Applause is one of those cultural rituals so ingrained in our habits that to clap is a nearly subconscious act. However, the choice to remain clapping—and, at times, to stand while doing so—is very intentional. But when did the standing ovation begin?
Like many facets of our culture, this one dates back to Ancient Rome. Although today’s society counts a standing ovation as one of the highest forms of flattery, it was actually a tier below one of Rome’s most honorary celebrations. At the time, a “triumph” was a rite conducted to publicly acknowledge a commander who led the Roman forces to a great military victory.
In contrast, the definition of an ovation is derived from the Latin for “I rejoice” and while it’s still a pretty big deal, it’s a step down from a triumph: “A ceremony attending the entering of Rome by a general who had won a victory of less importance than that for which a triumph was granted.”
Fast forward a few centuries or so, and standing ovations are solidified in modern culture. In a 2003 op-ed piece for The New York Times, Jesse McKinley supposed that standing ovations became associated with theater around the 17th century, but noted that many historians cite the origin to the years following World War II. In fact, there’s even a (fantastically named) theory to support this claim.
According to McKinley, American musical scholar Ethan Mordden came up with the “Big Lady Theory.” In productions around the 1950s (My Fair Lady is cited as an example), the music left barely any time for the cast to bow during a curtain call. However, when musicals evolved to showcase a star performer—think Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly!—the production was staged to accommodate a longer bow.
''The whole curtain call is built to a climax,'' Mordden said. ''The ensemble bows and sings. The male leads bow, and supporting women, and everything builds and builds and builds, and then when everyone's attention is focused, the star comes out in her 37th Bob Mackie gown of the evening. By that point, you have no choice but get to your feet.''
Standing ovations are so ingrained in our culture that we’ve reached a point where certain ones get additional recognition. For example, iconic actor Charlie Chaplin was given an Honorary Award at the 1972 Oscars. According to Harper’s Bazaar, his 12-minute standing ovation remains the longest in the award ceremony's history.
Sports are another area where standing ovations remain common. Cal Ripken, Jr. is widely reported to have received one of the longest ovations in athletic history. On September 6, 1995, Ripken broke the record for most consecutive games played in the Major League Baseball—and the stadium saluted him by standing and cheering for 22 minutes. Despite being honored by thousands that day, Ripken remains modest about the applause.
“It was really, really long,” he told Baltimore Magazine in a 2015 interview. “I was embarrassed because you don’t stop a game in the middle. Pitchers are warming up; players have a rhythm. So I was like, ‘I’ll celebrate afterward as much as you guys want, but let’s get this game going.’”
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