Bread and Circuses

With a widely reported [though deeply unlikely] estimated global audience of over two billion, almost a third of the population of the planet was expected to watch the marriage of Prince William to Catherine Middleton on 29th April 2011. As a piece of popular spectacle, few events can ever rival this broad and diverse audience, and in some respects, with its rehearsed structure, basis in tradition, powerful visual images, communal music and inclusivity, the royal wedding can be read as a phenomenal piece of popular theatre. Allain and Harvie discuss a definition of popular theatre that takes into account hugely successful commercial ventures which exploit popular theatrical forms and attract a wide audience, offering Cirque du Soleil or the Abba musical Mamma Mia as ready examples:

These examples point to the need to make a distinction (even if this formula is not rigid and the gap is sometimes bridged) between popular commercial theatre and, at the opposite end of the spectrum, popular theatre that has an overt political agenda.[1]

In discussing a working definition of popular theatre Allain and Harvie are right to suggest dichotomised thinking, as the term ‘popular’ can readily be applied to both large scale national (and international) events and small scale local ones. It encompasses the openly propagandistic and the consciously apolitical, groups the commercial with the anti-capitalist and incorporates the technically proficient, the rehearsed and the engrossing alongside the crude, the improvised and the alienating. Demonstrably, it is not a single dichotomy which separates different popular performances but a multitude of spectra. The two opposing modes of popular theatre that Allain and Harvie suggest are specifically flawed, as their distinction presupposes that popular ‘commercial’ theatre (which we can take to mean theatre that is concerned with entertainment and a broad appeal and does not seek to undermine or alter the status-quo) is unlikely to have a political agenda, and also because there is no obvious place for an event such as the modern British royal wedding, which does not neatly fall into either of the two extremes or onto the continuum between them. The event is not commercial though it is an open display of wealth and privilege. Nor does it claim any political agenda, though events such as these, as will be argued here, can easily be appropriated for political utility. When the state (or any aspect of the establishment) conducts popular performance events which are stylistically indebted to popular theatre traditions and invite the public to engage as participants and spectators, problematic questions arise with regards to reconciling the event’s ‘popular’ status with its anti-subversive, non-transgressive nature.

The royal wedding can be seen in its contemporary context as one of many defining moments of an era in which the staging of popular performance events dominates political discourse in this country. The ideological and economic actions taken by the government have met with stiff opposition, an opposition which has frequently manifested itself in popular performance. Groups such as UK Uncut have sought to temporarily redefine public spaces (specifically commercial ones) into spaces of performance, often choosing to theme actions around certain issues or ideas. Through the introduction of props and performance, a targeted shop or bank might be ‘turned’ into a library, a school, a creche, etc in an attempt to draw a link through the performance event between their financial practises and funding cuts to those services. Returning popular performance to the marketplace, campaigners dressed as surgeons, superheroes and Santa Claus have occupied commercial spaces while yet others have staged poetry readings, stand up comedy gigs or concerts. Similarly, activists operating under the banner NHS Direct Action have staged the agit-prop skit Death of the NHS, in which a vampiric Andrew Lansley causes the deaths of screaming and bloodied patients while draining doctors and nurses, outside various government buildings. One interesting staple of popular performance that has been witnessed on many protests is the clown, with many people choosing (apparently independently) to dress up in conventional (or subverted) clown make up and costume, both to criticise the establishment and to affectionately satirise other protesters.

In a more extreme example, those using ‘black bloc’ tactics have codified a clearly defined costume of all black clothes, their faces covered, while props such as flares, coloured smoke, paint-bombs and spray cans are used to create a public spectacle in which they demonstrate, through the symbolic destruction of icons of capitalism (such as bank branches), their capacity to alter the world they operate within. Mass events, most notably the 500,000 strong TUC march through central London on March 26th 2011, have featured less conscious performances by individuals but still exemplify many traditional aspects of popular performance, including brightly coloured props and costume, subversive humour, songs, widely known chants (a ubiquitous feature of performative activism) and, most obviously and significantly, a deliberately broad appeal. In some regards these represent a midpoint between the unlicensed demonstrations of smaller groups and the large scale events organised by the state.

State events have a great capacity to draw people together for communal expression. In a quasi-carnivalesque way people are authorised to act outside of the normal bounds of acceptable behaviour with the rules temporarily relaxed. There is another dimension to the positive role of these popular events, and one that is of significant importance to understanding Prince William’s wedding, coming, as it did, at a time of national difficulty. Arch and Marschner, in their history of British royal weddings, touch on the social significance they can have, specifically the uplifting effect on a nation’s mood. Princess Anne’s marriage in 1973 is recorded as a major national event:

Colour television pictures, an explosion of souvenirs and the relief – articulated by newspapers and magazines – that such a colourful event could still take place in a country where social disorder and economic decline seemed poised to plumb new depths, seem, in retrospect, the salient features of the occasion. [2]

This sentiment was directly echoed by David Cameron who declared of the engagement ‘it’s great to have a piece of unadulterated good news that everyone can celebrate … I’m sure that’s how the whole country feels, and I’m sure it’ll be something when the country will come together’. Arch and Marschner remember Princess Anne’s wedding as a welcome event of buoyant elation:

In Britain – where the government had just declared a state of emergency, considering the current situation in the coal and electricity industries a threat to the essentials of the life of the community – the splendour of the occasion worked its familiar magic, and the newspapers reported that both the fuel crisis and the state of emergency were forgotten. [3]

While there are many who regard these popular events as merciful reprieve from difficult times, more sober critics present the exact same phenomena as an indictment. Ian Jack, writing in Newsweek, similarly remarks of Prince Charles’ marriage to Lady Diana that

The bells rang out, the guns saluted, and Diana rode to her nuptials in a glass carriage, but the celebration came as a relief and a distraction to a country beleaguered by social division and unrest [IRA hunger strikes, race riots in Brixton and Toxteth, and, like now, 2.5 million unemployed with the number rising].

