Clackity Claque

by Richard Byrne on January 24, 2017

Reliable reports that President Donald Trump brings supporters to press conferences and speeches to lead applause and cheers for his remarks are startling – though perhaps they shouldn’t be.

The term for such a grouping is a claque. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it was the province of the opera, where devotees would congregate at performances to huzzah or hiss their favorite performers. The custom largely died out in the late 19th century, but it had its roots in ancient Rome.

I dove into the history of the classical claque few years ago, when I wrote a glam rock play produced in Washington, D.C. by WSC/Avant Bard called Nero/Pseudo – with music by Jon Langford (Mekons, Waco Brothers) and Jim Elkington (The Zincs, Tweedy).

One of the most resonant stories of ancient times – with strange echoes in the afterlife of Elvis Presley – is the tale of a false Nero who rose up in Greece after the emperor’s suicide in 69 AD. This pretender resembled Nero and played the lyre, and he actually gathered a substantial mob of followers before he was intercepted and killed.

Nero/Pseudo traces the journey of that pretender, and its second act is set at a concert that attempts to capture the elements of a Neronian performance. Nero was reportedly an average poet and a passable player of the lyre, but the emperor’s voice was thin enough that he would rest it for days before singing, writing out his commands with chalk.

Nero’s public appearances as a poet, actor and lyre-player scandalized Rome’s upper-and-middle classes. One imagines they sat in horrified silence or gave polite applause. Indeed, the gates were shut behind the audiences who assembled to hear Nero perform, with no one allowed to leave on pain of death. (Suetonius records that women actually gave birth at Nero concerts.)

Tepid applause wouldn’t do for an emperor so vainglorious. So claques were recruited and deployed to make sure that Nero received sufficient applause. Ancient historians who write about Nero revel in the details of these paid supporters. They were called the “Augustiani,” and offered up a continuous din of praise as the emperor performed. Their leaders were provided with 400,000 sesterces a performance to divvy up among the claque.

Nero’s handlers even brought in consultants from Alexandria to teach the Augustiani cheers that sounded like bees, or the clatter of objects on roof tile, or literally the sound of falling bricks. (In the production of Nero/Pseudo, we settled on Queen’s “We Will Rock You” for the latter.)

In Robert Graves’ translation of Suetonius, the Roman historian also remarks upon the unique appearance of the Augustiani:

It was easy to recognize them by their pomaded hair, splendid dress and absence of rings on their left hands.

One can recognize some key elements of the Neronian claque in its nascent revival. Imperial demands for adulation that abhor a silence that may leave the ruler exposed. The triumph of celebrity rule over stifling norms and propriety.

Indeed, the latter element is why the contemporary claque may win the approval of those who helped elect our current president. The Neronian claque did not simply demand that Romans put aside their critical judgement and submit to a day at the theatre one could not escape, but it did so for specific political aims.

Or, as one character in Nero/Pseudo who is desperate to form such a claque puts it in a song:

Bland insipid humdrum Rome

Needs turning upside down

Stuff Senate halls with actors

Dress urchins in fine gowns

Swap out the cops with tender thugs

Watch matrons pleasure clowns

Install the epicures as priests

Let pornographers paint the town

Read more about Nero/Pseudo at http://www.richardbyrneplays.com/neropseudo

{ 16 comments }

1

Laura 01.24.17 at 1:38 pm

I like “claque” as a term much better than “Greek chorus.” Bring back claque!

2

Catherine Aselford 01.24.17 at 2:30 pm

Scary, but we need to pay attention to these historical parallels.

3

Jake Gibson 01.24.17 at 7:15 pm

How about calling Trump “Neo-Nero.”
“Cheeto Benito” is my favorite.

4

biztheclown 01.24.17 at 8:30 pm

As a clown I really like the phrase, “Let matrons pleasure clowns.” As for the current relevance it’s a pretty revolting development.

5

Omega Centauri 01.24.17 at 9:08 pm

I’m sure its OK for live theater, kind of the live equivalent of the laugh track. Of course politics as theater we could object to. In pure showbiz, anything which increases audience enjoyment ought to be fair game.

6

Chris Mealy 01.24.17 at 11:39 pm

Finally the Mekons get a mention on this blog. They ought to be the house band here.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=JPQG_6EoyPI

7

Catchling 01.25.17 at 3:30 am

The title Nero/Pseudo compels me to think of the band Neo-Pseudo — any connection there?

