preliminary thoughts on performance culture
Why isn't everyone into musical theater?
The question above might seem like it has an obvious answer. Musical theater is a niche phenomenon because it is lame. Its fans are obsessive and weird. Its plotlines are not known for their subtlety, and its music, at worst, is manipulative and saccharine. An outsider is probably incapable of seeing how participating in musical theater, either as a fan or as an actor, would enrich their life.
None of this matters to the musical theater fan. The musical theater fan is happy. He takes comfort in his favorite musicals. He loves to sing along, and he’s even performed in a few amateur productions. He likes flash mobs. He watched Glee when it was on. He posts gifs from the Les Miserables movie under posts about politics on Twitter. Privately, he wishes that he could express himself through song when he is emotional, like his favorite characters do. We would not be too far off if we were to say about him that he lives according to a performative logic.
The musical theater fan, against all initial appearances, has a historical equivalent. His historical equivalent is the 5th century Athenian tragedy spectator.
I can’t say whether the Athenian tragedy spectator is happy. However, he certainly takes comfort in remembering lines from his favorite plays. He loves to recite these lines, and he may even have performed as a chorus member in a production. He has almost certainly participated in a dithyramb, and thus has choral experience. He sings a song before and after battle. He quotes Aeschylus in political discussions. He can, and often does, express himself through song, when he is emotional or otherwise. Without a doubt, he lives according to a performative logic. Song and dance pervades his life, from his education, to his military service, to his entertainment. He has never seen Glee, obviously. In a way, though, he’s living it: people are singing and dancing around him all the time. He lives in a society which is organized around ‘musical theater’: that is to say, choral lyric and its innovations.
I have heard people say that the musical theater fan acts like he’s in a cult. To put a finer point on it, he acts like he’s living in a completely different society than everyone else, with different norms and a different organizing logic. The musical theater fan is the only contemporary person who still inhabits a living poetic culture. This makes him something of a relic, but it also gives him a sort of legitimacy. Historically, the Greeks are not the only people who have exhibited (and, in some cases, still exhibit) this kind of performative logic. If anything, the person who is not the musical theater fan is weird. He’s not achieving catharsis through participation. He is living according to the (deficient?) logic of pure spectatorship.
The questions that I would like to develop on this blog are:
What is performance culture, and what is a culture of spectatorship?
Why isn’t performance as dominant a cultural mode as it once was?
What are some different examples of both kinds of culture?
What are the elements an enduring poetic/performative culture?
By the way, this is not to say that we should all become musical theater fans. I don’t think that Phantom of the Opera is a particularly good text to center one’s life on. But it is possible that the musical theater fans have hit upon some good principles that the rest of us have jettisoned.