|An alternative take on the 16th century
DEEP in the pine forest of east Texas, a middle-aged couple sat stiffly on a bench. “We met a few weeks ago in church and I thought it would be nice to come here to get to know each other,” said the man hopefully.
The woman looked doubtful. Her date had taken her to the Texas Renaissance Festival, an annual celebration and re-enactment of 16th-century village life. A hundred yards away a magician pulled cards from his mouth with a sour expression. Next to that a tout herded guests into the House of Discount Torture, a haunted house focused on special effects. “No goth kid with a self-esteem problem chasing you down the hallway with a chainsaw,” he promised.
The Texas festival is the largest Renaissance festival in the country; it had more than 400,000 visitors over eight weekends this year. But more than 150 of these productions have popped up in America since 1963, when a “pleasure faire” was first held in southern California. They are typically out in the country and can be a major economic boon to a rural community: lots of people, it turns out, like to watch jousting and feast on turkey legs. In one Maryland county, officials are desperately trying to figure out how they can stop the local effort from moving to a larger site in another county. Apart from a boat show, the festival is the area’s largest tourist attraction.
Some enthusiasts take their history seriously, studying fan sites that cover falconry or Shakespearean insults. But all kinds of performance art are encouraged. Revelry is the main point, and though the theme is Elizabethan, the execution is vigorously anachronistic. Sarah Tipton, the marketing co-ordinator, reckons that people come to these festivals to escape their daily lives. In this case there were chainmail bikinis, burlap loincloths and a spaghetti-eating contest.
The festivals naturally attract their share of free spirits. A doctor and a lawyer, dressed in purple velvet, allowed that they had met at a “related” event and refused to elaborate. But there is room for everyone. A retired prison guard in a trucker hat and bristly moustache said that he and his friends had been coming to the Texas festival several times a year for the past 20 years. They liked to watch the comedy acts and flirt with the serving wenches. “This”, he said, “is the highlight of our lives.”
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