- Staging the Pacific: Framing Authenticity in Performances for Tourists at the Polynesian Cultural Center
As visitors to Hawai’i’s famous Polynesian Cultural Center disembark from their buses, they find themselves standing next to a huge, grass-roofed house nestled in lush tropical growth. In front of it stands a large carving of some kind of warrior god that glares at the guests as they enter. As most of the visitors will have come directly from the high-rise congestion of Waikiki, they may feel for a moment that they have moved back in time, and that the promise of the Center’s brochure, “The islands as you always hoped they would be,” has been fulfilled.1 Should their eyes chance to glance a little to the right, however, they will catch a glimpse of a McDonald’s restaurant on the far side of the carpark. This initial visual impression, which conflates the primitive with the commercial, is the first of what will be a whole series of contrasting images. The first stop on the usually nine-hour encounter with seven Polynesian cultures is the Samoan village. Here tourists are treated to an extended stand-up comic routine by a Samoan chief, who, among other things, demonstrates traditional coconut-husking techniques, while members of the tourist audience are required to sing “Jingle Bells” in their respective languages. By this point even the most culturally disinterested visitor could not deny that the promise of “authentic material culture” offered by the publicity material is somewhat negotiable. The apparent paradox of a negotiable authenticity will become clearer as the tourists make their way through the land- and mindscape of the forty-two-acre complex.
What tourists witness at the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC) is a network of apparent paradoxes woven into a seamless whole of commercially successful tourist entertainment. The central paradox can be best encapsulated in the oxymoron “staged authenticity,” coined by Dean MacCannell to define one of the central paradoxes of the tourist gaze.2 This paper will examine the way in which authenticity is established and [End Page 53] negotiated in tourist performances. The central tension here is that between the notion of a fixed and immutable authenticity and that of performance which, by definition, creates alteration through repetition. Performance is a potentially subversive process by virtue of the ineluctable slippage between script and realization and between perception and object.3 On the basis of a detailed analysis of two particular performances at the PCC, I will try to expose a deeper contradiction between the PCC’s aspiration to authenticity through material culture and the impossibility of realizing those aspirations in the realm of performance, even though performances have steadily come to dominate the production and structure of the complex. I will argue that these two performances, from Samoa and Tonga respectively, are engaged in a playful deconstruction of the tourist gaze with its expectation of authentic Polynesian culture, and that the deconstructive performances in the Samoan and Tongan villages manipulate different culturally coded spectator positions. The different activities and performances show how discourses of authenticity and staging continuously merge and redefine themselves. This deconstruction employs a variation of what has been called colonial mimicry; in this case, the mimicry is directed not at the tourists themselves, but rather at the tourists’ tacit expectations of Polynesian culture. Due to the dissonance between expectations and projections, we ought to look at authenticity in a double perspective, so as to grasp the dynamics at work in the tourist gaze. At stake is not only the meaning of the performances or cultural artifacts on display, but also the significance of the spectator positions of the tourists which, as we will see, are remarkably susceptible to reversal and manipulation.
Among theatrical genres, tourist performances have possibly the worst reputation because they seem to embody several negative features: inauthenticity, lack of aesthetic innovation, and a symbolic collusion with the continuation of Western imperialism in the Third and Fourth Worlds. While anthropologists have concerned themselves occasionally with tourist performances within the framework of tourism and cultural change more generally, theatre scholars have until recently ignored the whole phenomenon.4 Richard Schechner was...