I am all for spontaneous enthusiasm but the standing ovation is a filthy American habit that I think should be discouraged.
In New York the standing ovation is now a meaningless nightly ritual. Unless the show is a real stinker a Broadway audience will leap to its feet almost before the curtain has fallen. I've always assumed this had two explanations. One is that, if you've paid 100 bucks or more for a ticket, you have to justify to yourself the worth of your investment.
The other is that Americans like to feel they themselves are all in showbusiness. And what better way to advertise one's enthusiasm than by shooting out of one's stall, as if an electric current has passed up one's bum, and letting out those peculiar war-whoops that in the States betoken excitement.
I really do try to fight the masses on this. I will stay seated if I don't think it was that good a performance. I don't really agree with Billington that the Standing Ovation is about the audience membet being seen doing it.
From my experience, the audience members who start the standing ovation really do seem to be carried away by something about the show.
The one constant about the phenomena of the obligatory standing ovation is that it never starts from the back. It is always a few people in the first six rows that standup. From there, it can spread backwards like a growing wave. Or, sometimes these first standing ovators will replicate someplace else, and then the groups begin to multiply until a majority of the audience is consumed.
But the start of the wave, the "electric bum shock" is most often a true enthusiasm. Maybe enough of the American public doesn't see live theatrical performances enough to really have a perspective on what is exceptional as opposed to what is excellent, what is fair, and what is serviceable.
In other words, if enough people in the first few rows haven't seen a stage show since that touring Shakespeare production in 6th grade, then I can forgive them for being out of their minds with enthusiasm when the realize: "that actual live person just made me cry with grief and tragedy, I want to thank them."
As for the rest of the audience, I can't imagine what is happening in their heads. Reading the body language it is clear that they do not want to rise, they don't feel that enthusiasm. However, they do it just the same.