I've watched New York Times film critic A.O. "Tony" Scott on At the Movies and he seems like a pleasant fellow. But part of his essay comparing theatre and movies hit a nerve. (Thanks to Jonathan Mandell, who writes about New York theatre at The Faster Times, for the link.)
Here's what Scott had to say about the current Broadway revival of A Little Night Music and the Ingmar Bergman film on which it's based, Smiles of A Summer Night:
"You watch Bergman, whether at home or in a revival house, in a state of solitude, but you go see “A Little Night Music” in a crowd and partake of its rituals. Many of these strike me, after 10 years of moviegoing with little time for theater, as bizarre, from the apparently obligatory ovations — is there nothing New York audiences won’t stand for? — to the practice of applauding after every number."
He describes seeing A Little Music as "an encounter with celebrity" and the applause as "an act of communal congratulation for having done so."
Okay, maybe audiences are a little too quick to jump to their feet at the end of the show. In a perfect world, we'd only stand for the most incredible, memorable, take-your-breath-away performances and applaud for the most emotionally gripping songs.
But do the applause and the standing ovations really hurt anyone? Do they detract from anyone's theatergoing experience compared with, say, talking during the show or being seated late or unwrapping a piece of candy? I don't think so.
Scott has some good points - seeing a movie and going to the theatre are different experiences. But his allusion to theatre and its bizarre rituals strikes me as needlessly snooty and dismissive of an art form he admits he's barely made time for in the past decade.
Unlike movies, the people up on stage are right there in front of you. They're human beings, not larger-than-life images on celluloid. When they come out at the curtain call after having made you laugh or cry for the past 2 1/2 hours, it's natural to want to give them an ovation. It's kind of a catharsis.
Besides, I don't think people are applauding to congratulate themselves. They're doing it to acknowledge performances that they've enjoyed. (And since most of the tickets are bought by tourists for whom a Broadway show is a treat, I think part of it is the excitement of simply being in the audience.)
If people want to stand and applaud Catherine Zeta-Jones or Angela Lansbury as they take their bows at the conclusion of A Little Night Music, I don't think it's bizarre. Seeing an actor onstage whom you've loved from movies or TV is thrilling. (And is it so difficult to imagine that the audience may simply have enjoyed their performances?)
While I enjoy a good movie, it's too easy to do in solitude. Going to the theatre forces me to be part of a crowd. The fact that it's a communal experience is a good thing. Too much solitude is not a good thing.