Table of Contents     Chapter 1     Chapter 2     Chapter 3     Chapter 4     Chapter 5     Chapter 6     Bibliography    After Thoughts--Summer 2485

Chapter 6

Qualities of a Festival Theater

The concluding words of Roy Strong in Art and Power: Renaissance Festivals 1450-1650 frame the long-range research goal for those interested in the shaping process of societies:

Few subjects have suffered so much from the modern compartmentalization of knowledge as festivals. It has fallen between so many stools, those of the historian of art, literature, ideas and political history....[Earlier studies] remain collections of particular events looked at in isolation and as an attempt to establish the subject as a coherent discipline may be said to be a failure. One emerges with no overall picture as to what this stupendous development was. Perhaps the study of festivals can never by its very nature be a coherent discipline without distortion. I opened this book with one modest objective: to make real to the reader Ménestrier's statement that such festivals were `Allegories de l'Estat des temps'. I close in the hope that he by now knows precisely what Ménestrier meant by that definition of what was a unique alliance of art and power in the creation of the modern State. [Strong, Art and Power, 172-173.]

Shaping of Reality

Yet festivals function as more than an allegory of the times in their intended or unintended function of shaping of social reality. The social theaters we imagine from empty spaces and design from bare festival stages reflect our view of the proper order of things in a manner much like the Renaissance festivals discussed by Strong and Orgel. However, this relational view is refracted, or modified by the festival medium itself as a type of distorting lens. The participants' unconscious and conscious interpretation of the public performance of the festival ritual can change the very social reality originally reflected through the evolving shape of the festival itself. The physical analogy of a double mirror is not adequate to explain this idea; another metaphor is needed.

Because a festival clearly is a component of the process of human communication, a model of this process is proposed as a tentative template through which to consider the basic arguments of this thesis. An open-ended helical (spiraling) model of the human communication process, rather than the traditional closed circular schematic model, is suggested.

...the helix presents a rather fascinating variety of possibilities for representing pathologies of communication. If you take an helically coiled spring, such as the child's toy that tumbles down staircases by coiling in upon itself, and pull it full out in the vertical position, you can call to your imagination an entirely different kind of communication than that represented by compressing the spring as close as possible upon itself. If you extend the spring halfway and then compress just one side of the helix, you can envision a communication process open in one dimension but closed in another. At any and all times, the helix gives geometrical testimony to the concept that communication while moving forward is at the same moment coming back upon itself and being affected by its past behavior, for the coming curve of the helix is fundamentally affected by the curve from which it emerges. Yet, even though slowly, the helix can gradually free itself from lower-level distortions.

Dance comments in passing that this geometric form crops up as a descriptive device in a number of disciplines, such as a model of the DNA molecule--the key code of life. [Frank E.X. Dance, ed., "Toward a Theory of Human Communication." Human Communication Theory. (New York: Holt, 1967) 295-296.]

Here the linear, functional positions of sender, encoder, channel, decoder, receiver are blurred to the extent that the receiver position is equal, if not primary. This helical response model places primary emphasis on the complex nature, often assumed in traditional communications textbook diagrams, of the surrounding context, both ideological and physical. This idea is summarized in the Churchill quote on the shaping interplay between buildings and the people in them. In actual practice there is no clear, marked beginning point of a festival as a linear model of information flow implies. It follows that studies of complex signifying practices have a higher probability of useful insight when focusing on definable moments of historical origination, such as the stories of origin reviewed previously.

That festivals have their undiscerned meanings and practical social-political as well as aesthetic significance is an underlying assumption. Bakhtin held a view of meanings as endlessly evolving:

At any moment in the development of the dialogue there are immense, boundless masses of forgotten contextual meanings, but at certain moments of the dialogue's subsequent development along the way they are recalled and invigorated in renewed form (in a new context). Nothing is absolutely dead: every meaning shall someday have its homecoming festival. The problem of great time. [M.M. Bakhtin, "Methodology for the Human Sciences," Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, trans. Vern W. McGee, ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: U of Texas P, 1986) 170.]

The import of Bakhtin's final provocative idea on the "forgotten contextual meanings" "at certain moments" "recalled and invigorated in renewed form (in a new context)" is found in the special social role given the festival. The festival has a unique communication function in the production of meaning, one that suggests more tourists or more businesses may be effects but that such effects do not in themselves explain the multiple reality shaping functions of a festival.


A second conclusion associated with a festival's contextual framing function is that a festival's basic nature is its open rather than closed structure, a characteristic that allows for a multiplicity of signifiers and codes to co-exist. This opposition implies that the more closed to differences, to variety in performances and activities, then the less the event functions as a festival in the historical sense of the term and the less likely the event is to be labeled a festival. As noted earlier, in this sense the logic of festival contradicts the Aristotelian "unity of action" element of drama described in the Poetics. "Disunity of action" would be more characteristic of the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches labeled festival. This apparent lack of a clear oppositional dichotomy in many festivals is a conceptual problem that is not adequately explained by current theories [John J. MacAloon, ed., "Introduction: Cultural Performances, Culture Theory," Rite, Drama, Festival, Spectacle: Rehearsals Toward a Theory of Cultural Performances (Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1984). Victor Turner, From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play (New York: PAJ Publications, 1982).] of ritual and performance ritual. A festival's logic apparently springs from sources other than the official/unofficial, upside-down world of carnival logic proposed by Bakhtin in his work on Rabelais.

Unlike a carnival's historic relationship to the Catholic church's Lenten season, festivals often lack a defining opposition such as is found in Bakhtin's official/unofficial carnival dichotomy. However, one key to defining a festival by its social functions is found in Bakhtin's view of a festival's "absence of footlights:"

The absence of clearly established footlights is characteristic of all popular-festive forms. The utopian truth is enacted in life itself. For a short time this truth becomes to a certain extent a real existing force. [Mikhail Bakhtin, "Popular-Festive Forms and Images in Rabelais," Rabelais and His World. Translated by Helene Iswolsky from Tvorchestvo Fransua Rable, Moscow, Khudozhestvennia literatura, 1965 from the 1940 doctoral original. (Bloomington: Indiana, 1984) 265.]