In Satire X, written in the first or second century AD, the Roman polemicist Juvenal suggested that the public, who once had democratic power over their leaders, had ‘pulled in their horns, there’s only two things that concern them: Bread and Games [also frequently translated as circuses].’ [4] That is to say, the people had become complacent about their political agency and were disengaged to the point that their only concerns were their immediate needs, ‘bread’, and diverting entertainment, the ‘games’ or ‘circuses’. The phrase has been developed in modern usage to refer to a deliberate attempt by the state to distract the public by providing these pieces of grand popular theatre, and in this vein has been appropriated by the activist performance group Bread and Puppet and the anti-Olympic games campaign group Bread Not Circuses (the political exploitation of various Olympic events is a persistent observation, most notably about the 1936 games in Berlin).

If there is a political usefulness in these events, it lies in their capacity to fully transform a communal mood. Allain and Harvie observe this in the age of modern broadcasting by considering one of the most important popular spectacles of recent decades:

Lady Diana’s funeral is just another example of how a local event becomes global spectacle when it is constructed by the vast resources of the world’s media. … The fact that, even though the live events were shown so extensively on television, thousands of people still felt the need to visit the palace in person or sign condolence books says much about the value placed on liveness and actual participation, however vicarious, in such events. [5]

The same was surely also true of Prince William’s wedding. Many people attended the event in London while many more expressed their own involvement by hosting parties, watching the television broadcast communally and dressing in specific costume for the occasion. It is not unreasonable to claim that for the weekend surrounding the wedding it was the dominant focus of the public’s attention.
The writer Ben Goldacre was quick to condemn the government for exploiting the distracting influence of the event, declaring that the Department of Health had won the ‘prize for burying bad news’ when they made a potentially unpopular announcement regarding increased cuts to NHS funding. This pronouncement is a simplification of the situation, though, and the full extent of his accusations (and the observations of Juvenal) can be be better understood when viewed in the context of the conflicted nature of popular theatre.

On the 28th April, the day before the wedding, Chris Knight, Anthropology professor and amateur exponent of political street theatre, was arrested, along with two others, for his intention to stage a mock public execution of Prince Andrew in effigy using a prop guillotine. The same afternoon, Charlie Veitch of performance activism group The Love Police was also arrested, for his stated intention to publicly voice his anti-royalist sentiment (though his specific plans were not revealed). All were arrested on ‘suspicion of conspiracy to cause public nuisance and breach of the peace.’ On the day of the wedding, a number of arrests were carried out in central London, including one by plain-clothed officers of a street performer while he was singing ‘we all live in a fascist regime’, adding an almost enjoyable irony to the performance. Veitch, Knight et al were detained in police custody for almost twenty four hours (the legal limit) and then released without charge. They had effectively been kept off of the street for the duration of the royal wedding, rendering their planned performances impossible.

Though the events, with their intended symbolic opposition, could not take place, they did contribute to a greater symbolic impression of the situation: just as the government and monarchy were engaging in a piece of popular theatre on a huge scale, enjoyed by millions across the world and uniting its audience in a sense of celebration, the Metropolitan Police were carrying out a coordinated operation to remove dissenting voices from the event. Popular theatre cannot be reduced to one single definable function, but the events of April 28th-29th 2011 demonstrate two extremes of the way it can operate. Official events, organised or sanctioned by authority, can legitimately bring people together, as was noted above, and enable them to communally express celebration, grief, remembrance, thanksgiving etc but, unlike the unlicensed, illegitimate performance of protest and political street theatre, they are unable to express dissatisfaction, radicalism and rage. In this age of dejection and dissidence, with a public torn between a desire to forget their societal troubles and an impulse to challenge them head on, the role of popular performance in public space is in flux. After the royal wedding, Assistant Commissioner Lyne Owens expressed the honour and privilege of being involved in a ‘fantastic day of pageantry and celebration’, and underscored the importance of events on the horizon from their perspective:

…today’s success should convince people that the Met is well able to handle next year’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympic Games.

The disparity between theatre with a broad appeal and theatre that is consciously in the interests of the population will not be resolved, but analysis of the performance practises exhibited over the coming months and the social context they exist in will see it sharply defined. The future is uncertain, but with regards to social attitudes to government and the role of those who seek to find creative methods to voice dissent, Juvenal’s words already seem eerily prophetic:

Time was when their plebiscite elected Generals, Heads of State, commanders of legions: but now they’ve pulled in their horns, there’s only two things that concern them: Bread and Circuses.

‘I hear that many are to be purged.’

‘That’s right, they’re turning the heat on, and no mistake.’

*  *  *

[1] Paul Allain and Jen Harvie The Routledge Companion to Theatre and Performance (Oxford: Routledge, 2006) p. 190.

[2] Nigel Arch and Joanna Marschner The Royal Wedding Dresses: The Splendour of Royal Marriage Across Five Centuries (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1990) p. 127.

[3] Ibid. p. 127.

[4] Juvenal The Sixteen Satires (Middlesex: Penguin Classics, 1974) p.  207.

[5] Paul Allain and Jen Harvie The Routledge Companion to Theatre and Performance (Oxford: Routledge, 2006) p. 102, 103.

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