When you visit a Renaissance Faire, people like to tell you how long they’ve been coming, how many fairs and festivals they visit in a year, what their job was when they worked here, what the after-parties are like. Nobody says the words authentic, historical, or—despite the lute and tabor processions led by jesters—medieval. People love working on outfits, seeing friends, the leather/paper/metal-crafts. Also the fighting knights, the weapons, gnawing on turkey legs, the bodices. The big cat shows and the falcons with gobbets of meat. Checking out the elves. Being someone else.
You’ll see ecstasy (Man, what an awesome lance!), wariness (Is this the right time to say “Zounds, milady”?), and intoxication.
But what you’ll never see is the expression you see all around you if you go to a play, museum, college classroom, or even to a Plymouth-style “living history” exhibition: blank performance boredom. The expression of someone watching a sitcom on her iPad or, alas for me, listening to a lecture on Victorian novels. Nobody is looking at me, that face says, and I’m gazing at something that might as well be in a different universe.
Renaissance Faires never produce that expression because they are too engrossing and annoying, at once exhilarating and nerve-racking. On my visit one recent October Saturday to King Richard’s Faire, I drank zero mead, bussed zero wenches, donned zero codpieces, waved zero swords in the air. About all I managed in the way of participation was one pillow fight (sorry, duel) on a wooden log. My loss (to an anthropologist I know: She was there dressed as a wood fairy) reminded me of Daffy Duck going up against Porky Pig in “Robin Hood Daffy.”* It was humiliating, sure—but a bit exciting as well.
One of the earliest Faire mottos, I learned in Rachel Lee Rubin’s careful, informative, and thought-provoking Well Met: Renaissance Faires and the American Counterculture, was “all the faire’s a stage.” That does not mean the faire is filled, like Colonial Williamsburg, with stages filled with actors ready to educate you about the distant past. It means that at the faire, everyone is always onstage. Including you. So you had better be prepared to act—which doesn’t mean to recite lines someone else wrote for you but to start performing whatever role you’ve come prepared, or half-prepared, to play.
Renn Faire began 50 years ago in drama teacher Phyllis Patterson’s backyard outside Los Angeles—a goofy countercultural complement to the English folk music revival that spawned Fairport Convention and such prog-rock heroes as Jethro Tull. Well Met is packed with welcome detours into fascinating historical byways: I loved learning that the Los Angeles Free Press, the original radical ’60s underground newspaper, started as the Faire Free Press, distributed by Art Kunkin in a Robin Hood outfit that you would swear had been ripped straight from the pages of The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. And despite Rubin’s evident distaste for the faire’s recent (and probably inevitable) commercialization and standardization, her interviews give lots of local insights about what first lured various Rennies in and (since it takes repeat custom to constitute a subculture) what keeps them going back so loyally.
Still, the big Why looms, and Rubin never quite answers it. Of all the phenomena to survive the ’60s, who would ever have bet on Renn Faires? We live in an era with a burgeoning virtual world of (massively multiple) online gaming that can be played quite nicely from your sofa, gazing at a 72-inch screen An era when the “counterculture” tends to be vegan rather than turkey-leg-gnawing, iPhone-toting, and forward-looking rather than nostalgically pastoral. So what makes faire the most robust descendant of that long-ago moment when Pete Seeger wannabes, young blacksmiths, and psychedelic babes all came together on the village green to practice Morris dancing?
I think the faire’s enduring success is all about its resistance to that slack-jawed “I’m just watching” expression. Faire is the one holdover from the ’60s that retains that “be here now” feeling that hippies and lefties alike thought might be the necessary first step to radical political change. Sure, that sense of the living moment takes utterly mundane forms at the Renaissance faire: You keep a sharp eye on people because they may be about to diss your codpiece, or unstring your bodice, or worse. Still, the overall effect, not unlike those ’60’s “be-ins,” is to ensure that you have some skin in the game.
Here’s one comparison: Every year my kids spend a week of summer camp at Old Sturbridge Village, a thoughtful and incredibly sober reconstruction of real village life in southern New England in or about 1831. Happy as clams, they card wool, weed cornfields, and care for bullocks, surrounded by employees who do their level best to read what Emerson would have read, wear what he would have worn, pee where he would have peed.
But if you spend the day peering at wooden clocks or hearing flax-cultivation explained, there’s something dry and cool about Old Sturbridge that may make you yearn, perhaps apologetically, for a bit of King Richard’s raunch. By serving up its history straight, untainted by theatricality, Old Sturbridge presents itself as what the historian Pierre Nora calls a “crystallized ... place of memory.” But the smoother and the more regular those memory crystals become, the more likely they are to make your eyes glaze over, which will never happen in places like Renn Faire, places Nora calls “living milieus of memory.” I love Old Sturbridge, and I’m incredibly glad it’s there. But, like the medieval theologian who said that a rock and an angel are better than two angels, I enjoy Old Sturbridge more knowing that Renn Faire exists as well.
The difference between Old Sturbridge and King Richard’s Faire is like the difference between Downton Abbey and the British reality show Manor House, in which 15 Brits signed up for a six-month stint, chamber pots and all, living as Edwardian masters and servants. Downton Abbey is all smiles, tears, and smooth narrative arcs. Manor House, though, was freaky and unsettling. Both lords and underlings awkwardly learned their roles and then amazingly quickly came to assume all the petty tyranny and bitter resentment that the roles entail.
“Playtrons,” in Rubin’s word, come to a Renaissance faire to experience a slippery spectacle that unfolds before and around them, showing off in front of them but also requiring them to take part. You don’t judge a Renaissance faire from the outside; you enter into it, and respond accordingly.
There’s very little in a Renaissance faire that is historically plausible or authentic—right down to the name, which never concealed the fair’s medieval inspiration: Just how “Renaissance” is a mud pit, exactly? But maybe it’s that very indifference to history that makes the place enticing. It doesn’t want to educate you; it wants to suck you in and make you act like someone else for a few hours. That has the somewhat paradoxical effect of making a faire surprisingly like the bumpy, embarrassing, role-reversing bawdiness that played (if I have my history right) such a huge part in medieval carnivals. The Renaissance faire’s resistance to educating you becomes, almost accidentally, educational. So the instant the Renaissance faire started trying to be accurate instead of ridiculous, it would stop being both. Long live the pillow duel.
Correction, Feb. 4, 2013: This review misidentified Daffy Duck's nemesis in "Robin Hood Daffy." It was Porky Pig, not Bugs Bunny. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Well Met: Renaissance Faires and the American Counterculture by Rachel Lee Rubin. NYU Press.