“Performance” features in A Universe of Terms, a project of The Immanent Frame. For information on why and how this project was curated, read the framing essay “Creating the Universe.” Visit the FAQ page for information on how to get involved.
As a religious profession, the black Protestant preacher involved artistic performance, the fashioning of dramatic personae, and the cultural authority to make moral, social, or political pronouncements. Whether the members of a younger African American generation, like Calloway, who were aspiring toward jazz music as a profession were dedicated church parishioners or not, they bloomed from a cultural garden that these dramatic, authoritative performers had tilled. Moreover, they inherited and brought into their entertainment profession the cultural leeway to fashion their work in such racially representative ways that were performative, dramatic or charismatic, and authoritative. “Harlem Camp Meeting” is one of many instances of musicians and composers creating humorous and familiar performances of black Protestant religious practice.
Erving Goffman once remarked that “All the world is not, of course, a stage, but the crucial ways in which it isn’t are not easy to specify.” Therein lies much of the promise as well as the problematic character of performance theory: where are its boundaries—analytical or ethnographic? Sixty years later, the field of performance studies remains broad, but we can at least say it has encouraged us to look at the world in a different way, and to pose some fundamental questions: How do the dramatic arts of “everyday life” relate to those of self-conscious “art-forms”? How are we to compare the blueprints for much of what we do—plans, scripts, liturgies—with our actual abilities to carry out our intentions?
What terms might we use to make sense of Angela [of Foligno]’s sepulcher scene? How might we translate this scene—with its improvisations, its criss-crossings, its excesses—into the idiom of “religion”? And how might we fit Angela’s sepulcher scene into a tradition called “Christianity”? These questions evoke the transformations that Angela’s performances, as performances, can make. Responding to these questions demands attending to the particulars of Angela’s performances.
A performance is some kind of action that changes something in the real world. The Oxford English Dictionary says the word “perform” means “to accomplish an undertaking.” Even something you say can be a performance in this sense, like when a minister of the church performs a wedding ceremony. The words he speaks transform two unmarried people into a wedded couple. “O eternal God,” the minister of the English Church in Shakespeare’s time would have said, “creator and preserver of all mankind, giver of all spiritual grace, the author of everlasting life: send thy blessing upon these thy servants . . . whom we bless in thy name.” The people getting married also perform what philosophers of language call “speech acts”—utterances that are also actions.
From the Archive
by Lucinda Ramberg (June 3, 2019)
Dangerous doubles and magical ethics
by Chris Goto-Jones (March 15, 2019)
Camp conviction and the politics of religion: Or, that naked public square’s really a drag
by Anthony Petro (February 21, 2018)
Is this all there is to talk about?
by Melissa Wilcox (November 3, 2017)
Practice and performance in ritual language
by Thomas J. Csordas (May 30, 2017)
Pussy Riot’s punk prayer
by Colin Jager (September 18, 2012)
Is religion free?
by Michael Lambek (June 19, 2012)
A response to three readers
by Robert N. Bellah (February 27, 2012)
The right to truth: An interview with Eduardo Gonzalez
by Nathan Schneider (April 19, 2010)
The rules of the games
by Mark Lilla (February 14, 2008)
by Mark C. Taylor (February 6, 2008)