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  • Street Fairs: Social Space, Social Performance
  • Jeffrey D. Mason (bio)

A contemporary American street fair is a form of public celebration, a commercial rendezvous masquerading as a block party and assuming the tone of a festival. It is also, customarily, a site for performance, but I wish to focus not on the explicit instances—the work of the troubadours and mountebanks whom the sponsors engage to fiddle, jig and juggle for the entertainment of the public—but rather on the more discreet performative behaviors of the people who attend the fair. A street fair springs from mercantile ambition and provides an occasion for a holiday, but it also offers a means for a community to present and affirm itself through a reflexive process of cultural exhibition.

Social Performance, Artful Performance

The boundaries of the concept of performance have been stretching in a variety of directions, pulled by both actual practice and the critical debate. Richard Schechner delineated the potential scope of the idea two decades ago when he wrote, “Performance is a very inclusive notion of action; theatre is only one node on a continuum that reaches from ritualization in animal behavior (including humans) through performances in everyday life—greetings, displays of emotion, family scenes, and so on—to rites, ceremonies and . . . large-scale theatrical events.” 1 His remark may exhilarate us with its breadth and inclusiveness, but it also presents a challenge: how to elucidate a meaningful distinction between performance and virtually any kind of behavior. The “hot” questions in the debate include what sort of behavior performance can encompass, to what extent that behavior must produce what someone regards as art, whether certain actions are inherently performative, whether performance must consist of repeatable actions, whether one can perform for one’s self, whether the [End Page 301] performer must be aware that he is performing, and even whether performance must involve conscious human behavior at all. 2

Perhaps I may suggest the complexity of the debate by probing a point that Bert O. States raises in his essay, “Performance as Metaphor,” on his way to elucidating an ambiguity in the “differentiation between performer and audience.” He proposes that Liszt, while playing a bit of Chopin in solitude, was indeed performing the music. 3 The scenario evinces several fundamental questions, including whether a performance must include an “other” (a spectator, listener or audience member), where we can draw the distinction between the performance of a work (in the sense of executing or realizing it) and a performance as an event, whether certain behaviors are inherently performative, to what extent the content of the action or even the identity of any involved individual can persuade us to accept the behavior as performance, and the relationship between performance and, to repeat a term that States employs in this context, “artistry.” Simply striking a piano key does not a performance make; States himself asserts a distinction between rehearsing music and performing it, but since performing a mazurka can consist of precisely the same series of physical actions and musical results as rehearsing it, the distinction must be one of attitude and occasion, a matter of how the performer intends the deed and how those present agree to regard it. I have two points to clarify: first, that any position regarding what constitutes performance necessarily rests on prevailing conventions, and second, that performance can include any kind of behavior, no matter whether or not the intention is artistic. My interest in street fairs stems largely from a desire to find out how performance works and operates, and I am straying from the theatre in order to study performance in a context where art isn’t the point and where art won’t blind me to the apparatus.

In this essay, I am primarily interested in performance as a means or mode of interactive communication. We may refer to “an actor’s performance,” meaning the work of the actor and implying that the performance is somehow resident in that effort or execution, but a performance as an event or phenomenon resides more fully in the entire interaction between the actor and the “other,” and so consists of both the work of the actor (the...

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pp. 301-319
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