This suggests the possibility of a theater veiled with multiple scrims that can be drawn to reveal the puppeteer at work. A study of the world of Menotti, as one of the more successful festival puppeteers, offers the potential for valuable insight into the backstage arena of one of these city operas where footlights cast no shadows.

If carnival is the opposite of the official church world, for example, then it should possess the expected symbolic unity of action in its reversals of the church as a norm, functioning in effect to authenticate the church's authority and power to frame social discourse. Festivals appear to lack this logic of reversal, as can be seen from analysis of the Chattanooga and Charleston festivals, and, in effect, perform the semiotic iconic function of church.


A third conclusion follows that a festival's basic nature appears to be the deliberate creation of an artistic text that works within its physical and ideological context to contain contradictory, disparate, opposing, and even warring elements--a primary source of the tension and excitement associated with the idea of festivals. Festivals, in Peircian terminology, derive their distinctive features in functioning as sign and sign systems that are simultaneously indexical, iconic, and symbolic, and that are also separately each of these functions, depending on the contextual social and physical environment and intended purpose. No one "sign-function" [Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1979) 134.] dominates, as is usually the case in a given art form, possibly with the exception of opera. Therefore, the festival in general can be viewed as a special art form similar to the traditional structures of the separate performance arts, such as opera, symphony, dance, film, drama, and poetry, but operating with a distinctively different logic that embraces and enhances these genres and also other forms.


A view of "homo ludens," "humans at play," as yet has no place in this general construction of what appears to be little more than a Darwinian theater of power. However, a space must be reserved in the concluding remarks for evidence that a festival's multi-functionality also can be a time and space for no other purpose but play, pleasure, romance, "jouissance"...that of logodaedaly.

A fourth conclusion--rising from the problem of play versus work--is derived from the separation of intention, function, and effect in a festival's statements of purpose.

Exploring the Charleston and Chattanooga festivals with these categories reveals a glimpse of the nature of the functions of festivals--in the sense of artistic work performed as play. There is a subtle and important distinction between traditional and artistic forms of work and play. Vladimir Propp in his 1963 work Russkie Agrarnye Prazdniki [Russian Agrarian Festivals] traced these festivals to the economic factor, as Anatoly Liberman noted in his introduction to Propp's Theory and History of Folklore:

Propp's book is not a cheap piece of antireligious propaganda, but a thorough investigation of the festivals....Propp traced the festivals to the economic factor, namely the peasants' struggle for the increase of the land's fertility....True to his pattern of causal hypotheses, Propp rejected all other explanations and disregarded the merry-making itself. "Homo ludens" seems to have been alien to Propp. [Vladimir Propp, Theory and History of Folklore, ed. and intro. Anatoly Liberman, trans. Ariadna Y. Martin et al. (1963; Leningrad: Leningrad U; Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984) xvii. With chapters on "Honoring the Dead, Ritual Meals, Greeting the Spring, Greeting Songs and Incantations, Plant Cults, Death and Laughter, Games and Entertainments," the agrarian festivals study contains no clear separation by intent, function, or effect categories. Propp's interest in rigorous classification and detection of deep structural functions (The Morphology of the Folktale, 1928), makes this study worthy of closer attention.

A translation of Propp's opening chapter, "The Commemoration of the Dead," is found in Time Out of Time: Essays on the Festival, ed. and trans. Allesandro Falassi (Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1987) 233-241.]

See Josef Pieper, In Tune With the World: A Theory of Festivity, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (1963; New York: Harcourt, 1965) and J. Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture' (1944; New York: Roy Publishers, 1950).

Although it is unproductive to search for causal patterns when addressing the complexity of a festival, it appears increasingly desirable to consider the possibility of merry-making, or humans-at-play (homo ludens), as a recurring pattern associated with festivals.

Artistic and spectator/participant play may be a constant unnoticed festival function. Play, albeit serious play, and pleasure, as noted previously, as a broader gratification of the audience, may emerge as an overlooked function of a festival.

As places for openness, conflict, and play, festivals represent unique art forms that not only mirror their world but with little public notice shape its course. A broader semantic frame is needed to explain this perspective.

The Idea of Festival

What is the nature and function of a theater that is not an open arena, thrust stage, nor proscenium arch, but properly a festival theater, similar to but differing from traditional forms of theater? At one level, a festival theater frames an ideological struggle and makes visible key meanings of a dominant group's encoded values. However, a festival theater creates multiple contextual empty spaces unlike the traditional theater. This makes possible the emergence of many new meanings that can at times threaten a dominant community group's preferred meanings by modifying any traditional sign appearing within the festival's contextual space and time. Through this complex process a festival is used not only to reflect dominant values but also to shape and mold communities in the direction of powerful interests acting behind the scene.

Unlike the normal closed and bounded corporate structure, a festival's necessarily open structure permits potentially contradictory statements to blend, creating the aesthetic pleasure and tension associated with a festival environment. Often here can be seen a logic of both biological and social difference rather than a logic of unity, wholeness, harmony, oneness, sameness. Diverse elements combine to make festival spaces an enduring and powerful theatrical medium of signification and communication, a persuasive medium that competing ideological interests predictably will seek to control and at times exploit.

What perspectives support this spatial view of a festival theatrical practice? First, the control of the use of a festival's space is a key element. Ideas about space and the power in control of that space grounded this work. Festivals had appeared as dense collections of signs--symbolic ritual, activities, and events that are visibly the opposite of empty space. Yet the analytical key was to look at both the presences and the absences in the festival's space.

Second, an unnoticed function of festivals is that they are a special type of theater that can combine all four types of Brook's theaters (deadly, holy, rough, immediate) into another kind of theater unlike traditional physical and ideological forms. The evidence that this can be another form of theater is described by Brook as occurring when, "Sometimes within a single moment, the four of them, Holy, Rough, Immediate and Deadly intertwine." [Brook, Peter. The Empty Space. (New York: Atheneum, 1984) 9.] Such a festival theater houses paradox, contradiction, low and high taste, the dull and the exciting, in short, "heteroglossia," to use Bakhtin's term for that which is individual, different, unclassified.

