In disciplinary studies of theater, dance, and music, “performance” is defined as the set of artistic choices an actor, dancer, or musician makes in realizing a preexistent text—whether that text is a dramatic script, a choreographic design, or a musical score. Over the past few decades, however, many scholars in American studies and cultural studies have redefined “performance” as a mode of cultural production composed of events bound in time and framed in space. Whereas the disciplinary usage of the noun “performance” implies an opposition to “text,” the new usage understands it as a framed event that may well deploy textual elements but cannot be reduced to the realization of preexistent scripts or scores. Like other modes of cultural production, performance takes the form of diverse genres that emerge, alter, and disappear over time. Powwow, jubilee and Jonkonnu, melodrama, minstrelsy, vaudeville, world’s fairs, modern dance, the Broadway musical: all are distinct genres of performance that have circulated within and without US culture.

American studies and cultural studies have adopted a new usage for the verb “perform” as well as for the noun “performance.” To perform generally means to carry out, to complete, or to accomplish as well as to act in a play, to execute a dance step, or to play a musical instrument. In its new usage, the connotation of the verb shifts from the achievement of an action to the embodiment of an identity. This usage derives from theories in the social sciences and humanities. Kenneth Burke’s The Philosophy of Literary Form (1957), Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), Victor Turner’s The Ritual Process (1969), and Edward Hall’s The Hidden Dimension (1969) all conceptualize social structure and communication in terms of theatrical imagery. Individuals take on roles in scenarios and, verbally and nonverbally, perform their identities for others in the scene.

Updating this language of theatricality, scholars today talk about how social actors perform race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, profession, region, and nationality. This usage of “perform”—along with its synonyms such as “stage,” “rehearse,” “dramatize,” “enact”—implies a process whereby physical bodies accrue social identities. It also underscores how some bodies become legible as “masculine” or “black” or “mainstream,” while other bodies become legible as “feminine” or “white” or “marginal.” This process is called “performativity,” a term indebted to feminist philosopher Judith Butler’s pioneering work in gender studies (1990). Borrowing and adapting the term “performative” from philosopher of language J. L. Austin (1962), Butler sought to understand gender as a social construction rather than as a biological essence. Hence she described gender as a “stylized repetition of acts,” a set of “bodily gestures, movements, and styles” that signal masculinity or femininity, corporeal signs endlessly repeated and subtly modified over time (1990, 139–40). Following Butler’s lead, scholars have proposed that other axes of social identity and difference operate in similar ways.

Taken together, the new usages for the noun and verb constitute the field of performance studies and propose new critical projects for the fields of American studies and cultural studies: to understand and historicize the workings of performativity across diverse genres and locations (Manning 2004). Consider an extended case study of performance at the turn of the twentieth century in US culture. As Lawrence Levine (1988) has demonstrated, the hierarchy of high and low culture emerged during this period. Levine’s paradigmatic example is Shakespeare. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, Shakespeare’s plays appeared regularly on US stages, both as full-blown productions, often starring visiting British actors, and as subject matter for farcical afterpieces, burlesque, and even blackface minstrelsy. Theaters during the antebellum period drew spectators from the immigrant working class as well as from established elites, and in these public spaces, workers and business owners shared their pleasure and familiarity with Shakespeare. Toward the end of the century, however, Shakespeare migrated from cross-class venues to a newly created realm of high culture, as elites created distinctive venues (the art museum, the symphony hall, the independent theater) separate from the changing spaces for popular culture (the dance hall, the amusement park, the sports stadium). Attending one venue rather than another became a way for people to assert—to perform—their class identities in an era of mass urbanization, industrialization, and immigration (Nasaw 1993).

Strikingly, the cross-class theater of the antebellum era drew mostly male spectators. Although actresses appeared onstage, only a few women ventured into the theater as spectators, and these women carried the social stigma of “public women,” or prostitutes, whatever their actual livelihood (Dudden 1994). Not until the mid-nineteenth century, when theaters split along class lines, did women begin to attend in significant numbers. In fact, one hallmark of the newly respectable theater was its accessibility to white, middle-class female patrons, made possible in part by changing codes for audience behavior. Earlier, male spectators had engaged in rowdy behavior, becoming as much a part of the show as the stage action. But after midcentury, innovations in stage design and lighting accompanied new protocols for quietly attentive spectatorship. Thus middle-class female theatergoers extended the domestic ideology of the first half of the nineteenth century into the public space of the theater, even as they challenged the strictures of that ideology by venturing out into the city. White, middle-class women’s attendance at theaters performed changing conceptions of gender during an era when women first entered universities and the professions and began to organize for the vote (Glenn 2000).

The division between high and low culture carried racialized connotations as well. In fact, the terms “highbrow” and “lowbrow” derived from nineteenth-century phrenology, which differentiated “civilized” from “primitive” races according to the shape and size of the human cranium. Thus the new arena of high culture highlighted its connection with European culture and dismissed performance genres influenced by non-European cultures, most especially jazz music and jazz dance. Originating within African American subcultures during the early decades of the twentieth century, jazz soon attained a broad popularity among the urban working class and white middle class (Robinson 2015). Although high culture routinely borrowed the inflections of jazz, it disavowed the influence, even while the new technologies of recorded sound commodified jazz as a national sound (Savran 2009). These dynamics continued to shape US performance—and racial identities—for decades to come.

This case study demonstrates a type of inquiry made possible by new definitions of “performance” as a noun and “perform” as a verb. Such cross-genre inquiry requires scholars to look across the disciplinary histories of dance, music, theater, popular entertainment, and exhibition. Doing so enriches our explorations because we then can trace the complex relations between expressive forms, individual identities, and social formations. The potential for cross-genre inquiry in performance studies is not limited to US cultures or even to the cultures of the Americas but holds across diverse national and regional boundaries. For example, the emergence and evolution of hip-hop at the end of the twentieth century demonstrate a similar trajectory to jazz dance and music in the early twentieth century. Originating within Black and Latino subcultures in the Bronx in the 1970s, hip-hop music first migrated to white middle-class suburbs in the US and then to destinations around the globe (Rose 1994; Osumare 2007). The sampling technology of hip-hop came to characterize experimental and avant-garde performance during the same decades.

To borrow Raymond Williams’s (1982) terminology, performance, as redefined by American studies and cultural studies, has become a residual cultural form over the past hundred years, displaced first by film and radio, then by sound recording and television, and now by digital technologies. In retrospect, the emergence of the hierarchy of high and low anticipated the eclipse of performance and the rise of media as dominant cultural forms. This shift cannot be disentangled from contemporary usage of the noun “performance” and the verb “perform.” The language of theatricality deployed by Burke, Goffman, Turner, and Hall in the 1950s and 1960s reflects the increasing mediatizing of culture evident during those decades, and the momentum has only intensified since then—hence the seeming irony of our preoccupation with performance at precisely the cultural moment when encounters with live bodies bound in time and framed in space have become increasingly rare occurrences. Our fascination with physicality and embodiment reveals the underside of our mediatized age. The interdisciplinary terrain of performance studies, through its multiple intersections with American studies and cultural studies, reflects an intellectual and institutional response to a larger shift toward media culture over the past century.


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