Monday, October 29, 2007

Give Us Your Hands

Sit with me in the theatre one evening, and you will find me a polite and attentive theatre-goer. I will do my best to suspend my judgements till the final curtain. Once we get to the end, however, you may find me somewhat disgruntled, regardless of my opinion of the show. It's those damn bows. I speak of no company or production in particular - the culprits know who they are. (Pause)

I have set out to find the origins of this strange theatre-custom. I have even employed the services of a reference librarian (we're related). We haven't come up with much, so much of the following rant is educated speculation. If you find better sources to the contrary, please elaborate. (Resume)

The OED defines curtain-call as "a call by an audience for an actor or actors to take a bow after the fall of the curtain." What this means, ladies and gentlemen, is that the AUDIENCE, not the actors, are supposed to lead curtain call. Anything else is self-indulgent, ego-massage.

Bowing is (again according to the OED) "a token of respect, reverence, submission." Until the beginning of the last century, actors were considered no better than criminals, so to play before ANYONE they had to show respect, reverence, and submission to their betters. In fact, actors would bow to the audience before every scene, in a sense asking permission to speak.

There is little acknowlegement of the humility of the custom in the self-congratulatory prancing I see more than I would care to remember. I am not suggesting that we should return to those days of gratiutous self-deprecation. To bow more than the audience asks you to is self-indulgant and rude - clapping hurts.


Anonymous said...

I definitely share your frustration with inappropriately extended bows and demand for applause. I find it highly unprofessional to trot out every single player for an individual bow and then the old "acknowledge the band... and the lighting crew.. and the sound guy... and the usher... and then another group bow." Seriously, thats fine in high school or community theater. You're clapping for the effort made in that scenario. you're showing support.

If I go to see theater as art, I expect quality. I know good productions have great behind the scenes crews. why should I clap for the band, but not the stitchers? Answer: I shouldn't be clapping for either. I should be applauding the production.

At the same time, I think going to the definition of curtain call and the history is a bit outdated in todays theater. History grows and evolves, and the origins of many things do not resemble their modern function. that doesn't mean oe is right and the other is not. We're talking about current cultural expectations, and the history is definitely interesting, but shouldn't really inform current behavior, IMO.

Turg Talker said...

Thanks for your thoughts. I agree with you that cultural expectations shift, but I always find it valuable to look at the origins of traditions to see exactly how it's changed, where we've come from.