Third, societies have a practical need for theatrical empty spaces. How can one analyze such complexity in the human communication process? Just as the zero was invented to hold a place where no numerical meaning had been assigned, the metaphor of empty space provides a functional element that reveals the social construct of theater.

Mathematics could not have advanced without the invention of the concept of "zero" and a sign for it (Britannica, 1982). Not until the thirteenth century did Europeans adopt the idea of zero, based on Islamic algebra. Most ancient languages used "0" for the position after "9," although the "." was used in Arabic and Kashmir.

A metaphor of empty space suggests some undetermined significance about the sign materiality of representing "nothing" or the unknown by a dot rather than a zero. A recent work on this problem, Signifying Nothing: the Semiotics of Zero, is valuable in relating the metaphor of empty space to more general sign theories of meaning. The Riverbend festival organizers found in effect that a dot instead of a circle represented the concept of empty space when an off-stage director intervened to prohibit another artistic director. That the Riverbend Festival's artistic character was diminished, however, does not necessarily mean that the space for this meaning is blocked permanently. It means mainly that the community's artists and audiences may not be ready for a "Southern Voices Festival" until the elements of place, ideal, and force combine again at one creative moment in a spirit not of monologue but of dialogue.

The art of power, and its double, the power of art, are bound up in this continuous struggle on public and private "bare stages." The festival theater frames these empty spaces and makes visible the meanings of a powerful group's relational order of ideas and things. These shifting orders of meaning can be seen in comparative studies such as Strong's study of Renaissance festivals. The festival theater accelerates social sign production and transmission by holding a position open for new combinations of elements and possible meanings to be expressed and observed.

From a broad view, an analysis of festivals suggests their role in creating open societies that evolve, grow, and adapt. Such societies should possess a healthier character than those less open to discovery or rapid sharing of information. In this sense an unnoticed function of the festival as a unique medium of communication is that festivals are powerful accelerators of information flowing within the semiotic system. "Semiotic," in this sense, is the Peircian definition of a "sign":

...something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign. The sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign. The sign stands for something, its object. It stands for that object, not in all respects, but in reference to a sort of idea, which I have sometimes called the ground of the representamen. "Idea" is here to be understood in a sort of Platonic sense, very familiar in everyday talk; I mean in that sense in which we say that one man catches another man's idea.... [Charles S. Peirce, "Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs," Ed. Justus Buchler Philosophical Writings of Peirce, 1940; (New York: Rpt. 1955) 99.]

This statement suggests the value of a festival in providing a rich tapestry of signs in which "one [person] catches another's idea" while providing a ground for the exchange and catching of ideas. A town arts festival, such as Charleston's Spoleto, is more diverse and open in its programming than a heritage festival. It creates more interpersonal connections by bringing persons with diverse interests together. Some self-labeled town arts festivals actually function more as central city urban fairs when various specific marketing functions and effects are revealed. It should be noted in this context that Riverbend did not become a city fair as originally outlined by a foundation consultant.

This study's three primary festival categories--empty space, purpose, and artistic director--represent a beginning effort to create a semiotic of festival, not as a set of fixed scientific laws but rather as a visualization of the repetitive pattern of sign relationships present in the festival theater practice. In festivals are found many associations of many types of signs, as classified by Peirce and others; and thus festivals represent a rich corpus of material not unlike Propp's corpus of folktales but far broader in scope, complexity, and effect. Festivals, as ancient modes of meaning making, can be understood in an indirect manner from their purposes and functions and not from their measurable effects. These three categories can be separated in order to better understand the complexity of social sign processes that festivals represent.

A festival is its own semiotic in that it represents itself as a spatial code of meaningful relationships. It reflects the life process itself in a way that no linguistic, static model can adequately represent. No sign exists out of context, semiotic anthropologist Paul Bouissac has said. [Paul Bouissac, lecture, "Semiotics of Performance" seminar, Northwestern University, 1986 International Summer Institute for Semiotic and Structural Analysis.] Therefore, context is material and is what bounds empty space, suggesting that contextual framing is inseparable from any particular sign. In our familiar experience, theater can signify any physical empty space (including television sets and computer monitors). Where a theater exists or is built, a potential empty space is opened. In it, any kind of meaning can be expressed in the same way the ancients made meaning. Arithmetical manipulations can be done without the zero; societies can subsist, for a time, without theater. But the zero greatly accelerates symbolic operations by holding a position open for new meanings derived from combinations of other elements. So too does a festival theater accelerate social symbolic operations by holding many positions open for new meanings to be seen.

Umberto Eco has called context or circumstance "a revolutionary aspect of semiotic endeavor." [Eco, A Theory of Semiotics, 150.] This is the social exchange of signs in which "the circumstances can become an intentional element of communication." Eco views this as a tactic of decoding in opposition to a strategy of coding, generating a "semiotic guerilla warfare" that makes it possible "to change the circumstances in the light of which addressees will choose their own ways of interpretation." He says that such a shift would give the addressee "his freedom of an era in which mass communication often appears as the manifestation of a domination which makes sure of social control by planning the sending of messages."[Eco, A Theory of Semiotics, 150.]

In Peter Brook's "I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage" opening statement is embedded the "manifestation of dominance" that Eco says is the strategy of coding that "strives to render messages redundant in order to secure interpretation according to pre-established plans." Or, to use a literary example cited by Eco, in which "sign" should be substituted for "words":

When Alice asks, `The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things,' Humpty Dumpty's answer is, `The question is who is to be the master.' Once this point of view is accepted, one might as well ask whether the communicative process is capable of subduing the circumstances in which it takes place.

The master of the festival sign, which has so many different meanings, is the unique space in which it is found. Eco's circumstances function in similar ways to Bakhtin's "homecoming festival" context and to Brook's theatrical empty space.

