13 September 2010

Ovation, Standing and Otherwise

I saw The Scottsboro Boys last evening at the Guthrie Theater here in Minneapolis. Kander and Epp have taken one of the more heinous moments in 20th century American history—the legal lynching of nine innocent African American young men (though one of the boys was twelve when he was arrested) for a crime that never actually occurred. I call what transpired a legal lynching because the event in a very real sense veritably ended in different ways the lives of each of the nine individuals.

The play functioned on a number of ironic levels, one of the more interesting of them arising as a result of Kander and Ebb’s (books and lyrics) choice to employ the frame of the minstrel show to structure the play. The choice of this comedic frame deflated the sense of respectable indignation and moral superiority that the subject of this egregious example of American justice might inspire in a mostly white audience. There was just too much to laugh at in the production (though the laughter was often nervous and embarrassed) to leave much room for the development of a righteous anger. The Minstrel show has set form and stock characters and intends to entertain with comedy, song and dance. Indeed, the show, about one of the more repulsive events in American history, was created as a musical! Minstrel shows are traditionally identified with a virulent racism as whites performed in black face and ridiculed African-Americans as at least ignorant and lazy. Later, minstrel shows included Blacks in blackface, but the racist themes remained the same. The events portrayed in The Scottsboro Boys were shocking, and the minstrel show frame heightened the horror by placing these events in a farcical frame. I think also that the humor in The Scottsboro Boys prevented the appearance of any maudlin and cheap melodramatic sentiment that might creep in from the sympathy the audience might develop with the unspeakable situation suffered by the Scottsboro boys. Irony, I think, permitted the events to speak eloquently. Another irony in the play derived from the fact that all of the characters, except The Interlocutor (who also enacted the role of Judge and Governor), were played by Black males. Even the two white girls who (falsely and maliciously) accused the boys of rape, were played by the Black men. In the play African-americans were both victims and perpetrators, oppressors and oppressed. Operatic and comic, tragic and farcical. The play was all very well staged, designed, and performed.

At the end of the play at the curtain call (though there was no curtain, in fact) the audience rose to its feet in a standing ovation. I have grown weary of pro forma standing ovations, and I remained seated.

I have recently twice heard Beethoven’s 7th Symphony performed by the Minnesota Orchestra, and both times at the end of the fourth movement I was impelled out of my seat by the force of the music and its performance. I stood cheering. Probably in my memory there are other performances that pulled me up where I applauded the performance, though right now I can recall none.

In the present time, a standing ovation occurs after every performance, and for me the act has lost all meaning. Standing ovations have become something I have to do and not something I have been inspired to do. Ovations are no longer about the relationship between the performance and the audience, but about standardized response. I remember the spontaneous appearance of lit matches at the end of a concert—at Dylan’s 1974 tour with The Band in Washington D.C. People lit matches in an almost religious fervor to express the depths of their spiritual engagement with the evening’s performances. But now, at the end of a concert attendees turn on the lighter app on their cell phone. One was a spontaneous response and another the planned one.

It does a disservice to the performers to stand as an automatic response because there are different levels to their performance, and I think actors need to know the difference. It is an audience obligation to respond with honesty. I think that the standing ovation at the end of this play was at least in part an affirmation of the play’s politics and not a comment on the actor’s performance or even the quality of the play. It was a self-serving accolade in which the audience applauded itself for its sympathy with the subject matter.

I liked the play very much, and I applauded enthusiastically from my seat.


Post a Comment

<< Home