laugh track by Zohar Lazar

A claque [klak] (French for ‘clap’) is an organized body of professional applauders in French theatres and opera houses. Members of a claque are called ‘claqueurs.’

Hiring people to applaud dramatic performances was common in classical times. For example, when the emperor Nero acted, he had his performance greeted by an encomium (speech of praise) chanted by five thousand of his soldiers. This inspired the 16th-century French poet Jean Daurat to develop the modern claque. Buying a number of tickets for a performance of one of his plays, he gave them away in return for a promise of applause.

In 1820 claques underwent serious systematization when an agency in Paris opened to manage and supply claqueurs. By 1830 the claque had become an institution. The manager of a theater or opera house was able to send an order for any number of claqueurs. These were usually under a chef de claque (leader of applause), who judged where the efforts of the claqueurs were needed and to initiate the demonstration of approval. This could take several forms. There would be commissaires (‘officers/commissioner’) who learned the piece by heart and called the attention of their neighbors to its good points between the acts. Rieurs (laughers) laughed loudly at the jokes. Pleureurs (criers), generally women, feigned tears, by holding their handkerchiefs to their eyes. Chatouilleurs (ticklers) kept the audience in a good humor, while bisseurs (encore-ers) simply clapped and cried ‘Bis! Bis!’ to request encores.

The practice spread to Italy (famously at La Scala, Milan), Vienna, London (Covent Garden) and New York (the Metropolitan Opera). Claques were also used as a form of extortion, as singers were commonly contacted by the chef de claque before their debut and forced to pay a fee, in order not to get booed. The staging of the opera ‘Tannhäuser’ was withdrawn by its composer, Richard Wagner, from the Parisian operatic repertory after the claque of the Jockey Club (a gathering of the elite of nineteenth-century French society) derisively interrupted its initial performances. Later Toscanini and Mahler discouraged claques, as a part of the development of concert etiquette.

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