To reverse Alice's question: "What other important meanings exist that presently lack words? Words that now are forgotten? Words that are kept `off stage' by the puppeteer?" The festival theater, which in a unique way frames an empty space that continually makes room for lost or forgotten meanings, is one answer to Bakhtin's problem of "great time, an infinite and unfinished dialogue in which no meaning dies." [Bakhtin, Speech Genres, 169.] A reply to Humpty Dumpty is that contextual circumstances could be the master in a universe of so many different signs. The master could be neither the puppeteer nor the puppet but their natural theater "in which no meaning ever dies."

From Chattanooga's commercially oriented, downtown business development festivals in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, from Charleston's theaters of power in the 1980s, from the international music festival at Salzburg, and from the peaceful grounds of Chautauqua one can draw a basic conclusion about an overriding function of these festivals. That conclusion is that festivals of any type, in strong and weak ways, combine signifiers in new patterns under high density and compressed time conditions, a primary source of their emotive power. 

This may or may not be the intent of the planners, and it may not always be the effect of a given festival. Programming at the Riverbend that primarily attracts blacks is not performing its combining function; it has the unintended effect of racial segregation. From this suggested critical posture, informed judgment can begin to assess those cases where festivals group individuals by sameness (class, skin color, etc.) rather than bring them together for reasons other than their social and biological differences.

Societies apparently require devices that connect and bind their citizens into common images and understandings while at the same time protecting their right to differ and to hold divergent views. This seemingly contradictory concept resembles the problem of describing the behavior of light; two separate views are required, a theory of light as particle and as wave, to make sense of observed effects (or the contemporary idea of "wavicles," as Robert Detweiler pointed out in response to this either/or dichotomy).

Festivals from primitive times to the Renaissance era through contemporary times have multiple and even seemingly contradictory effects. Quite probably it is the tension that grows out of these contradictory functions that creates the very special atmosphere of openness, of growth, of a degree of newness, of release from tension, that offers an opportunity for various messages to be amplified and framed more powerfully than more traditional mediums of communication permit.

Thomas A. Sebeok has discussed the extreme importance of the mental model that humans and animals have of their "real" world, an insight derived in part from the theories of meaning and modeling advocated by Jakob von Uexhull.  

"Umwelt" is the key term for the influence of "modeling" in the sense used here. Krampen explains:

There is a structural correspondence between each living being as an autonomous subject and its own "Umwelt". The term of "umwelt" is difficult to translate into English. It means the subject world of what is meaningful impingement for the living being in terms of its own information processing equipment, sign systems, and codes....The structure of connection between a living being and its "umwelt" is mediated by sign processes...(84).

One example is a walk through a town....Everything witnessed during a walk through a town is geared to human needs....Stairs accommodate ascending legs, bannisters the arms. Each object is given its form and its meaning by some function of human life...(85).

Jakob von Uxhull's approach to biology as a science of life is a holist one: The whole is not explained by the functioning of its parts, but the meaning of the parts is explained according to the plan of the whole, a principle that is not unlike the fundamental proposition of Gestalt theory (95). Martin Krampen, "Phytosemiotics," Frontiers in Semiotics, John Deely, Brooke Williams, Felicia E. Kruse ed, (Bloomington: Indiana UP 1986) 84. Jakob von Uxhull's primary work is "Bedeutungslehre", Bios, vol. 10 (Leipzig), Reprinted in Streifzuge durch die Umwelten von Tieren und Menshcen/Bedeutungslehre, by Jakob von Uxhull and Gerog Kriszat (Frankfurt a. M.: S. Fischer Vrlag, 1970).

Sebeok has noted that when an environment changes and a species' model of the environment does not change, because of denial of reality or other mental disorders or factors, then the species may vanish [Thomas A. Sebeok, lecture, "Introduction to Semiotics" seminar, Northwestern University, 1986 International Summer Institute for the Study of Semiotics and Structuralism.]. It is not possible to understand the modeling functions of the festival without more detailed analysis and invention of new methods for observing and recording such complex entities. But it is possible to state from this functions perspective that with our unique human ability to imagine different realities and to envisage many possible worlds that the models we experience as our context do in fact influence and at times strongly shape our knowledge and our templates of reality.

With the Spoleto and Riverbend examples presented as models of festival, what ideas does the new framing suggest when applied to other festivals? I was exposed to a new kind of festival when several members of the Chattahoochee Country Dancers (New England contra dancing) group in Atlanta, after hearing of the ideas presented here, said they thought the bi-annual Black Mountain traditional music and dance festival was very different from the examples I had mentioned. This festival, located at a church camp and lake near the Black Mountain community some ten miles west of Asheville, North Carolina, was in its eleventh year in May 1989. Although some of its features are characteristic of any festival, its apparent lack of political, commercial, or religious purpose suggests there could be a festival based on the play principle as described by J. Huizinga's work on the play element in culture and J. Pieper's theory of festival. It represents a festival theater in which various types of folk group dancing and even modern couples swing dancing are its primary purpose, as opposed to civic image building, increasing tourism, or riverfront development. However, attendance is almost completely white, which suggests the hidden racist effect of traditional heritage festivals. More information is needed to explore this alternative festival form; however, conversations with one of Black Mountain's founders, the popular contra dance caller Fred Park, make it clear that large numbers of participants are discouraged in that the festival is no longer advertised and, to prevent overcrowded dance floors, attendance is now limited. Park is one of the festival's sources of artistic energy, probably the equivalent of Charleston's Menotti; his choreography, or "calling," is regarded as a special event, much as Menotti's directing of an opera is of unusual interest. Park's views on the festival and my participation in it strongly suggest that no purpose other than play or pleasure explains the growing popularity of this alternative to what is termed in this study a political or propagandistic festival theater.

