All the world’s a stage

Sometimes, our most spontaneous decisions also prove to be our best. Unexpectedly, my favorite class this semester is the one I was initially unsure about (and the only one I didn’t need to take, given my major requirements). Intro to Performance Studies with Douglas Jones looks at analyzing performance through different lenses. The assigned readings range from lesser-known-20th-century plays to analytical essays seeking to link performance to ritual to its need for human survival. Our class discussions are enough to invigorate me for the week.

One of our first discussions raised the question of how far we can stretch the definition of performance, and in doing so, how much we can apply it to our daily life. In other words, was Shakespeare right when, in his play "As You Like It," he called the world a stage?

Some argue in the affirmative — that social interaction is to some level an act, a performance, shaped by context and spontaneity.

People may react defensively towards this abstract idea: the notion that we might be “acting” for those around rather than showing them our true selves is bold and might even sound outrageous. It has a ring to it that makes us uncomfortable. I might as well have said that we’re in the Matrix.

However, the more one thinks about it, the more one finds himself convinced. In some ways, it seems like the only possible explanation. Why else would our daily interactions all be so wildly different? Take the standard corporate office, one that requires all employees to come to work in business casual attire, have meetings in conference rooms and act like real adults — real business adults, ones that are interested in real business things. There is no angle from which we might look at this phenomenon and not conclude that the whole thing is on some level, a false display. While the office creates real profit (although, isn’t money a fabrication in itself?), this pretense is not a true representation of how these same humans would interact together “in the wild.” But what is “the wild,” anyways? Some might call it the bar, and yet even the bar has its own social norms. These same men might act more boldly at the bar, puff their chests to impress the ladies.

When we interact with different people (call them “characters”) in our lives, we do everything from shifting our tone, to manipulating our language, to changing our outfits (our costumes?) and even our facial expressions, how we carry ourselves. And it’s not easy to decide which version of ourselves is our “true” self. If there even is such a thing.

In fact, admitting that we are multi-faced is so unpleasant. We’d like to believe that we’re honest with those around us. But at the same time, it’s undeniable. If we acted exactly the same around all of our acquaintances, we’d have very few colleagues and even fewer friends. Then, it’s not that we’re not honest with those around us, that we’re not showing them our true selves, but that we’re letting our “character” adapt to different situations. After all, even Macbeth didn’t act the same around the king and around his wife.

There might therefore be a middle ground. While we do not act falsely towards our boss by being pleasant on an otherwise groggy morning, we also do not show him all of our true emotions.

As college students, we are constantly — to some level — performing. From the way we smile too widely as we say “good morning” to our professors before class, to the way we describe our weekends to our parents on the phone (perhaps leaving out some risky details), to the way we might exaggerate our exertion at the gym to impress those around us, to the way we quickly click to our inbox tab if we sense someone looking at our laptop screen when we were really googling how to spell "acknowledgment." We catch ourselves performing when encountering a tour group: We feel pressure to “act like college students,” even though that’s what we are.

Yet, subtlest of all, we even catch ourselves performing for ourselves when we’re alone. This can look like pretending to be part of a music video when looking out the car window when it’s raining, making faces at your reflection when you’re brushing your teeth or pretending to hear a crowd cheering as you near the end of a long run as you cross an imaginary finish line. In doing all of these things, we step out of our skins to view ourselves from the outside.

When first encountering this analysis, it is easy to go overboard and start believing that everything must then be a performance. However, this is not necessarily the case. While fine, the line that separates interaction and performance is clear: It all comes down to the consciousness of a non-performing self. The moment we become conscious of our duality, we inevitably break the fourth wall, essentially acknowledging our performance. This might for instance feel familiar to bilingual speakers when considering how they feel after pronouncing a word wrong with their “second” accent when speaking with someone with whom they would normally use their first.

After all these considerations, it might feel as though performance is inescapable: The more we become conscious of our duality, the more we inevitably put up a performance as we interact with those around us.

However much we’d like to always be true to our peers, we should be compassionate towards ourselves. Performance doesn’t always have to involve deceit or exploitation. Sometimes, we feel pressure to perform according to societal standards. Consider the popular 2004 movie "Mean Girls," in which the main character Cady, who initially pretends to be mean to gain acceptance from the “Plastics,” eventually becomes a “mean girl”. Ultimately, she realizes that everyone is simply trying to survive the catastrophe that is high school, finding solace in compromising her original self and performing self into a more mature, genuine self. Importantly, even the “Plastics” felt some pressure to perform “popularity” and “girliness” to establish their spot in the high school social hierarchy.

Furthermore, some level of performance is expected in most social situations and straying away from that might work against us. For instance, we as college students should not strip ourselves of our role as “students” and start behaving around our professors in the same way that we do our friends.

As college students, we can easily point to all those we’ve met who we felt were being fake. Maybe we’ve even felt that these people were only nice to us when people were watching. If nothing else, this theory of performance in everyday life gives us a new perspective. By accepting that after all we are all just trying to fit in, and that to some level, performing is inevitable in certain social contexts, we can realize that those people we previously labeled as “fake” aren’t necessarily bad people — they’re just trying to make it the best they can. And, perhaps, they’re simply worse actors than we are.

Anna Garziera is a Trinity first-year. Her column typically runs on alternate Wednesdays.


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