Saturday, March 5, 2011

Canned Enthusiasm

We tend to think of enthusiastic audiences as spontaneously reacting with fervor and admiration to performers, but of course enthusiasm can also be manufactured by clever entrepreneurs for the purposes of manipulation and profit. In the music world of the 19th century, for example, tricks of the ticket trade include “deadheading,” which created demand for a concert ticket by giving away most seats for an opening night to associates to create an irresistible “full house.” Other managers paid carriage drivers to line the curb outside their theaters, suggesting that people must be fascinated with something going on inside. Most deceptive were claqueurs, professional applauders, in the audience for 18th century Parisian opera. As a travel writer in Harper’s Monthly (February 1854: 310) explained,
After one has been led by the contagious force of example to join in a round of uproarious applause, with which some favorite actor or piquant speech has been greeted, and perhaps been simple enough to add a bouquet to the pile cast at the feet of a pretty actress, whose emotions of gratitude, too powerful for speech, can only be expressed by a well-studied pantomime, it is as killing to sentiment as frost to flowers, to hear a cynical Frenchman beside you, with a latent smile at your greenness just discernible on his otherwise polite features, coolly remark, “that cost fifty francs.” You turn to him and ask an explanation. Monsieur is always happy to enlighten strangers, even when the information conveys no compliment to his own institutions. In the first place, he tells you never to take a seat in the centre of the parquette, just under the chandelier. You wonder at this, as it is really the best place in the house to see the stage and audience, but after the explanation you avoid it as you would one of the plagues of Egypt. It is the locality of the “claqueurs.” Remark that group immediately under the chandelier, some fifty persons, they are called “Les Chevaliers du lustre.” See how periodically they applaud; how well they are drilled; a hundred hands clapping in perfect unison. They are like soldiers, and have their corporals and captains, who motions they follow with all the regularity that a flock of geese follows its leader.
In this context, true admiration was always relative to the false kind:
It is reasonable to suppose when a French audience has a mercenary band to execute gratis for them all the clapping, stamping, and shouting, they do not trouble themselves much with such fatiguing ceremonies. If they are so far carried out of their dignified contempt for the claqueurs as to join in applause, it must be by something decidedly good in their estimation.

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