We often use the word ‘wild’ to describe clapping — ‘the speech was greeted by wild applause’ or ‘the crowd went wild’. We think of applause as an instinctive response, something that surges up unbidden in moments of joy, echoed and amplified by the crowd around us. But this isn’t strictly true. Applause is a cultural construct, laden with etiquette and coded with intent, that is as dependent on social norms as the emotion of the event.

In the last century in particular, applause has been tamed — abstracted by the technologies of mass media, and constricted by the etiquette of high culture. Learning how to clap appropriately is an essential part of being a good citizen, whether you are applauding the speech of a dictator, or not applauding between the movements of a classical performance.

But we rarely think about why we clap in the way that we do. Applause serves multiple purposes — it gives the crowd a voice of approval (or, in its absence, rejection), it gives artists a feedback loop that they can work with or against in their performance, and it gives those in power — whether cultural entrepreneurs or machiavellian politicians — a tool they can use to turn public opinion in their favour.

In order to tell the story of how applause has been tamed, we first have to notice how it works in our culture at the moment. Because we tend to think of applause as a natural response, the best way to notice it is by looking at what happens when applause goes wrong.

There’s a TV show in the UK called Taskmaster, in which comedian Greg Davies takes the title role, judging a panel of other comedians as they complete a series of ridiculous tasks. The format, like most comedy panel shows, relies on the call and response between the Taskmaster, the comedians and the audience, with points and applause as the rewards. But in one episode, Davies was so underwhelmed by a panellist’s performance that he asked the audience to give them ‘a single clap’. The result seemed to surprise even him. There was a swoosh-crash noise as the audience roughly synchronised their single clap, followed by nervous giggling. Davies turned round to look at the audience with a quizzical look, and quickly moved on to the next task.

For a moment, there was the uncomfortable feeling that something had been broken. The single clap was a rupture in the evening’s entertainment, like a piece of scenery falling over, or an actor forgetting their lines. Applause is a vital connection between audience and performer, and in this moment, it had snapped.

This is because we rely on applause to gauge our own responses, to see whether what we feel is the same as those around us. In her essay A Brief History of Applause, Megan Garber describes clapping as the only available metric when ‘all we had was hands’:

“Applause, participatory and observational at the same time, was an early form of mass media, connecting people to each other and to their leaders, instantly and visually and, of course, audibly. It was public sentiment analysis, revealing the affinities and desires of networked people. It was the qualified self giving way to the quantified crowd.
It was big data before data got big.”

It was at the end of the Nineteenth Century, just before the rise of mass electronic media, that applause started to change. At this point in history, applause was such an important metric of attention that there were professional ‘claques’ — groups of people paid by theatre owners to applaud, laugh or cry at the appropriate points in the show. If you were a theatrical entrepreneur, the roar of the crowd was the most valuable form of advertising. Audiences leaving an enthusiastically received performance would pass this on to their friends as a recommendation. So the claque emerged as a way of gaming this response, and ensuring that the audience would go away feeling the show had been a success. But the claque had a dark side as well — in her memoir, Victorian music hall singer Ada Reeve recalled being threatened to pay the claque, or suffer the consequences:

“One of my songs had a chorus referring to the well know French system of the claque. Although very few people realise it, the claque actually existed in the London music halls in my very early days. I remember once being stopped outside the stage door of the Cambridge with the request that I would ‘remember the Gallery Boys’. I innocently replied that I would always remember them. The spokesman then made it plain that I would have to give them a weekly sum, for which they were prepared to applaud me vigorously, or else…. the alternative would be most unpleasant.”

In both proletarian music halls and bourgeois opera houses, applause gradually become quieter and more restrained throughout the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. The riotous applause and cheering that Mozart would have expected at a classical concert in his era were replaced with a reverent silence and a strict etiquette about how, and when, to clap.

In his book ‘The Rest Is Noise’, Alex Ross argues that this change, in classical music at least, took place as the ‘cult of The Work’ emerged in the Romantic Era, with audiences asked to remain silent so that the composer’s genius could be received as purely as possible. Wagner, during the first performance of Parsifal in 1882, asked for there to be no curtain calls after act II, so that the audience were left with the pure impression of the music. But when this led to no applause at all, Wagner was confused, asking his companions “Now I don’t know at all. Did the audience like it or not?”

The silencing of audiences in opera and music halls was, accidentally, ideal preparation for the growth of recorded media innovations in the early twentieth century. Not long after the trend for not applauding between movements spread through European concert halls at the turn of the Twentieth Century, orchestras started performing in silence, without an audience, for gramophone recordings. Likewise, the rowdy audiences of supper clubs were transformed by new theatre architecture and lighting to create the conditions for the rise of cinema. In Victorian London, after a series of tragic fires, regulations were introduced to stop the serving of drinks and food during supper club and music hall performances. The seating was re-designed, moving from round tables to theatre-style rows, the bars were moved to the lobby, and the lighting focused more on the stage than the audience.

