10/29/2007 03:56 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

On Standing Ovations

Let's not talk about theatre right off the bat, though we're headed in that direction. Let's start, instead, with the universal metaphor of romance, and the issue of putting out. Adults have lately lamented the adolescent sport of having sex on the first date -- oh, c'mon, it's not even a date, with the implied traditions of request, acceptance, and destination, but rather a superheated meet-cute. Since our middle-aged memories have conveniently wiped the sexual revolution of the '60s off of our collective disk, we can afford without hypocrisy to say, How sad, how devalued, to have a physical relationship with an almost-stranger.

Now that I have your attention, we can move on to my real subject, the seemingly requisite standing ovation at any show on Broadway. What do instant sex and on-your-feet applause have in common? They rob the act of meaning, an leave us fumbling for a superlative when we really fall in love.

[No, I am not a member of the abstinence movement, but I do still refer to it as making love, rather than as having sex.]

I saw two plays on a recent trip to New York: one, a piece of serious drama that required absolute attention for its almost three-hour running time, and the other an entertainment, starring a celebrity from another coast, no names need be mentioned. They had in common a link to an actual moment in history, and nothing more.

No, that's wrong. At the end of each play, members of the audience jumped to
their feet in a standing ovation. In fact, more people hopped up for the celebrity show, particularly when the famous guy took his bow.

I'm told that the Brits don't do it this way. They keep those derrieres firmly planted in their seats for almost everything; they regularly demolish actors' egos by applauding politely while they still have laps. When they do stand up, it means something. It means what a standing ovation is supposed to mean, which is that the people who are on their feet feel they've seen something remarkable, something memorable, something worthy of a special accolade. By withholding the standing ovation, they make sure it matters when it happens.

And, I'm told, they don't cave to peer pressure. Everybody in the hall might be standing except for that stony couple in the fifth row, but they're not getting up, regardless. It's as though you?re born with a finite number of standing ovations in your personal inventory and if you blow them early, you don't get to stand up for that marvelous play you see when you're 60.

The first time I was in a theatre and everyone stood up, I took the patriotic stance. Us wonderful Americans, I thought. We're such enthusiastic fans. We stand out of gratitude for hard work, we stand out of joy at being in a theatre where the biggest special effect is a headset mike, we stand because we love life and we're not as emotionally constipated as the Brits.

Lately, though, I worry that we stand because we've lost our critical faculties; we stand because we've been entertained, without considering whether we've been entertained well. Maybe distraction for its own sake has value, in this era of foreclosures and nuclear threats and war; maybe people simply appreciate the chance to live in someone else's universe, if only briefly. But clap for that, and save standing up for the great stuff.

Save love for the times it matters. Otherwise, the object of your affection won't know how deeply you feel. Being indiscriminate makes everything matter less.