The Black Mountain Festival of Traditional Music and Dance announced "The Black Mountain New World Festival" to follow its customary weekend program for May 1990. It advertised a celebration of "contemporary culture as influenced by global communication" with "contemporary music, all kinds of dance, new games, group art, environmentally sound technology, and surprises." By 1995, a competitor emerged on the same grounds, Lake Eden Arts Festival (LEAF), produced and directed by Jennifer Pickering and the Pickering family who had bought the property in the mid-fifties from Black Mountain College.  LEAF became the dominant form and the Black Mountain Music Festival moved south of Asheville, NC to a new summer camp.  The emergence of a festival of "differences" from a successful festival of "sameness" is suggested by this development, one that could also occur under new leadership in similar heritage festivals such as Chattanooga's Riverbend. It should be recognized that the uncertainty of social effects in this and similar "heritage" festivals precludes simplistic conclusions about such complex cultural practices.

One other festival model provides a more fully developed expression of the practice of logodaedaly than has been observed in Menotti's Spoleto festivals. This is the Chautauqua Institution, founded in 1874 near Jamestown, New York.

Primary Function of a Festival: Chautauqua--Forum for Conflicting Views

As stated previously, one primary function of a festival of differences is to provide a forum for expression of conflicting social practices and opinions. After its first festival, during which a local politician set up a booth in the festival river park area, the Riverbend board voted against this practice. Yet at Charleston the opening ceremonies of Spoleto are an important occasion for political speeches from national, state, and local officials. This deliberate staging creates the festival's political "work" function, which is illustrated by one aspect of the Chautauqua Institution's programming policies.

The philosophy of Chautauqua provides a well-known example of a festival that encodes the idea of logodaedaly. Any medium of communication has at least five basic functions: entertainment, information, persuasion, education, and profit-making. The balance and dominance of any one or several of these determines the particular nature of the medium and the characteristics of the channel, which influences the type of information flowing through it. Chautauqua stands alone in examples of the festival genre in representing a mixture of all these elements from its earliest days in the 1870s, when education dominated, to modern times, when entertainment dominates. It is its mixture of purposes that makes it unique among festival spaces. Chautauqua's 1987 conference week on the American Constitution invited persons of widely varying political persuasions to lecture and participate in debates and discussions; another week was devoted to American and Soviet issues with Soviet citizens participating.

Chautauqua's history and programming focus attention on this festival's philosophy of persuasion and entertainment. Was it designed to persuade participants to hold specific beliefs? Was and is that a deliberate purpose, as it was in the case of Riverbend? The original reasons for the institution's central purpose emerging at Chautauqua in 1874 becomes an important marker of its continuing "spirit." Lewis Miller, who had the original idea as early as 1871, explained the basic purpose in his 1888 opening night address:

We are all one on these Grounds! No matter to what denomination you belong; no matter what creed, no matter to what political party of the country. You are welcome here, whether high or low. You can have a right to go anywhere you can get. And it is something like the sample-rooms, but not in a vulgar way. You know they go to this place, and they sample this and sample that a little, and then they take whatever they like, go home, and use what they want. And so here you are welcome to go about examining the various organizations and the various things introduced to you, taking such things as you want. Believe just what you want to, what you please about them and take them with you or leave them here as you like [emphasis mine]. And you are entirely welcome to all our good things at Chautauqua. [Alfreda L. Irwin. Three Taps of the Gavel: Pledge to the Future-The Chautauqua Story. Third edition. Chautauqua, N.Y.: Chautauqua Institution, 1987. (ix). From scrapbook II, Mrs. Adelaide L. Westcott, page 7. Lewis Miller's speech on opening night, 1888, The Chautauqua Institution library. Chautauqua has an extensive library, and I am indebted to its librarian, Alfreda L. Irwin, for assistance in this research.]

"Believe just what you want to..."; this is not the spirit of a Riverbend, which offers such a narrow sample to its citizens. Chautauqua is closer to Spoleto in its ecumenical nature, but even Spoleto lacks such a deliberate, all-embracing dialogue.

The religious philosophy of Chautauqua is the key to decoding its meaning. On another occasion Miller explained the purposes and functions of the new activity:

The original scheme was a Christian education resort which should change...from an evangelism idea to Christian development, when all phases of modern civilization should be made to give recognition to true Bible development, that modern civilization was Christian civilization. That pleasure, science, and all friends of true culture should go side by side with true religion. To develop such a scheme and give it the strength to gain a place in the thoughts of the various phases of society, it requires the cooperation of the different denominations and educational interests.[Irwin, Three Taps, 73.]

This was not an excluding fundamentalist doctrine but an embracing, accepting Christianity, "side by side" with pleasure, science, and culture. The shift in emphasis from evangelism to development meant acceptance and even encouragement of differences, of plurality of belief as opposed to adherence to a single official truth. Yet the Chautauqua "Experience," as many who visit there say, does not exclude rhetorical, persuasive religious doctrines that seek converts to their beliefs. The intent to persuade an audience not to believe in any one doctrine but to accept multiple truths is encoded in the idea of a festival of differences--logodaedaly, a form of political tolerance beyond traditional liberal and conservative views. "Multilogue" suggests the sense of this idea.

The story of the six blind men touching and describing the elephant illustrates this point. The difference festival is an elephant in which some of the blind see a religious message, others see a political message, or others see nothing at all and simply enjoy the feel of the creature. This theme of plurality, explored in Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition, is a central meaning of festivals that combine many diverse art forms and many opposing statements. This message contrasts with festivals that have a single theme, a single purpose, such as a heritage expression of a native culture.

Postcard here.

Vincent's characterization of a Chautauqua lyceum as "a place, an ideal, a force" on a post card, which shows a large tent with open sides and a crowd of women in gowns and men in shirtsleeves, illustrates the many levels of interrelationships behind this particular festival's philosophy. These three concepts are interconnected in a multi-dimensional bond with the other triadic relationships discussed previously.  It would be enlightening to make some comparison between names of festivals. In the two festivals studied, first was the place, then ideas, then tentative names, "Celebration of Togetherness" festival (function name), then Riverbend Festival (place name). Many of the Chattanooga group's names (one comic came up with "Hetzfest") came from a brainstorming session one evening and focused on the river, suggesting its power as a natural framing device. Chattanooga's festival name signifies a function different from the foreignness of Charleston's Spoleto name that seemed to alarm some in Chattanooga. However, for Charleston and Melbourne, Spoleto now signifies the idea, not the place. Chautauqua, the Indian name of the lake adjacent to the Assembly's site, now signifies an idea or spirit more than a location; the traveling Chautauqua lyceums expressed the mobile nature of these Assemblies. The home place remains the primary model of the experience, although other assemblies, such as the one on Monteagle Mountain, Tennessee, express the concept in their gate, open-sided amphitheater, and architecture.

