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Criticism 43.2 (2001) 169-187

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What Was Performance?

Mary Thomas Crane

ONE OF THE CENTRAL DISCOVERIES of postmodern criticism has been the role of performance in constituting many of the things that modernity took to be unequivocally real. In early modern studies, new historicist critics have emphasized the theatricality of the power wielded by the absolutist state, and, in Laura Levine's words, "as New Historicism has broadened its scope" it has "in the process, extended the number of things . . . existing only in the performance of themselves." 1 Levine's use of "only" here is a sign of the lingering antitheatricality of critics who assume a binary distinction between the performed and the real in which what is performed is "only" or "just" an inferior representation of a prior reality.

Many critics who have used the concepts of theatricality and performance to discuss early modern culture have thus emphasized the deceptive, hollow, and illusory nature of the theatrical, even as it conjures the real into being. Stephen Greenblatt, for instance, insists that theatrical performance is "fraudulent," and that it "evacuates everything it represents." 2 Greenblatt's definition of performance emphasizes its fraudulence and unreality only to increase the scandal of its paradoxical constitution of what was most crucially real to the absolutist state. And in a related paradox, any subversive potential of performance is "contained" by the very structures of power it works to create.

To be sure, there are critics like Louis Montrose who have qualified the new historicist account of a deceptive and politically conservative theater, arguing that the relationship between state and stage was "complex and equivocal; that it was not constant but was subject to numerous shifts," and that the "ideological positioning" of the theater itself was "ambiguous, diverse, contradictory." 3 Citing a wide variety of documents describing the nature and role of the theater in the period, Montrose offers a broader and more complex account of performance than that offered by critics who have too readily assumed an antitheatrical definition emphasizing its fraudulence and unreality. Although his purpose is to complicate the longstanding argument over whether the theater was subversive or was "contained" by the early modern [End Page 169] state apparatus, Montrose's account of Shakespearean performance is still shaped by many of its terms and assumptions. His conclusion that "Elizabethan sources describe the drama in various and contrary ways: as an incitement to virtue or to vice; as an innocuous if pleasing diversion; as a lucrative and wicked business" (40) embraces a wider range of possibilities than Greenblatt's account of the theater, but his adjectives reveal the extent to which rhetorics of critique and defense, subversion and containment, still shape his sense of the early modern stage.

A preoccupation with the subversion/containment debate conceals the constitutive binary that lies behind it and structures it, namely, the distinction between representation and experience, or discourse and embodiment, which might also be described as a distinction between semiotics and phenomenology. Most critics who take on the question of whether performance is normative or transgressive presuppose the critical orthodoxy that discourse (or representation) subsumes, contains, and constructs embodied experience. Judith Butler usefully distinguishes between theorists of "social drama," such as Victor Turner, who focus on what performance does in a culture to promote social cohesion and to resolve conflict, and theorists of "symbolic action," like Foucault, who "focus on the way in which political authority and questions of legitimation are thematized and settled within the terms of performed meaning." 4 These Foucauldian critics focus on what theater means or represents as the key to understanding what it does. 5

Some contemporary theories of performance and performativity do, of course, emphasize the material effects of performances of various kinds. Performance theorists like Turner and Richard Schechner argue that performance extends from the theater to embrace "play, games, sports, dance, music" and ritual. 6 For Schechner and Turner, social performances are reiterated behaviors that function in a culture to mediate liminal moments: periods of crisis or uncertainty that accompany individual or cultural transitions. For these critics, performance is defined not by its representational...