The Applause Rituals

Applause-Sign_Terry-BorderClapping. It’s weird. You’re in the theatre, very civilised, then “Bravo!” we shriek, smacking our palms together like happy clappy seals. The custom of applauding may be as seasoned as humankind itself, but that doesn’t stop it from being supremely ridonkulous. Next time you’re mid-applause, stop. Look at everyone around you. See? Bonkers.

So what’s with the clapping? Where did it come from? And is there anything other than ludicrous hand-slapping to mark our expression of approval?

Well, it seems scholars aren’t quite sure about the origins of applause. But what they do know is that it‘s as old as it’s tenacious. Even the Bible mentions the act of clapping, celebrating the birth of Jesus.

Ancient Greeks and Roman leaders were lovers of grand applause too and became astute clap-o-meters, obsessively scrutinising their applauses, looking for clues about their political fortunes. Were their competitors’ applauses – shock horror – longer, louder, more intense? Greg Aldrete, a professor of history and humanistic studies at the University of Wisconsin says “This is how you gauge the people. This is how you poll their feelings.”

Sociobiologist Desmond Morris suggests that “When we applaud a performer, we are, in effect, patting him on the back from a distance.”

So is this learnt behaviour or natural instinct? No-one seems to know for certain. But watch a jolly little babe, and they’ll often clap or clasp their hands together in gurgling jubilation.

And why stop at clapping, when you can wave the edge of your toga? Or hum en mass like a swarm of bees? Yup, the Ancient Romans really knew how to take their applauding to the next level. But our favourite variety of ancient applause? Snapping finger and thumb, Fonzy-style. Now that’s cool. Clapping? Nah. Next time that theatre curtain drops, we’ll be raising the roof with rapturous finger-clicking.∎

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