Vincent first viewed Chautauqua as a place, a necessary first category. Every festival has its place. As Bakhtin said, "Every meaning will someday have its homecoming festival." A festival requires its homecoming "place," a specific and material location or physical address that is a major part of the visible expression of the festival idea.

Vincent's second quality was an "ideal." In what ways does a festival, particularly such a mature institution as Chautauqua, represent an ideal, or set of ideals? The ideal is expressed in the unattainable dream-vision. The purposes, goals, or intentions of the original dreamers always fall short of the visible reality. The ideal, then, is that which the festival expresses in its choices of artistic directors, programming, audience, place, and other physical devices. One such device, very similar in function if not in intent to the Riverbend Festival's practice, was present from Chautauqua's beginning:

(Insert pic) The gate ticket, one of the unique aspects of Chautauqua, originated at the very first Assembly in 1874 when it was decided to charge an entry fee rather than take frequent collections at lectures, classes or services. This fee was referred to as a form of tuition, representing each person's share of the expense which is necessary in maintaining an educational program.

The gate ticket entitles the holder to hear concerts, lectures, other performances and services in the Amphitheater, numerous other religious services, recitals, arts exhibits and programs; to enjoy beach facilities, library privileges and agreeable fellowship with people of congenial tastes.

It is true that operas and theatre productions... require extra payment for which reserved seating is required...people from outside the gates who have purchased opera or play tickets and intend to come for these performances only, are not required to pay the usual evening gate fee....

The atmosphere of quiet enjoyment on the Grounds, one of its other unique characteristics, is almost completely the result of the gate-fence arrangement.

For the most part, the people one sees on the Grounds are those who have chosen to come for the specific enjoyment of the place, school or program. It is assumed that anyone with a gate ticket automatically becomes in his own way that special type of person known as a Chautauquan. Among these people the Chautauqua experiences strike up a strong bond winter or summer.

If there is any one characteristic that these Chautauquans have in common, it probably is the inquiring mind. All sides of public questions are open to discussion on the Chautauqua platform and tolerance of differing viewpoints is practiced as part of Chautauqua's tradition [emphasis mine].[Irvin, Three Taps, 5-7.]

In this account can be seen the same spirit of acceptance for both difference and sameness apparently present from the moment Lewis Miller imagined such an idea and found such a place. Such innovative social thinking was part of Miller's daily life; not only was he a successful businessman and inventor of farm machinery but he was also the father-in-law of Thomas Edison.

The third category is force. A force is that which connects ideas in a viewing place--a theatrical space. Its physical devices, such as the gate ticket or pin, can be both connecting and separating in their aesthetic, tension-creating functions if not in their aims. The devices of art are seldom calming and soothing and completely satisfying. It is in the alteration between tension and relaxation, between centripetal and centrifugal pulls, that much of the driving force in arts forms is situated. A force is an unseen agent, a mystery, something driving the ideas that created the Chautauqua communities, generally known as assemblies, or gatherings of both like and unlike viewpoints. Binding these gatherings is a force, which can be spiritual, an unseen presence; it also can be used in the sense of the "force of life." It is expressed as well in the festival ideal and its place, all three interconnected, intertwined elements.

One example of the abstract nature, yet tangible power of force, in the sense Vincent probably intended, was noticed in 1987 while returning from Chautauqua through the state of West Virginia. Three crosses were standing on a small, steep hilltop. Two smaller crosses on either side of a large one were painted white; the center cross, left unpainted, was much taller. Three crosses on a hilltop: the place, the isolated hilltop; the ideal, a good teacher crucified and the two evil thieves gathered in common bond; the unseen force, that symbol's power in that space with no other artificial signs, framed and set off by the surrounding green mountain and other small hills. The force is those ideas associated with Christ's death.

Signifieds vary from their signifiers. One reader of this paragraph, who had grown up in New York City, thought it more likely that the Klu Klux Klan had erected these three crosses as a warning to blacks driving into the Southern states.

These ideas were the Chautauqua Institution's primary reason for existence; that is, to teach Sunday School teachers more interesting ways of teaching. Underlying this motivation was a questioning of the old methods, a willingness to search for new means of envisioning ideas and teaching the old meanings, which, as Bakhtin said, are not "absolutely dead." [Bakhtin, M. M. Speech Genres & Other Late Essays. Translated, Vern W. McGee. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986, 170.]

This is a basic idea of a festival's force, that important things can happen when people of different views and persuasions choose to assemble together in their common as well as opposing interests. It is a force of making believe, found within the theater, that surges back and forth like an electrical arc, and literally carries the idea between audiences and artists. Within this metaphor of force is found the particular power of the festival medium for the exchange of information, a medium functionally different from the traditional church sanctuary, a semiotic device where also, as Peirce said, one person may catch another person's idea.

The festival's message primarily is its physical structure. In a traditional one-to-many Sunday School communication model, which Chautauqua's founders placed in question, there is no participation arrangement, no circular seating, and little chance to discuss, to react, to view other group members. The arrangement is that of the shepherd and sheep, leader and followers, the hierarchical "I know" of the teacher/minister who "knows" addressing those who "know not," the "one who sees" and "those who do not see." The festival form not only inverts this ordering of power relations but rather scrambles the meaning of traditional physical structures. Potentially the festival's material environment can provide in varying degrees helical and even random processes for social interaction. The Chautauqua amphitheater, open on three sides and essentially circular in its rows of seats, represents such a new ordering of power relations; the lyceum tent on the postcard replicates this pattern. This formal/informal, official/unofficial ordering of physical elements functions as opposing statements, which represent a functional spatial code juxtaposed within the meaning-making signification system.

