New book lays bare the countercultural roots of the Renaissance Faire
CULTURE For any of you (guilty!) who have a kneejerk gag-reflex reaction upon hearing the words "Renaissance Faire," but can't quite pinpoint the source of your disdain, author Rachel Lee Rubin breaks it down for you three ways: fear of men in tights, fear of voluptuous women squeezed into revealing outfits, and fear of being engulfed by nerd culture. That third category of Renaiphobia includes my own personal terror, being approached by a merry fool and loudly addressed in "castle talk," that peculiar grammatical melange which embodieth the thithermost in Faire-y frippery. (I would also add another fear: that of hepatitis A, which my husband's high school friend contracted from a woefully undercooked giant turkey leg.)
"Part of Renaissance Faire culture is inextricably intertwined with this adjacent culture of Renaissance Faire haters," Rubin told me over the phone from her office in Cambridge, Mass. "I spent so much time among the trolls on Internet message boards, it really hurt my feelings!"
The fascinating, forthcoming Well-Met: Renaissance Faires and the American Counterculture (NYU Press, release date November 19), a study of the phenomenon and its political and cultural echoes by Rubin -- a professor of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston -- just might temper any Renaissance indigestion. Its deep and compelling tale of the Faire's reach, much of it emanating from a specifically Californian aesthetic of soft-golden attitudes and ecstatic liberal expression, certainly had me revisiting some of my own preconceptions, even yearning to be part of the revelry. Somebody polish me a codpiece!
Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the Faire. (This year's monthlong Northern California Renaissance Faire in Hollister winds down Sat/13-Sun/14). Amazingly, Well-Met is the first comprehensive historical and anthropological study of the festival, although an official 50th jubilee commemorative album is set to be published next year (www.rpf50book.com).
The Faire's tale begins with a young Laurel Canyon teacher's quest to teach her charges at the local community center the history of theater, including the Italian Renaissance form of commedia dell'arte, the rowdy, harlequin-speckled, lute-sountracked populist traveling-theater tradition, a mixed-up version of which the Faire would soon become most identified with. But Phyllis Patterson's idea of putting on a community festival, dubbed the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, soon became a flashpoint for several cultural and political currents of the time, not least the blacklisting of Hollywood professionals by the House Un-American Activities Committee (with all that out-of-work talent, the first Ren Faire served as both a showbiz bonanza and a backlash to Communist witch hunts); a turning away from mass-produced goods and the harmful effects of global commercialism (with an emphasis on handmade crafts and local community); and the incubation stage of the hippie, including the Faire's soft-focus, wild-and-free English pastoral style of clothing, soon found donned by top pop minstrels, from the Byrds and the Monkees to the Beatles and the Isley Brothers.
"Even now, the spectre of the long-haired hippie looms in many older conservative minds. And he — it is always a he — belongs to the aesthetic of the Renaissance Faire, guitar in one hand, flower in the other," Rubin told me.
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