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  • Performance; or, Answering a Call from the Nineteenth Century
  • Joseph Roach (bio)

To a historian of performance, the most important thing to know about the nineteenth century is that it isn't over yet. Even today it continues to reappear as a mixed legacy of durable behaviors. Defined by Richard Schechner as "restored behavior" or "twice-behaved behavior"—that which can be reiterated the second time or "the nth time"—performance, however ambitiously innovative it may seem to be, tends to adhere to preexisting prompts. As drama means action, so performance means the fulfillment of a potential: the former arranges events in a sequence, the latter answers their prompt. Answer the prompt, actors will tell you, and the embodied experience will follow. Even though any performance by living actors cannot happen exactly the same way twice, imposing the need for improvised adjustments and spontaneous reinventions, the "constancy of transmission" of performances across "many generations" can be "astonishing."1 That prompts can and do travel across time as well as space suggests an expansion of the "call-and-response" structure of choric antiphony into social and cultural performances of many kinds. My larger purpose here is to demonstrate that the nineteenth-century theater even today issues calls that continue to elicit performances, sometimes not recognized as responses to prompts, which historians can recover by studying plays, which are the residue of performance in its most concentrated form. My immediate disciplinary purpose is to argue that the putatively separate methods of theater and performance studies work best when they work together.

Some preliminary definitions and distinctions obtain. Theater, though it manifests itself in a great variety of forms across thousands of [End Page 419] years of world history, is the narrower term. At its root, the word refers to a special place, one designated for witnessing representations of dramatic action. More broadly, it refers to the entire ensemble of elements pertaining to those representations, including but not limited to actors, plays, costumes, settings, and the audiences who assemble on purpose to see them. Drama refers to the scripts that theater stages. Performance, by contrast, refers to a much wider range of actions, repetitions with the possibility of revision. By definition, no performance ever happens for the first time. Every performance, whether successful or not, consists of a response to a preexisting call, a prompt that sets in motion sequences of actions that resemble nothing so much as stage business. As ritual, work, or play, such sequential behaviors may be carried out any place where performers and spectators meet, actual or virtual, including specially designated places or those with no prior designation at all. Wherever performances occur, live or mediated, they share this fundamental definition: to perform means to carry out an intention, fulfill an expectation, or realize a potential.

Worshipping counts as performance, as does flirting or gaming. Interior decorating counts as performance, as does surgery or sales. Performances most often feature human beings as the performers, but not necessarily so: automobiles perform on test tracks; software programs, in hardware devices. But with reference to social actors in human history, where do these prompts come from? The theater historian Marvin Carlson calls the call-and-response process of recurring prompts "ghosting"; the performance theorists Diana Taylor and Rebecca Schneider, "scenarios" and "remains," respectively. I call it "surrogation," by which I mean the practice of trying out stand-ins to fill vacancies created by the departure of well-established incumbents.2 All of the above are of the theater, even if they are no longer in it.

Abstractly understood by critics as ideologies, these sequences—manifested as customs, habits, and observances—operate concretely at the sharp edge of social struggle in schools, courts, public accommodations, and streets. As legacies producing consequences that could not be more contemporaneously urgent, they propagate through time like genes and through space like viruses. They pass through multiple generations like the human waves in a stadium, rolling through the present, cresting at the precise moment of individual embodiment, and disappearing from direct experience only as they become the future. Such calls from the past should be understood separately from the kindred phenomena of memes, which are signs, "pieces...


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pp. 419-426
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