Even in those festivals, such as Ravinia, Tanglewood, or Artpark (Lewiston, New York), where the indoor arrangement is similar to the church sanctuary in its order of relationships and hierarchy of those closer to the one, an informal area surrounds this formal space. One common pattern of the indoor/outdoor venue is the use of space at Chicago's Ravinia Festival, where seats are sold inside the enclosed area while, picnickers on the grass surround the pavilion. This model of inside order versus outside disorder, of privately owned property in the form of reserved seats versus communal property, can be regarded as a semiotic model displaying the dominant group's desired order of relationships. One pays more for proximity to the live sound source, which is also broadcast over loudspeakers to the picnic grounds. The model represents a correct economic and social hierarchy, such as in/out institutional arrangements. Its visual ordering becomes the inherent power of the festival in making meaning. The folk, rock, and political festivals of the 1960s, such as Woodstock, had an entirely different spatial nature. It may be that analyses of a wide range of festivals will indicate not only the manner but also the extent to which major arts festivals represent their communities on a larger scale--and in the aggregate the nature of their societies in which they are born and nurtured. The extent to which participants receive embedded messages, or meanings, is extremely difficult to ascertain. However, where a record of negative or positive response to changes in long-standing festival practices exists, then inferences could be made of the degree of meaningful significance attributed by audiences.

Bakhtin's relationships of meaning, homecoming, and festival correspond to Vincent's three elements. "Every meaning," as Bakhtin put it, implying undiscovered meanings, will be expressed in its own festival as a "homecoming," implying a final destination, a relaxation of interpretation. Various meanings can be inferred from festivals by searching for particular signs, especially the repetition of these signs in their infinite forms and masks, that compose an index for their ideals and driving forces.

Festivals express various differences, as the director of Artpark suggested in noting that the difficulty [and the pleasure] of studying festivals is that no two are alike. The source of this difference is the form of difference itself encoded in the festival structure. New meanings, then, as Bakhtin's statement suggests, can emerge at some point through a festival format, or can be inhibited by a distorted form. This suggests an as yet uncertain understanding about how festivals might function as one of the devices that humans have invented to make meaning and to sustain and change beliefs, or to block new meanings.

The primary claim has been that "we believe that make-believe makes belief." In other words, the leaders of the festival believe there is a cause and effect relationship between the festival and their intentions. It is not necessary to provide evidence that the festival theater actually does make a belief of any kind. What is important is to establish that there is a expectation in the minds of the founders, the managers, the board, and those who participate in many ways that festivals will create beliefs of some kind in the minds of participants.

There is no certain way of proving that this happens, although opinion survey techniques are readily available for approximating ranges of attitudes and beliefs. The only thing that can be certain is intent: the verbal expression of a belief in the power of this theater in the form of a festival and in the political effect of the dramatic and performing arts subtexts that are contained. In this sense, the performances, the programming, the number of events, the type of events have to be looked at as subtexts to the overall text of the festival. Surrounding the festival is its context--the community, the urban environment, the geographic environment in which it is located. Context and subtext shift in their meaning; they vary from a literal spatial geographic location to a set of symbolic relationships and signs and markers that define the physical boundaries to the subtexts that are located in various enclosures or containers and relate in some specific ways to the central ideas of the festival.

Shift toward Split Tree

Restatement of Claims: Intent, Function, Effect

This comparison of the origins of these two contemporary town festivals suggests their opposing central ideas, essential natures, and primary functions and meanings. It summarizes the broader basis of this study's two aims, the discovery of key elements and functions in the two festivals:

 If several key elements of these two festivals are identified sufficiently, and if their basic social and political functioning appears reasonably clear, then the limited aims of this work will have been realized.

The principal claim is that:

We shape our festivals; thereafter our festivals shape us. The festival provides a model for accepting differences in life; we learn to tolerate as normal the great range of diversity contained within a festival's time and space, where the new and different are made visible.

Neither ethnography nor history, the study was designed as a selective theoretical interpretation of the significance of embedded meanings in these festivals' untold stories of origin. These stories were used to search for the fundamental idea that emerged from each festival's multiple contexts, which were reflected indirectly in their stories of origin.

The specific descriptions of the genesis of these two festivals pointed toward two specific types--a Spoleto arts form and a Riverbend heritage form. These two forms were claimed to represent examples, respectively, of difference and sameness in the discursive practice of festival. No claim was made about the application of this concept to other festivals, although the intent, functions, and effect methodology could be useful in an extended study of the Charleston and Chattanooga festivals as well as in the analysis of other festivals and similar cultural practices.

This view of difference and sameness was generated by inferences from three major categories of thought around which the Spoleto and Riverbend chapters were organized. These were the three elements mentioned in an earlier quotation from John Heyl Vincent, the Chautauqua Institution's founder: "Chautauqua is a place, an ideal, and a force." Equivalent terms suggested by the research for these categories were: empty space, purpose, and artistic director.

By separating various claims previously advanced into the categories of intent, function, and effect, a triadic template of the inseparable elements of the nature of festival can be viewed as functioning as an initial "semiotic template" of this ancient cultural practice. These claims evolve from the materials reviewed in the Spoleto and Riverbend festival chapters and appendix. They also are reinforced by the additional material briefly presented in this concluding chapter. No doubt they will require modification in an extended study of other festivals (as is suggested by the Black Mountain Festival example mentioned briefly in the Preface).


1. The intentions of a festival's creators create an essentially theatrical genre of artistic multi-functional structures composed of context, text, and subtext, artistic in terms of the medium and effect if not always in terms of intention.

2. Festivals are a form of meaning-making theater in a bounded space or spaces, which define the type of festival just as the shape of the stage has defined various types of theater.

3. The modern festival has evolved into a Brechtian theater that is a "socio-political...effort to oppose and change actual social reality" (Reiss).

4. The founders' intentions shape a signifying practice with a clear unity of action, where the essential structural logic springs from the degree of the presence or absence of textual differences.