8

Alan White 01.25.17 at 3:42 am

Then Clickety Claque must be Trumps millions of followers on Twitter.

9

dion L. 01.25.17 at 5:05 am

What kind of spiritual hygienist will know how to prevent claque buildup?

10

Meredith 01.25.17 at 5:19 am

I think the claque in Rome goes back further, to the time of Plautus at least. Probably to forever, actually.

11

Retaliated Donor 01.25.17 at 5:26 pm

Jake @3 — I kinda like Velveeta Perón.

12

Chet Murthy 01.26.17 at 3:18 am

Uh, “Cheeto Bandito” ?

13

SC 01.26.17 at 10:00 am

Our president says: No claque at the CIA speech, just “love in the room.” In today’s ABC interview, Mr. Trump discusses the CIA speech and even addresses claims by unbelievers that there were “Trump people” there leading the applause:

“. . . .That speech was a home run . . . They showed the people applauding and screaming and — and they were all CIA. There was — somebody was asking Sean — ‘Well, were they Trump people that were put–‘ we don’t have Trump people. They were CIA people.

. . . I got a standing ovation. In fact, they said it was the biggest standing ovation since Peyton Manning had won the Super Bowl and they said it was equal. I got a standing ovation. It lasted for a long period of time. What you do is take — take out your tape — you probably ran it live. I know when I do good speeches. I know when I do bad speeches. That speech was a total home run. They loved it. . . .

. . . People loved it. They loved it. They gave me a standing ovation for a long period of time. They never even sat down, most of them, during the speech. There was love in the room . . . “

http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/transcript-abc-news-anchor-david-muir-interviews-president/story?id=45047602

14

Guano 01.26.17 at 11:18 am

There is an interesting description of this kind of phenomenon in Stalin’s USSR in one of this series of novels.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Life_and_Extraordinary_Adventures_of_Private_Ivan_Chonkin

If I remember rightly the claquers were called “Screamers” and they cheered and applauded wildly any official speech, however bizarre, so as to intimidate anyone who intended to express doubt. It is, though, a technique widely used in public meetings anywhere.

15

JoB 01.26.17 at 1:24 pm

Trump playing the lyre, now that would at least be somewhat entertaining before he burns us all down.

Or maybe we can get somebody to write 140-character long solutions to political stuff and get him to be accepted as @realDonaldTrump?

16

Chris Borthwick 01.27.17 at 12:51 am

At the conclusion of the conference, a tribute to Comrade Stalin was called for. Of course, everyone stood up (just as everyone had leaped to his feet during the conference at every mention of his name). … For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the stormy applause, rising to an ovation, continued. But palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching. And the older people were panting from exhaustion. It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who really adored Stalin.

However, who would dare to be the first to stop? … After all, NKVD men were standing in the hall applauding and watching to see who would quit first! And in the obscure, small hall, unknown to the leader, the applause went on – six, seven, eight minutes! They were done for! Their goose was cooked! They couldn’t stop now till they collapsed with heart attacks! At the rear of the hall, which was crowded, they could of course cheat a bit, clap less frequently, less vigorously, not so eagerly – but up there with the presidium where everyone could see them?

The director of the local paper factory, an independent and strong-minded man, stood with the presidium. Aware of all the falsity and all the impossibility of the situation, he still kept on applauding! Nine minutes! Ten! In anguish he watched the secretary of the District Party Committee, but the latter dared not stop. Insanity! To the last man! With make-believe enthusiasm on their faces, looking at each other with faint hope, the district leaders were just going to go on and on applauding till they fell where they stood, till they were carried out of the hall on stretchers! And even then those who were left would not falter…

Then, after eleven minutes, the director of the paper factory assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat. And, oh, a miracle took place! Where had the universal, uninhibited, indescribable enthusiasm gone? To a man, everyone else stopped dead and sat down. They had been saved!

The squirrel had been smart enough to jump off his revolving wheel. That, however, was how they discovered who the independent people were. And that was how they went about eliminating them. That same night the factory director was arrested. They easily pasted ten years on him on the pretext of something quite different. But after he had signed Form 206, the final document of the interrogation, his interrogator reminded him:

“Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding.”

https://mannerofspeaking.org/2010/05/12/some-chilling-public-speaking-history/

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