“All the world’s a stage,” so begins the well-known monologue from Shakespeare’s As You Like It. The melancholy Jacques who speaks the line goes on to describe life as a performance. Importantly he begins with a concept I had up to this point neglected in our course: setting the stage. Prompted by Joseph Roach’s Cities of the Dead, we as a class have discussed the everyday performances individuals undertake either by choice or conscription. Performances require an actor, an audience, and of course a stage. Without this essential stage, the performance lacks context and is rendered meaningless. Shakespeare’s character recognizes the importance of the stage, but perhaps fails to acknowledge that not only “all the men and women” are its players; stages take on their own performative roles as well.
After reading “A Description of a City Shower” by Jonathan Swift, Jenna made a great point in class. She highlighted the line “To shops in crowds the daggled females fly… pretend to cheapen goods but nothing to buy” (Swift). The line, as Jenna pointed out, shows the use of a space for a role it is not typically asked to perform. The shops that the women of the poem run to for cover act places of shelter, not commerce, in this moment. The women do their best to act convincingly in a performance of their own, but conscript the roadside stores into a performance for their own benefit.
Parallels can be drawn here to When the Levees Broke. Here again I give credit to Jenna for coming up the connection originally. The Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans traditionally acts as the home of the New Orleans Saints, but after Hurricane Katrina it was forced to serve in a number of different and surprising roles. The usual sports arena acted as a refugee camp, a hospital, a worship center, and a hospice. Of course, the space does not have a voice of its own, thus unable to give consent, so its performance is one of conscription rather than volunteering. In this instance the conscription is benign, but it is important to look at other examples where this may not be the case.
Roach provides one such example of a problematic performance that a space has been asked to undertake. The author mentions European desire for a new Rome, quoting Horace Warpole who said, “The next Augustan age will dawn on the other side of the Atlantic. There will be a Thucydides at Boston, a Xenophon at New York, a Virgil in Mexico, and a Newton in Peru” (Roach, 44-45). Western ambition asked the Americas to act as a sandbox for colonizers and empires who cared not for what existed prior to their influence. Just as in the case of the Superdome, the space, here being America and more specifically native settlements located there, was conscripted. However, the problematic nature of this performance lies in the fact that it completely disregarded the performance this “stage” was in the middle of prior to European musings of a new Augustan age. Colonizers seeking a new Classical society built by the West in a place like Boston disregard the existing society there built the Wampanoag. Simultaneously, this act asserted the perceived dominance of their performance over that of the Natives. The case of the colonized Americas provides a grave reminder that the conscription of spaces can result in marginalization, effectively closing the curtain on one stage in favor of another.