Concert-goers haven’t always erupted in immediate applause at the end of a show. You might be surprised to learn that clapping as we know it — immediate, mandatory applause after a performance — couldn’t be taken for granted prior to the 20th century. That was due in part to the “claque.” Keep reading to learn a claque definition, as well as it’s dramatic (and humorous) history.

We alluded to the history of the claque in “Episode One: The Backstabber of Seville;” they propelled some artists to fame and doomed others to failure. While Rossini survived his encounter, not every performer recovered from being “claqued” (the verb form is our own).

Here is a quick history of the social phenomenon known as the claque. To our readers who perform, don’t worry—only one major theater (you’ll have to read pt. 2 to find out which one) still houses claques.

Claque Definition: Clapping and Oh, So Much More

Here is the simplest claque definition: an organized group compensated for clapping at a performance (derived from the French word for “to clap”). We would be doing the claque a great disservice if we stopped there, though.

Claques reached the height of their sophistication in 1820, when a certain M. Sauton organized the first “commercial” claque in Paris.

Sauton developed his service to help theaters ensure the success of dramatic works on the critical Parisian stage, and his idea took off. Soon he worked from an official office—before too long, he was accommodating orders from stage managers for up to 500 claqueurs for a single performance. Sauton, the enterprising claque entrepreneur that he was, organized his troops into several specialties:

  • Commissaires would memorize sections of the drama and loudly voice their pleasure over the plot and performance. Consider these to be the faux experts.
  • Rieurs laughed at the jokes — the original “laugh-track.”
  • Pleureurs displayed emotion during sad or sentimental parts of the drama. Tears and handkerchiefs were included, and these claqueurs were traditionally women.
  • Chatouilleuses (the “ticklers”) had the singular job of acting pleasant—they tried to keep the audience in a good mood throughout the performance.
  • Bisseurs cried for encores.

Simply put, the definition of a claque could include almost any for-hire group of individuals behaving in a predefined way at a performance. Claques were originally assembled in support of an artist, but claques have also banded together to sabotage the performances of musicians, actors, and dancers.

A Brief History of the Claque

According to Britannica, Athens housed the original claques at the theater of Dionysus. Theater in 4th-century Athens apparently enjoyed a feud of Kanye-esque proportions between two famous comedic playwrights: Philemon vs. Menander. Philemon usually came out on top.

He edged out Menander in public opinion and contests by persuading both the audience and the judges with well-placed and well-paid claques—if a large group of patron starts laughing hysterically at a joke, it must be funny, right? Emperor Nero of the Roman Empire also employed claques for his musical tours, and upwards of 5,000 soldiers were instructed to cheer for his performances.

Jean Durant, a 16th-century French poet, seemingly began the French claque tradition by purchasing a number of seats at his own performances. He filled these seats with people willing to clap and cheer vigorously for a free ticket—not a bad arrangement for fans of poetry. His precedent encouraged other poets and playwrights like Jacques de La Morlière and Claude-Joseph Dorat to use claques for their own performances, and it was their example that M. Sauton eventually monetized in 1820.