A claque is a group of people which is paid to applaud during a performance. The use of claques has largely fallen out of favor in modern theaters, concert halls, and opera houses, but they were at one time quite widespread, especially in the 19th century. The term is also sometimes used to describe a large group of admirers who follow politicians and other major public figures.
The concept of a claque is ancient. Roman emperors, for example, used soldiers to swell the crowds for speeches, with the soldiers being instructed to cheer loudly when the emperor emerged. Claques also guided the audiences of Greek plays, and they were never really absent from performance halls, but in the 19th century, the claque was refined to an art form, with members of the claque guiding the audience, showing them when to laugh, applaud, or cry.
The term “claque” is French for “handclap,” betraying the French origins of the highly evolved 19th century claque, which was led by a chef de claque who would have been extremely familiar with the work. Many claques prided themselves on their research of the pieces they were hired to promote. The members of the claque would also be smoothly integrated into the audience, ensuring even distribution to reduce suspicion.
Rieurs would laugh at appropriate moments in the performance, while pleureurs would cry; many of the pleureurs would be women, who might find themselves without handkerchiefs, requiring assistance from an innocent bystander. Bisseurs would call for an encore at the end of a performance, while commissaires were hired to point out particularly interesting or notable points in the piece to the people around them. Together, the members of the claque would ensure an enthusiastic audience response to a performance.
Claques began to fall out of favor towards the end of the 19th century, when a new trend of respectful, quiet audiences began to emerge. In performances today, applause in the middle of a performance tends to be frowned upon, along with exaggerated responses to events in the performance. However, it is not unheard of for theatres to stock the seats in a performance which has not sold out with friends of the theatre, and these friends may act as a more subdued form of the classical claque.