphal Arch, I corrected him: “No, the Brooklyn Navy Yard.” This somehow stumped him into silence.
Then, at the cinema where there are empty seats, a talker will tell you, “If you don’t like it, move!” You might want to question him why it doesn’t occur to him to follow his own advice. But the trouble is that the offender is often a huge, burly, uncouth fellow, who might start a brawl or worse. In that case, by moving yourself, you may miss some important part of the movie, not to mention disturb innocent people in your present row and the one you move to.
Sometimes I think enviously of mad king Ludwig of Bavaria, who had Wagner compose works for him played at the Private Theater with the king the sole audience. That may well be the ideal enjoyment, especially at a comedy, where primitive audiences will laugh louder and longer than the maddest monarch, and often make you lose several lines of dialogue and the next joke. Sad to say, though I might try to approximate Ludwig’s madness, his money is beyond my wildest dreams.
Speaking of concerts, the late great and eccentric music critic B. H. Haggin was so disgusted with audiences, though rather better at classical concerts (I keep forgetting that these days anything is called a concert), that he would hold his program up before him so that it would block out the audience and leave only the stage in view. I never attended anything sitting close to him, so I can’t tell to what extent he made a spectacle of himself for those he couldn’t block out. He was also unusual among music critics by ignoring if possible any music later than that of the late Romantics.
My own taste is the exact opposite. I have no interest in music from before roughly 1840, and can only wonder at the adulation of, say, Bach and Mozart, when there is Fauré and Debussy and Bartók and Berg and Prokofiev and Janáček, to name only a few. I recall the time when the great lieder singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau gave three recitals in Carnegie Hall, all of which I attended. The first two, Schubert ones, I enjoyed well enough, but really looked forward to the third, which was to be all Hugo Wolf. But Sol Hurok, the concert manager, managed to talk the baritone into sticking with Schubert, who apparently was bigger at the box office. As we were leaving, I bumped into Haggin, who asked me, “Wasn’t it wonderful?” I replied that I would have much preferred Wolf. Haggin burst out laughing; for him, I must have been the only one with such a preference.
I realize now that I have strayed a bit from the subject of the audience. But I too, like all critics, am also audience. And perhaps the only subject on which I wholly agree with my colleagues is about not talking during a show. I mean the professional critics, and not those unfortunate bloggers who, in the Age of the Internet , when everyone is a critic, fancy themselves that. Those, with some honorable exceptions, would do well to shut the hell up.