Making life into a renaissance.
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A recent article in Smithsonian magazine tells a neglected story: that of the radical roots of today’s beloved Renaissance fairs. It’s not the first time these origins have been chronicled; Set the Night On Fire, the magisterial history of Los Angeles in the 1960s by Jon Wiener and the late Mike Davis, does so in its chapter on Pacifica’s LA radio station KPFK. There’s also a book, cited in the article, titled Well Met: Renaissance Faires and the American Counterculture. But it is fascinating to think that, in a twisted way, were it not for some of the artists and workers internally exiled by McCarthyism, the Renaissance Fair as we know it wouldn’t exist.
To briefly sum up, the first Renaissance Pleasure Faire was the creation of Phyllis Patterson, and Doris and Robert Karnes. Patterson had left teaching in the public schools because she refused to sign the anti-Communist loyalty oath, while the Karneses had been hounded by the House Un-American Activities Committee for somehow “infiltrating” the youth center where all three had wound up teaching. Funded by KPFK – which had its own experience being hounded by HUAC – the first Faire, held in 1963, was on the five-acre North Hollywood ranch of Oscar Haskell, who had also been accused of membership in the Communist Party.
The early years included many of the trademarks we recognize in today’s Renaissance fairs: elaborate period costumes, performances of Shakespeare or commedia dell’arte (which Patterson had a background in), and an overall attempt to replicate the more revelrous aspects of European culture in the 1500s. Innocuous as it sounds, the organizers deliberately viewed it as a space of free education, culture, and expression. It was bound to rankle some of the more conservative onlookers, particularly as the festival grew and started to collide with the burgeoning counterculture of the 1960s. In 1967, when the organizers attempted to move the fair to bigger grounds in Ventura County, local conservatives campaigned to have it banned, and ultimately succeeded.
Today’s Renaissance fairs aren’t exactly insurgent, though this may only be because they are able to exist comfortably in the larger culture. Right-wingers have found a lot to enrage them in recent years, as they always have, but these kinds of events – which are often financial boons for the sponsoring companies – aren’t normally in their sites.
Still, phenomenologically speaking, the first Pleasure Faires’ countercultural affinities are fitting. Soviet literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin’s influential theories of the carnivalesque rely on the experience of medieval and Renaissance festivals. Emphasizing the base and grotesque, they were moments when social boundaries and taboos might be transcended. Though hardly a threat to the established order, they gave participants a sense of what life might be like were it done and lived differently.
It is also interesting to consider this in light of the Writers Guild of America’s recent victory in their strike against the Hollywood studios. It’s far from the last word – SAG-AFTRA is still on the picket line, and the studios will be looking for any opportunity to undermine the gains the writers made – but we should be clear that this was a very big win.
Like most Hollywood unions, the Screen Writers Guild (which later became the WGA) went along with McCarthyism, allowing its radical members to be blacklisted and purged. A generation later, with many blacklistees rehabilitated, the union sought to come to grips with this ignominious moment in its past.
That the Writers Guild stood aside and let its members get persecuted is particularly ironic considering that, if not for Communist Party members like John Howard Lawson, and sympathizers like Dorothy Parker, the union probably wouldn’t have existed. One of the themes I take up in a forthcoming piece on the writers’ strike is the inextricable link between labor rights and freedom of speech. It seems obvious to bring up – union and non-union workers alike are unjustly disciplined and fired for “speaking out of line” all the time – but it is especially central in the worlds of artistic and culture work.
On one hand, creatives will likely always try to find ways to create, and I mean this in the most unromantic way possible. Most of us have put a large amount of time and effort into honing a craft, to the point where, for many of us, it literally is all we know how to do to put a roof over our heads. Blacklisted writers used fronts, striking deals with other writers who would sign their name to their scripts. Acting teachers and theater performers – like Patterson and the Karneses – found ways to teach and build worlds outside the traditional avenues.
The challenge, often overlooked even in much of the left-wing discourse on free speech, isn’t just about finding spaces for these kinds of expression to flourish. Nor is it about some slow process by which these outsider experiences can find a safe, sanitized place in the world. It is both and neither. How does the carnival spill out into the rest of the world and, in the process, let the world be changed by it rather than the other way around? How does the subcultural become countercultural, and how does the counterculture vie for hegemony against the ideologies that tell us a world of rank exploitation and disaster is the best we can do?
Finally, what role to artists – conceiving of themselves and organized as workers – play in altering our sense of what is possible? Can it be done while also shunning the inane transformation of everything into an aesthetic or a pose? If we can figure that out, then we may yet have a snowball’s chance of making life itself the carnival.
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