1. The festival in general can be viewed as a special art form similar to the traditional structures of the separate performance arts, such as opera, symphony, dance, film, drama, and poetry, but operating with a distinctively different logic that embraces and enhances these genres and also other forms.

2. The possibility of merry-making, or humans-at-play (homo ludens, Huizinga and Pieper), is a recurring pattern associated with festivals, suggesting that play, albeit serious play, and pleasure as a broader gratification of the audience, may emerge as an overlooked function of a festival; however, these two examples do not support such a thesis.

3. Festivals can be viewed as overcoded entities on the threshold between convention and innovation, an unrecognized rule-making operation simultaneously indexical, iconic, and symbolic that allows the social exchange of signs (Eco).

4. The more closed to differences, to variety in performances and activities, then the less the event functions as a festival in the historic sense of the term and the less likely the event is to be labeled a festival.

5. The festival's ideological and physical space itself functions as a type of "liminal time and space," that is, a social practice existing as an empty space, or gap or overlap among the network of formal institutions and social structures.

6. The festival operates, or, functions, whether consciously intended or not by its creators and administrators, as a container of signifiers from which the traditional unity of action, is often absent at the programming textual level but appears upon careful examination to be present in the contextual frame.

7. Serious festivals are a special type of theatrical time and space where the new and different are made visible as during a pilgrimage.

8. The presence or absence of voices of difference now appears to be the key code determining when a social practice is named a festival.

9. A festival's contextual framing function is its open rather than closed structure, a characteristic that allows for a multiplicity of signifiers and codes to co-exist.

10. The primary conclusion is: "We shape our festivals; thereafter they shape us." The social theaters we imagine from empty spaces and design from bare festival stages reflect our view of the proper order of things in a manner much like the Renaissance festivals discussed by Strong and Orgel; the festival refracts this order though its contextual frame.



1. The festival ordinarily is seen as a collection of discrete performances but, when a larger contextual aesthetic logic is assumed in which the textual elements are juxtaposed, this theater can lead to a new interpretation of social and political meanings.

2. At certain historical moments the artist is endowed with the power of awakening, quickening, and actually forming forces which constitute the local and national identity (Hadamovsky).

3. The festival theater can be seen as a deliberate framing device in which not only context, or circumstance, but also texts and subtexts are in artistic free play where participating spectators are addressees in potential opposition to senders (sponsors and performers) in a dramatic "semiotic guerilla war" in the time and space of the festival (Eco).

4. A festival's multi-functionality can be a time and space for play with no other purpose (Pieper).

5. A view of "homo ludens," "humans at play," (Huizinga) as yet has no place in this general construction of a political theater that appears to generate its effects from a Darwinian theater of power.

6. Festivals, as places for openness, conflict, and play, represent unique art forms that not only mirror their world but with little public notice shape its course.

7. Contemporary festivals appear to provide state, corporation, university, and church with an "encyclopedia of universally understood symbols" that compose the contemporary American city festival's "mise-en-scéne" and actively promote civic rulers wishes and desires.

8. Contexts can be the product of the artistic imagination as much as texts.


Neither laws nor causes, and readily classified in more than one category, these claims are patterns of association that suggest three aspects of a festival's basic nature:

1. A festival is the deliberate creation of an artistic text that works within its physical and ideological context to contain contradictory, disparate, opposing, and even warring elements--a primary source of the tension and excitement associated with the idea of festivals.

2. A festival could be the general historical class of which theater is a sub-genre, although no festival theory yet exists to support this claim.

3. The festival as a communication medium suggests the possibility of a conceptual shift from a one-to-many, linear, ethnocentric sender/receiver communication model to a many-to-many, helical, multi-dimensional, contextual reception/response model.(Taken from Two Towns, Two Festivals; Restatement of Claims...)

This requires an effort to identify the key functions required for a festival to attract such critical notice from the interpretive community.

Increasingly,  T. S. Eliot's observation in "The Four Quartets" that we return "to the place where we started/And know it for the first time" has been given a personal relevance that suggests caution in attempting to interpret any event in which one was personally involved. The document advocating a "celebration of togetherness," written with a friend one spring afternoon in 1981, which some have said was the first burst of energy that led directly to Chattanooga's Riverbend Festival, is a starting point I returned to for this study and truly began to "know for the first time." Self and non-self were not easily separated. One sense of my subjective problem in studying this particular festival, its genesis, and its intended and unintended meanings was suggested by Milan Kundera in Laughable Loves:

Man passes through the present with his eyes blindfolded. He is permitted merely to sense and guess at what he is actually experiencing. Only later when the cloth is untied can he glance at the past and find out what he has experienced and what meaning it had.

It should be admitted in this context that I do have an agenda here: the creation of a sharpened instrument of thought that pleads the political, social, aesthetic, economic, and pleasurable desirability of festivals of difference as opposed to those of sameness --arts as opposed to heritage--serious as opposed to bread-and-circus. This should not be construed to mean that I regard heritage festivals as undesirable, but rather that these political theaters tend to exclude aesthetic sources of the vitality associated with the new and different ideas that drive social change and sustain the learned respect for differences that represents civilized behavior. This would not be a serious work if it argued no point of view, advanced no vision, ignored the realities of personal experience, or merely represented without interpretation. And it would not be a fair document if it did not respect the differences and opinions of others equally sincere in their intentions. Yet the destructive power of the opposing sameness philosophy, when carried to extremes, is in actuality the general political reality reflected in Lyotard's admonition in The Postmodern Condition to, in effect, "honor the differences":

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have given us as much terror as we can take. We have paid high enough price for the nostalgia of the whole and the one....The answer is: Let us wage a war on totality; let us be witnesses to the unpresentable; let us activate the differences and save the honor of the name. [Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. G. Bennington and B. Massumi, foreword by Fredric Jameson (1979; Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984) 81-82.]

Table of Contents     Chapter 1     Chapter 2     Chapter 3     Chapter 4     Chapter 5     Chapter 6     Bibliography     After Thoughts--Summer 2485

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