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Why Do We Clap?

This last weekend, I had the privilege of seeing the first preview performance of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot with Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen. First and foremost, the play was wonderful. The entire company put forth such thoughtful and inspiring work. It almost felt like the Theatrical Powers That Be kissed my forehead that evening. That good.

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Perhaps what I found most enchanting about the production was the palpable sense of play that everyone in the room felt. The actors were having fun! So, naturally, the audience did as well. It was that simple. It seems that everyone in the theater collectively enjoyed the piece we were watching.

But (because there’s always a but), there were moments in which my fellow audience members–my friends for the night–led me to question their actions.

Several times throughout the performance, there seemed to be obligatory rounds of applause simply for the fact that Billy Crudup had just performed the exceedingly long “think” of Lucky’s (how does he memorize all that!), or simply because Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen are Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. That’s how the play was advertised, right? Two best friends playing the most iconic best friends in the last hundred years. It’s a hard marketing ploy to ignore. That fact, in and of itself, is endearing enough to get anyone to buy a ticket.

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In my momentary huffing and puffing, I thought, “I came here to watch theatre, not to gawk at these actors.” Pretentious, right? However, it became so apparent, that there were moments in the text when McKellen clearly mocked the audience’s automated bursts of applause.

In retrospect, I suppose I only agree with myself part ways. I did not pay too much money and spend a chunk of my evening to watch celebrities be celebrities. I came to see a play that I am always thrilled to reencounter with actors I deeply admire and respect. However, is this not part of what Waiting for Godot is about? Isn’t the meta-theatricality of the piece one of the greatest motifs in the play?

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In this production in particular, certainly. A major part of the set was a crumbling false proscenium that had made its way onto the nothingness of the play. There are several references to being a theatre in the text. Even the curtain call was a call back to what wonderful friends Stewart and McKellen are. Perhaps, this meta-theatricality is what allows such oppressive waves of applause to function properly in the context of the play.   Perhaps that is how Sir Ian McKellen could acknowledge what was occurring in the house and bring it onto the stage. This allows us to acknowledge the actors as well as the characters. 

The nature of applause is so strange to me. It always has been. I don’t understand it in the context of the play. I don’t understand it when I play begins. I truly don’t know what function it serves. All I know, is at the end of the two hours I spent in the Cort Theatre, I was on my feet clapping furiously.

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