April 6 is the first day of the 56th season of the Southern California Renaissance Pleasure Faire. Running until May 19 at the Santa Fe Dam Recreation Area in Irwindale, California, it is the oldest of at least 62 similar festivals coast to coast. While most of these “Renfaires” are set in Elizabethan times, some are set in other eras – Medieval, Viking or Pirate. But they all feature actors portraying period characters, with various stages offering more or less authentic song, dance and patter, and innumerable craftspeople selling all sorts of relevant things. And food! Often there is a mounted tournament.
Europeans – and especially the British – often seem confused by these affairs. Why would so many Americans, often with little or no English blood, choose either to staff or attend these things? The first answer is quite simple – they are fun; sheer unvarnished fun. Regardless of whether one goes in costume as a character or simply shops, stuffs on turkey drumsticks, and watches the performances, the experience takes one away from the present. Whether that is to a more or less accurate past or to some Neverland depends very much on the style of the given faire – for each, there is a constant strain between entertaining and teaching history. For many, a fantastic, Tolkienesque element is added, with fairies, time-travellers and sundry other characters somewhat unlikely to have appeared in the “real” Elizabethan England.
But beyond that, these fêtes supply a human need that Europeans have readily fulfilled without realising perhaps how important that need is. They are connected to our common past without the participants realising it. But as descendants of colonists and immigrants, while most of us Americans ultimately descend from Europe our connection to our remoter past has been severed by the Revolution and subsequent developments. This breeds an unconscious longing for a link to that past and to the kind of community spirit it bred.
Moreover, the Puritanical tinge to our national psyche causes by way of reaction a longing for colour and spectacle that the faires eminently provide. Indeed, one is reminded of Tolkien’s comment on the 1960s counterculture, whence to some degree the Renfaire phenomenon emerged: he wrote of “… the behaviour of modern youth, part of which is inspired by admirable motives such as anti-regimentation and anti-drabness, a sort of lurking romantic longing for ‘cavaliers’, and is not necessarily allied to the drugs or the cults of fainéance and filth”.
Indeed, the foundation of the Renfaire dates back to 1963 – the heart of the folk music revival era. It has been pointed out (on Wikipedia) that in a sense the first Renaissance Faire was foreshadowed by the efforts of folkdance and song aficionado John Langstaff, with his Cambridge, Massachusetts “Christmas Revels”. This celebration of the feast in song and dance from various cultures began in 1958, was launched as a regular feature in 1971 and is now put on by eight troupes nationwide.
Partly inspired by that example, the Los Angeles couple Ron and Phyllis Patterson put on the first Renaissance Faire in their back yard in 1963. A fundraiser for radio station KPFK, it drew 8,000 people. In 1966 the Pattersons presided over a much larger faire in the Agoura Hills; the following year they added one in Northern California. Despite changes in management over the years, both remain – and have spread. In recent decades, similar events have appeared in Australia and at last in Europe itself – not unlike such cultural phenomena as Halloween and Santa Claus; based on European foundation but uniquely changed in America, they return in unexpected fashion.
Visiting a Renaissance Faire is an unmitigated treat; if not always as accurate as a normal living history or open-air museum, it does allow one a time to connect in unexpected ways with the past. The hustle and bustle of traders, the excitement of various contests, the costumes – all are extraordinary. But in those which boast an avatrix of Queen Elizabeth I and a Royal Court, a very strange and magical thing occurs. However American, 21st-century and even Catholic a crowd may be, when the Queen passes by or stops to interact with the crowd, delirious cheers of “God save the Queen!” are the order of the day. Regardless of one’s own feelings about the real history of that time and that place, the faire-goer is transported to another world than the one in which he lives. Considering what this world in which we live has become, that is no small boon.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that after years of attending the Southern California Faire, the last few of which seeing several cast members repeatedly tell me I should join the Queen’s Court, I did. What a pleasure it was – and one I hope to repeat. After several weekends of training in Renaissance dance, speech and manners, the villainous Sir Rafe Sadler walked again in my person.
Most of my fellow courtiers had years of experience doing the show, but they welcomed me and the other newbies warmly. They were an amazing mix of people, some theatrical, some not, all with a deep love of history, and grounded in providing an enjoyable experience for the customers. It was the first year playing the Queen for our lead, but she has been connected with the faire since she was a teenager.
Much as I had enjoyed the event before, this was an incredible experience. To discover that the entire set of the Royal Court is actually assembled by the actors was itself a revelation, and increased the Brigadoon-like atmosphere of the production. What makes Renaissance Faires so enjoyable – even transformative in a sense – is that they are a shared exercise in imagination in a tangible world outside the computer. We have far too few of those in modern America.