In the UK, music Hall and cinema existed side by side for a couple of decades, with film shows punctuating the music hall acts, with the same emphasis on broad comedy populated by caricatures of cockneys, policemen and mischievous young boys. But the rise of the ‘feature’ film meant that by the end of the First World War, the cinema had become the main event, and music halls across the UK were gradually converted into the dark, quiet rooms needed for moving pictures.

The relationship between audiences, performers and applause became even more complex in the second half of the Twentieth Century, with the rise of broadcast radio and television. For early pioneers, performing to a broadcast audience was an eerie and discomforting experience. In a letter to her husband Harold Nicholson, poet and novellist Vita Sackville-West described the experience of giving a talk for an early BBC Radio programme:

‘You are taken into a studio, which is a large and luxuriously appointed room, and there is a desk, heavily padded, and over it hangs a little white box … There are lots of menacing notices about “DON’T COUGH — you will deafen millions of people”; “DON’T RUSTLE YOUR PAPERS” … One has never talked to so few people, or so many; it’s very queer.”

Although early radio and TV performances were recorded in front of a live studio audience, producers found that they couldn’t always get the audience responses they needed to help remote audiences, sitting in their quiet living rooms, respond to the cadences of the performance. The emotional highs and lows that occur naturally when you are part of a participatory crowd were harder to replicate when the performance is broadcast invisibly to your living room across time and space.

So in the 1940s, Charley Douglass, a CBS Sound Engineer, created the ‘Laff Box’, a series of 32 tape loops of different audience responses, from polite applause to wild laughter. The loops could be played using type-writer style keys to add the feel of a live audience at the most appropriate part of the show, giving the audience at home the cues they needed for their own response. It’s quite eerie to watch the laff box in action, and see what is supposed to be an instinctive audience response called up with the press of a key. Even more so when you consider that, with the passage of time, the sounds you’re hearing are of people long since dead:

The Laff Box is an apt metaphor for the abstraction of the audience in the Twentieth Century. In the 1840s, audiences were raucous, unruly participants in mass culture, heckling and singing along in crowded supper clubs that blurred the distinction between performer and audience. By the 1940s, broadcast media had almost completely broken the connecting thread between the two. Musicians, comedians and actors were now often performing only for the cameras and microphones in the studio, with recorded audience reactions added later, in order to prompt the invisible laughter and applause of the audience sitting on their sofas at home.

The abstraction of applause in the last century brings to the foreground how it has always been a cultural construct, defined and controlled to manage the relationship between performers, entrepreneurs and audiences. We might feel we applaud naturally, but this is not strictly true. The context and etiquette of each occasion affords a specific audience response, and contradicting them risks social embarrassment. Most of our experience of applause is contained within these cultural norms — the sustained ovation that encourages actors to return for a curtain call, or a band to come back on stage for an already-planned encore.

But sometimes, performers can deliberately play with how we expect to applaud. UK theatre group Forced Entertainment have consistently pushed at our expectations of the experience of live theatre, with actors seemingly deliberately fluffing lines, corpsing, or improvising, often as part of 24 hour marathon performances that stretch audiences’ patience and endurance to breaking point. In their work Real Magic pre-recorded loops of audience laughter and applause are played throughout on tight, repeating loops that seem to have no relevance to what’s happening on stage. Tim Etchells, writer and co-founder of Forced Entertainment, told me how this felt for the audience and performers:

“It’s certainly not making our lives easy in terms of communication with audience. The pre-recorded applause and laughter can be very alienating for the audience, whose own laughter or other reactions are effectively drowned out. The audience has no way to ‘feel’ itself in relation to the piece, and is left watching this thing that has a kind of demented circular laugh and clap track that’s completely mechanical and inorganic, clearly not timing to specific things in the performance”
Forced Entertainment’s Real Magic

Forced Entertainment’s work blurs the many different experiences we have as audiences, collapsing them all — theatre, living room, gig, cinema — into a messy singularity. Like the single clap in the episode of Taskmaster described at the start of this essay, it feels like a rupture that gives us a moment of self-awareness as a member of the audience. Perhaps we have to break these cultural routines to notice how processed our reactions as audiences have become.

The media technology revolutions of the last century tamed and abstracted our role as audiences until we were closer to Charley Douglass’ Laff Box than the wild crowds of Victorian supper clubs. Although cinema, TV and radio brought an unimaginable scale to culture, with millions of us sharing the same experience at the same time, it turned down the volume of the audience until it was barely audible.

It took the rise of social media in the early part of this century for audiences to find a voice again, as tweets, posts and likes gave us a way of aggregating the activity of the crowd at a scale equal to broadcast media. We’re only just beginning to see how this new kind of applause will shape our culture, but this century is already noisier than the last. These new kinds of applause are wild again, and culture will be wilder and more chaotic as a result.