Liz Heard


The word performance is used in a several fields, including but

not limited to athletics, the arts, technology, and human behavior.

While meanings vary according to usage, performance often

seems to imply a relationship to an absolute value or standard.

Websterís 1977 New Collegiate Dictionary offers five definitions of


1 a: the execution of an action

b: something accomplished : DEED, FEAT

2: the fulfillment of a claim, promise, or request : IMPLEMENTATION

3 a: the action of representing a character in a play

b: a public presentation or exhibition <a benefit ~ >

4 a: the ability to perform : EFFICIENCY

b: the manner in which a mechanism performs <Engine ~ >

5: the manner of reacting to stimuli : BEHAVIOR" (851).

With the exception of definition 5, all these definitions suggest an

absolute towards which the action of performance strives. Words

like "accomplish," fulfillment," "representing," and the phrase "the

manner in which" all imply a standard beyond and outside the

performative action or event to which the performance is


Everyday use of performance in all the fields mentioned above

reveal an implication of hierarchical rating based on an absolute

standard. The September 10 New York Daily News sports section

reports that "Many athletes believe they give a superior

performance only through luck Ė some convergence of conditions

at least partly outside of their control" (7). "Superior" modifying

performance suggests such a rated value standard. Similarly, the

motor oil advertised as "high performance" promises something

that at least approaches maximum efficiency and power from an

automobile. In the field of arts, reviewing the Public Theaterís

summer program in Central Park, a friend praised the

"professional performance" of last yearís production of The

Misanthrope. "Professional" suggests a performance based on

actor training and craft as well as directorial interpretation in

accordance with acceptable interpretations of the play script.

Everyday human behavior is often referred to in terms of

performance. Employees, for instance, undergo routine

"performance evaluations" to assess and document their

efficiency on the job. Sex is also seen as a performance. In a

recent Ann Landers column entitled "Is he straying? How to Spot a

Cheater," decreased sexual "performance" was cited in a list of

clues to marital infidelity: "2. Your husband suddenly loses interest

in sex, cuts back drastically on the frequency or suddenly cannot

perform" (20). Sex as performance also appeared in an overheard

conversation: "When Iím with her, I feel like, a pressure to perform

in bed." The "pressure" experienced by the speaker suggests that

his partner expects him to arouse in her an optimal level of sexual

excitement and satisfaction.

Western performance arts reflect this aspect of performance in

a prioritizing of the signifier, or what a performance is meant to

represent. As noted in Patrice Pavisí Dictionary of the Theatre,

performance is often seen as secondary to that which it attempts

to represent: "Representation is always a recreation of something

Ė a past event, a historical figure or a real object; hence the

impression that it reveals only a secondary reality" (262). Western

prioritizing of empirical evidence such as the written word over

transitory experience means that a fixed text or score is valued over

its ephemeral, unrecordable performance. However, Pavis asserts

an equal validity for performance representation against the

absolute nature of what it is "trying" to signify. Any single

performance can never be repeated and stands, therefore,

independent of any fixed meaning. Furthermore, performance

realizes more completely a script or score, which exists in a

reduced and partial form outside of performance. It is only in the

experience of shared, created meaning between the performer

and audience that a script or score is fully realized

David Summerís article "Representation" traces changing

attitudes towards representation in Western thinking beginning

with Platoís description of artistís representations as poor copies

of ideal forms and ending with Summerís conclusion that

representation is both generated in and generative of material,

social reality. There is no absolute outside representation except

perhaps the material world, and that world we continue to shape

and form, partly through representation. Representation, including

performance, is neither greater nor lesser than what it tries to

signify: "An alternative may be offered by pushing idealist (and

materialist) representation beyond imaginative formation to the

construction of the actually formed and shaped implicit in the idea

of formation" (15).

If representation, including performative representation, is both

generated by and generative of cultural reality, the question of an

ideal standing outside and above no longer pertains.

Nevertheless, values do remain, and therefore, so does the

question of absolute value. I return to "When Iím with her, I feel like,

a pressure to perform in bed" and add to it a quote from a

performance work entitled Correct Me if Iím Wrong. "When her

friends were around, my mother would stroke my hair and tell me

what a beautiful child I was. It was like she was performing for

them, performing her affection for me." These statements imply

values that oppose performance against spontaneity in intimate

human relationships. The question of performance as falsity, a

"poor copy," returns. Another question arises: does emotional

spontaneity spring naturally from our "essential" nature, or from an

improvisatory, yet still performed response?