After viewing a particularly stellar performance, you probably rise to your feet with the rest of the audience to give a round of applause known as a standing ovation. But have you ever wondered why humans feel the need to get to their feet and show their thanks by clapping for an excellent show? Why do we give standing ovations, and what is the history behind them?
History of Clapping
You can’t give a standing ovation without the applause, but it is hard to pinpoint just when the custom of clapping began. It is a learned behavior that can be observed in babies and in the natural world, and humans have likely been using their bodies to make noises for a long time.
We do know that clapping as a sign of approval dates back to at least the 3rd century BC. It is around this time that the word plaudite, meaning “applause” or “clap,” begins to appear at the end of Roman plays. The Romans, however, would also show their approval of a public performance by finger-snapping.
The idea of a standing ovation, in part, also seems to come from those ancient Romans. The Romans used to celebrate the military successes of a commander by holding civil ceremonies and religious rites known as triumphs (triumphus). These were often drawn out and extravagant festivals.
While triumphs were the most revered form of Roman celebration, given only for the greatest of military victories, there was a similar observance for those feats that fell just a little short. Military commanders whose victories did not quite meet the requirements of a triumph, but which were still worthy of praise, were celebrated with an ovation instead. Coming from the Latin word ovo, meaning “I rejoice,” ovations were like scaled down versions of triumphs.
Why Do We Give Standing Ovations?
Elements of the standing ovation clearly have origins in ancient Rome, but the practice of standing in applause of a great performance wouldn’t become all that common until the 17th century. It was around this time that standing ovations started to appear in various theaters as a way to commend actors for an exemplary performance. However, many point to the years following World War II for the surge in popularity of this form of clapping.
In the 1950s, when theater productions such as My Fair Lady would end, the closing music barely left enough time for the cast to come back on stage for a final bow. Gradually, though, more prominent stars began appearing in stage performances and drawing headlines. Because of this, many productions were altered to allow star performers to make their way back in front of the curtain for a final (and longer) bow.
This led to a climax as the crowd anticipated the reappearance of the show’s headliner. Crowds were inspired to get to their feet to show recognition and go wild for the leading actor or actress, commending them for their performance.
Standing Ovation Opponents
While pretty much everyone today is familiar with the custom of giving a standing ovation, there are those who would prefer to see the practice done away with. While it was once deemed among the highest honors that a performer could receive, many critics assert that standing ovations have become too common. They are now given for pretty much all performances, even those that might be less deserving. If audiences rise to their feet after every performance, critics argue, the standing ovation soon becomes valueless.
On the other hand, you have those that believe the issue shouldn’t be so hotly debated. Supporters see it as a harmless gesture, an automatic action that takes place after a show. They would argue that there are other ways to single out great performances, like volume and longevity of applause. Plus, after watching a long performance, it is nice to stand up, if nothing else to stretch your legs.
Clapping is indeed as ingrained into society as cheering and laughing. Regardless of whether you get to your feet or remain seated, we can all agree that it is nice to get out and catch a show or concert every now and then!