Low and high culture

Spectacle operates in two contexts simultaneously. On the one hand, it refers to high culture (drama, movies) performances where the draw for an audience is the impressive visual accomplishment. On the other hand, it refers to low cultural shows operating in a folk environment. These can range from the freak show to folk drama to tablieau and beast-plays. The two worlds have always interacted to a lesser or greater degree, with the folks spectacle often being rewritten into a literary spectacle, whether for humor (e.g. The Mechanicals with their performance of Pyramus and Thisbein William Shakespeare‘s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) or not (e.g. the serious treatment of the folk Everyman).

Low and high culture mingled in the spectacle as long as folk productions of spectacle were possible. In the 17th century in England, popular spectacles of the playhouse would be adapted into spectacles for the fair, and in the 18th century fair shows and pantomimes would be adapted to the playhouse stage. In the 19th century, theaters moved farther from folk cultural spectacles and began to develop stand-alone seasonal plays that were centered on a spectacular piece. However, in the 20th century, with the invention of movie theaters, folk festivals were unable to create or recreate the spectacles on film, and the theaters themselves were soon unable to replicate the spectaculars of films. Although film adaptation would occasionally begin with the old, folk mythological narrative material, the movie that resulted would be distributed out to all audiences, thus destroying the audience and source of folk spectacle. Spectacle comes from the word spectator, which could be someone who watches the performance.