The Alley Theatre’s world premiere of Cleo features a great story—the sizzling affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton on the set of the 1963 movie Cleopatra in Rome—along with sumptuous staging and stellar acting.
But is it worth a standing ovation?
The audience on opening night certainly thought so. No sooner had the last word of the play been spoken when several patrons jumped to their feet. They were soon joined by more and more theatergoers, until the only ones who remained sitting were me and my husband. We applauded enthusiastically but didn’t feel the play merited such over-the-top praise.
Call me old-fashioned, but I believe a standing ovation should be a precious thing saved only for that rare occasion where something is so extraordinary and superlative that you can’t help but want to salute it in a special way.
I’m obviously in the minority.
A few nights later, we were at Stages Repertory Theatre, where Sally Edumundson sparkled in a one-woman show about former Texas Gov. Ann Richards. She did a great job and, again, the audience erupted in a standing ovation at the end. This time we stood up, too, not because we thought Edmundson’s work merited that extra praise but because I was sitting next to her husband and was too embarrassed to remain seated in his presence.
While Houston audiences are standing-ovation crazy, it’s not just a Texas phenomenon. On the daily television gabfest The View, the audience always jumps to its feet as soon as Whoopi Goldberg, Joy Behar, and the other panelists walk onstage. When former FBI director James Comey recently was a guest to tout his new book, the audience leapt to its feet again.
Comedian Bill Maher also regularly draws a standing O on his HBO talk show, but even he was surprised on a recent show when the audience stood for Stormy Daniel’s attorney, Michael Avenatti.
“I want this recorded: A lawyer got a standing ovation,” Maher cracked.
What’s the reason for ovation inflation?
Rice University assistant clinical professor of marketing Constance Elise Porter surmises that it represents our desire to express an opinion on everything we experience.
“We are a cheerleading type of society, so when we are excited and happy about things, we want to like it, whether it’s online or with a standing ovation. We believe in expressing opinions—good and bad,” she says.
There’s also the peer pressure to be part of the crowd, she suggests. “You don’t want to deviate from the norm. Whether you strongly approve of it or or not, you’re going to stand up more than likely when everyone else does, unless you disapprove of it completely.
“There’s a herding theory, and this is a part of it," Porter adds. "This can be positive, or it can be negative. Often, when juveniles commit offenses in groups, it's because they wanted to be a part of the crowd, in the moment, rather than because they held a strong belief that the action was appropriate."
I’m not about to suggest that giving a standing ovation is akin to criminal behavior, but it could be a desire to confirm our good judgment. With ticket prices continually escalating, we want to believe we got our money’s worth. You can bet that audiences at Hamilton, now at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, will rise for an ovation, given the money they spent to attend.
A few years back, New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley made the case for “the return of the sitting ovation. Because we have really reached the point at which a standing ovation doesn’t mean a thing,” he wrote.
Alas, his suggestion didn’t take hold.
He also pointed out that, according to legend, when Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman opened on Broadway in 1949, the audience was so moved that it sat in shocked silence at the end of the play before the applause began.
Brantley doesn’t say, but I’m guessing a standing ovation occurred that night. And it was well-deserved.
I might have even joined in.