Boo This Post

Terry Teachout, meditating on a rare outburst of booing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, wonders if classical music and theater are being diminished by a superabundance of standing ovations and a scarcity of negative feedback. What if theater and orchestra audiences behaved more like blog commenters? Not too long ago, they did; in 1849, to pick an extreme example, a full-blown riot broke out over a production of Macbeth in New York City. Let’s reach for a middle ground in the comments section here, please. [%comments]


I only join in the standing ovation if a play truly deserves it. Part of the problem may be that the general population may be so ignorant of what makes good theatre that they just follow along like sheep.


That's a shame. I'd watch Mary Zimmerman stage the Boston phone book.


It appears to me that there's a deep desire to applaud theater. Living in the sticks, the only opportunity I've got for opera is the Met HD-Live broadcasts at the local movie theater. I've stopped going to those due to all the people in the audience who applaud, even to the point of doing a mini standing-O, apparently not realizing that the video feed is NOT bi-directional. On the negative side, though, I have yet to tell any of these screen-applauders to shut up, so I can understand how audiences would be loath to boo performers.


My church has this problem. Every year at Christmas and Easter, they turn out the most horrendous musicals, but everyone keeps raving about how good they are.

Problem is, it's hard to boo in a church. But I wish, at the very least, that they would not rave about how amazing they are right from the pulpit.


Marc - while I'm not usually against the "people are like sheep" theory, but your assumption that the non-ignorant have a criteria of what "makes good theatre" is ridiculous. Ignorant or not, people have different opinions in case you didn't know.

And this brings me to my point - in blog comments I can criticise another commentor.... So if Marc was sitting next to me in a play and not joining the standing ovation, can I turn around and start booing him?


Curse the unwashed masses for enjoying theatre! Curse them!


The problem with booing is that the performers on stage often don't deserve it; they didn't write or direct the mess. And when you applaud, some of the clapping is for the material, some for the performance. We don't have a mechanism for booing the material while cheering the performers - or vice versa.


I literally cannot remember a play that I have attended in NYC -- and I've attend around 10/year for the last decade -- that did get a standing ovation from at least some significant fraction of the crowd.


I would say what seems to be missing from Terry Teachout's piece is an understanding that many people don't get to see multiple Broadway plays. For many people a Broadway show is a rare treat. They may read a number of different reviews, or look for a play that appeals to them based on premise, or cast, or songs. For those people maybe they don't pay close attention to the staging or to the acting - but rather they focus on how the play makes them feel. Strong writing and a moving experience will elicit a strong reaction typically and I think that is what has happened. Because theater is an *occasion* now, and because people are being moved in their experience of it we are lacking, to an extent, a critic's viewpoint. But frankly - I don't think of this as a bad thing...critics have their place, and surely they, and bloggers, continue issuing their viewpoints - but for the masses who attend the theater - allow them their opportunity to enjoy something that is a rare treat - including the chance to give a standing ovation!



I read Treachout's original note a few weeks back in the Journal and immediately thought that there is certainly an economics professor who would write a model about the incentives to participate in the "silent boo" and how likely such a system was to elicit honest feedback and be used for performance evaluation, etc., since these are the same sorts of problems faced by professors whose only source of classroom performance data may be anonymous student surveys (students who, for the most part, don't necessarily know what makes for a positive and impacting learning experience...)


I'm sure a problem lies within the audience itself: How many of them can actually decide if something is of high quality or not? What constitutes expertise in this area to decide if a performance is worth an ovation or not? I wouldn't trust myself to judge that... but I know what I like, so if I stand for purely selfish reasons does that make me part of the problem?

@7: The performance is the performance, regardless of material or actors. Both author/composer and actor/director should (but probably don't) have a say over each other. Boo it all, or don't boo at all



(You asked for it.)


I think booing is an extreme show of disrespect. You should have to HATE something to boo. My parents raised me to avoid booing even at sporting events as it was classless - an extreme, I know.

If I'm not deeply impressed by a live performance, I should still show respect to the performers' efforts. Maybe I don't stand. Maybe I applaud unenthusiastically. Maybe I don't even applaud, but there are ways to politely show displeasure.

I can't even imagine what in the world of art could merit booing...perhaps the conductor coming on stage in a tshirt and dirty jeans and directing something that was unfit for human ears? Maybe the leading actor in a high-dollar show forgetting every line and walking off? But booing anything short of that seems quite excessive.

Comparing it to blogging...Given a performance that had even one rehearsal that involves people who have trained even a little for their vocation - that performance has had more effort put into it than blogging. Any nincompoop can spew something into the blogosphere. Not any nincompoop can sing opera.

That said - the standing ovation may be a little overly common.



Most people boo in another sense these days, by not continuing to promote/support a show, which will quickly shut down. regardless of whether it is the actors, writers, tech, or directors, booing is allowed, a bad show is a bad show. Being on the board of a community theatre, we completely scrutinize prospective shows for our season to provided the best entertainment and quality to our patrons, if they dislike our product, I fully understand them booing, whether i agree or not, and obviously won't be around long.


I think a big difference between blogs and classical music / theatre performance is that in the former, there is no real "peer-review" or quality-control process that takes place behind the scenes before you're 'allowed' to be write a blog posting. These days, a single opening in a symphony orchestra will be inundated with as many as 500 very talented musicians, all of whom will have to undergo a multi-stage and, for the most part, anonymous audition process that would make you instantly lose whatever respect you have left for American Idol contestants. Yo-Yo Ma could be auditioning and it wouldn't matter until the very last round-and even then, that last audition could be behind a screen. It's a brutal process that ensures only the best of the best get a seat in top orchestras. But the result is that most musical performances actually are extremely high quality.

So I can't really get behind the idea that classical music should be more like blogging. In fact, I wouldn't be totally against some kind of filter for blogs and blog comments. I think that naturally occurs to some degree already. But I also think the marginal benefit of one more person standing up to applaud (or not) is roughly the same as the 501st positive (or negative) blog comment.



I'd love to see the results if every audience member had an electronic vote pad... which would display on a projector visible to all.

There are two pieces: Appreciation of the work these people have done for us, and expression of our impressions of the artistic quality.

Keep the applause, and allow the ovations... but if the audience rates it a 2/5, you know it needs more work. And boos are welcome as part of the game.


Not only that, but bands play an encores at concerts that include their most popular songs - Indicating that the encore was part of the set list and not the result of an especially good or energetic crowd. Similarly, it seems like tipping a server at a restaurant has become compulsory regardless of the quality of service. I hate feeling cheap for tipping a server 10% when they didn't really deserve any extra money at all.

Daniel Reeves

Classical music and theater aren't diminished by too many standing ovations. There are too many standing ovations because people don't appreciate the difference between a good performance and a great performance. In other words, people don't truly appreciate quality classical music and theater. It's all been diminished already.

100+ years ago, theater and classical concerts were the main form of entertainment, so people actually had an ear for the difference between a good and bad performance. So standing ovations actually meant something. The Macbeth example in the main post is nice. But I prefer the premiere of Rite of Spring as the ultimate example of how people got extremely fussy with bad shows. If you guys don't know about that story, Google it.


The issue here is one of philosophy. What is good? Good like beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Who is anyone to tell anyone else what is good theatre, wine, cheese, etc. So to all of you who stand and applaud, by the $10 bottle of wine and love it, don't give in to the so called experts who want to tell you what to like and what is good.


They should perform at the Apollo.