New book lays bare the countercultural roots of the Renaissance Faire
Also involved in the Faire's history was the reinvention of theater — the New Vaudeville, including such bigtimers as Firesign Theater, the Flying Karamazov Brothers, Pickle Family Circus, and Bill Irwin -- plus the explosion of public community radio (LA's KPFK and our own KPFA owe much of their golden years to the Faire), and a revisionist historical movement in education. Rubin traces the New Left political movement's break with the Old Left to the Faire's liberating effect. But mostly the Faire operated as America's freak magnet, the most visible manifestation of the counterculture emerging from the conformist 1950s — and a safe space for outsiders of all types.
"Again and again, people told me how the Faire made them feel safe," Rubin said. "Vietnam veterans told me it was only at Faire that they felt welcome back in the country. There was a huge gay and lesbian presence from the beginning, and the bawdiness encouraged there attracted different sexual expressions. Class difference, too, could be left behind. The costuming echoed that of the masquerade, where a certain amount of anonymity — a shedding of the self at the gates, which is a very important ritual at the Faire — opened up new possibilities.
"The central paradox of the Faire is that it allows you to be more yourself while being someone else."
Another paradox is the overwhelming anachronism of the Faire — starting with those emblematic turkey legs and continuing through the revealing custom-made chain mail "wench wear" that's lately become all the rage among female Faire regulars ("playtrons" in castle talk). Somehow, reimagining the historical past makes the Faire more authentic.
"The inspiration to write this book actually came when I took an English friend to one of the fairs," Rubin said with a laugh. "He was horrified: 'what have you done to my country's history?' And yes, it's called the Renaissance Faire, but it's really the idealization of probably 10 years of the whole historical period, in England, and only very select parts of that. But the central notion of the festival is play — even a play on the meaning of 'renaissance' itself. It's almost like steampunk's relationship with the Victorian era. Except that steampunk starts with one historical period and imagines the future, whereas the Renaissance Faire imagines the past."
And of course the one constant of every historical endeavor is change. The Faire is now a national institution with a broader appeal than ever. After functioning as an artistic haven in the 1960s and a working class escape in the late '70s and '80s (the titillating "freakfest" alternative to Six Flags' "redneck Disneyland"), it's lately settled into the role of suburban theme party and gamer-nerd paradise. But that's changing as well.
"The video game role-players are still there, but the faire doesn't seem to resonate as much with the current tech crowd, which may be more attracted to material gain than fantasy escapism," Rubin said. And many regular playtrons are dismayed at what they see as the Disneyfication of the Faire. "Even as a suburban and working class phenomenon, the Faire always functioned as an alternative narrative to everyday life. But now we're seeing more 'handmade crafts' manufactured in China and attempts to corporatize the Faire on larger levels. There has always been an argument about authenticity among playtrons, but now there are more contemporary forces affecting the Faire."