Mr. Ben Brantley, the theater critic of the New York Times, has an important message for all you out-of-town yahoos and engineering majors who clutter up Broadway (and off-Broadway) theaters with your Walmart manners and bourgeois pretensions:
Pretty much every show you attend on Broadway these days ends with people jumping to their feet and beating their flippers together like captive sea lions when the zookeeper arrives with a bucket of fish.
Mr. Brantley’s observation that standing ovations have become commonplace is not one we will challenge; we lost track of Broadway somewhere between the third and eighth reboot of “Spiderman” — but his characterization of the audience seems a little harsh. Even he notes that, having forked out a sum for each seat that would purchase an entire row in a movie, theatergoers seem eager to assert that they have not been completely swindled by according an unreasonable level of approval to whatever they have just enjoyed or endured. And goodness knows we have little to cheer about these days; if we can’t stand and applaud in the theater, our exposure to wild ovations is restricted to last-minute jumpers at the buzzer, state of the union addresses and, once every four years, political conventions.
But Mr. Brantley’s comments have more than a little of the elitist odor to them:
The reasons for the ubiqity of the promiscuous S.O. have been widely pondered by cultural pundits. One theory has it that it’s because habitual theatergoers have become a relative rarity. Many who attend big Broadway shows are tourists whose itinerary includes, along with visits to the Statue of Liberty and the Hard Rock Cafe, a performance of “Wicked” or “Jersey Boys.”
Wow. “Cultural pundits.” “Tourists.” I am not sure which I would avoid with more devotion, but I admit I have a marked aversion to both. And “habitual theatergoers?” It sounds a trifle like some kind of dependency, even if relatively harmless. Doesn’t this make you feel just a little like these slobs who frequent the Hard Rock and goggle at Lady Liberty are really kind of — well — acting a little uppity by bringing their cheap suits and their game show sensibilities to the shrines and temples of that high art, musical comedy?
Perhaps Mr. Brantley is being a bit short-sighted. As Samuel Johnson once tersely responded to the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral when he complained of being restricted by dogma: “No dogma, no dean.” Similarly, an audience comprising solely the self-appointed cognoscenti will not keep the theaters open for long, and as long as the audience isn’t texting “I’m live at the Nederlander!” to the next-door neighbor in White Plains, rustling candy wrappers or explaining the next scene to their five year old (all incidents to which by now I have become accustomed), they can generally be considered to be behaving with reasonable decorum and propriety.
Thus, Mr. Brantley suggests, in a curious flop of reasoning, that a sitting ovation is actually more of a compliment to the performers. Not only because it has become more rare than to stand, but because it confers upon the audience a higher degree of sophistication, and therefore its praise is to be much more greatly valued than that of a foot-stomping, hooting mob of out-of-towners.
Still, Mr. Brantley is exercised. Why can’t we emulate our betters? Do we not know where our salad forks are?
In London, where theater remains a larger and more natural part of the general cultural conversation, the S.O. is less epidemic.
Well, course, In London. Where they know how to behave properly, and there actually is a “general cultural conversation.” Finally, describing a recent event where the audience has the good taste to remain seated at the end of the performance, Brantley gushes:
So I can’t tell you how heartened I was, at the end of a packed spring theater season, to be part of that seated ovation at “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” I should point out that among audiences for musicals, those who attend the Encores! productions are probably the most sophisticated and discriminating in town. Many know the history, in detail, of the show they’re seeing and the résumés of those appearing in it.
There you have it. The “most sophisticated and discriminating” folks don’t stand. And these people are familiar with “resumes” — and know “the history, in detail” of what they watch. This recalls a state of grace best describe by Coleridge:
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
Of all the perils that education and art can convey, indubitably the greatest danger derives from the catastrophic assumption that a mastery of the rituals equates to an understanding of the mysteries. Mr. Brantley, with his sneering condescension and snotty pretense — not to mention his hilariously broken reasoning — reveals himself with rather more detail than he might have suspected in this pointless piece of self-congratulatory nonsense, as does the New York Times, which found a place for this screed on its front page.
Well, we’re having none of it. Audiences in New York theaters are actually wonderfully behaved. They are respectful, considerate and appreciative, as well they should be. The fact is, there is something magical about a live performance by highly-skilled professionals. Just as a CD can never convey the excitement, electricity and intimacy that a live performance brings to a great musical work, nothing can substitute for watching great actors performing great plays by great writers. If our audiences get caught up in this moment, even after performances that the cultural 1% would considered uninspired, perhaps we should applaud their enthusiasm instead of consigning it to boorishness. But then we might be compelled to find some other sop to our vanity, or proof that we are better than people who drive American cars with Jersey plates.
So, my friends from out of town (and those of you from in town who do not rise to the level of delicacy required by the dancing masters at the Times), cheer on. Come to Broadway as much as you can and as often as you can. We need you, the actors need you, the playwrights need you, the ushers and parking attendants need you, Shakespeare needs you, O’Neill needs you, Stoppard needs you. (Ionesco doesn’t need you; he has a rhinoceros.) And when strutting dandies like Mr. Brantley tell you to sit the hell down, tell them to shut the f**k up. The show’s over. Stand. Stomp. Cheer your heart out. There’s an election coming.