In the United States, a strong indigenous form of theater has not developed (middle-brow and high-brow forms were both imported from Europe when already mature). Had a specifically American variety of theater arisen, it would probably not have become tied to locality because of the high geographic mobility of the population. So, instead of theater, Americans have invented their own, strikingly direct kind of identity-enhancing performance: the parade.
In lesser American towns, parades are often a disorderly or downright messy mixture of military spit-and-polish, of crass commercial advertising, of ideological propaganda, of politicking, and of public declarations of self-satisfaction with one’s hobbies. In one very small, prosperous town on the West Coast, the last 4th of July parade included, among other attractions, the Kazoo Club, the Folding Lawn Chairs Marching and Drill Team, Zero Population Growth, the local Democratic Club, a grassroots group intent on gaining school district autonomy, and two old car buff clubs. These were followed by a lone couple (a pair) of tap dancers. There was also a moms’ club, whose sole purpose appeared to be Momaffirmation. (They did not seem to be bragging either about themselves or about their kids, who incidentally, were not even dressed up for the occasion.) Of course, there were several musical marching bands – at various levels of proficiency, from the superb to the pathetic – all much and equitably applauded.
After 90 minutes-plus of exposure to this particular spectacle, it was difficult to think of anything performed by two-or-more people that was not represented or, at least, alluded to, in this annual July 4th event, except for sex and, curiously, surfing. (There are two reasonable explanations for the notable absence of surfers: first, surfing is not really done collectively, just side-by-side; and second, surfers couldn’t be bothered to show up that day because the surf was up. Surfers are known for their uncooperative individualism.)
The striking difference between the American parade and its superficially analogous European counterparts is that many parade marchers in America are not “parading” in any meaningful sense of the word. They often wear neither costume nor other distinctive mark signaling their group membership; they may be sloppily dressed and groomed. Sometimes, they do nothing more interesting than walk down the middle of the street carrying a vague identifying sign and waving cordially to the spectators, their fellow-citizens lining the parade route. In a really small town, the line between paraders and spectators may become completely blurred: A large proportion of the population physically present in town will march in the parade, and then, stand to the side to watch others, or vice-versa.
Since many American parades take place during the sunny season, when people could be disporting themselves at the beach or on the golf course, the question arises forcefully: “What is being achieved here?”
One reasonable answer is that the parade is a wonderfully, efficiently and distinctively American way to formulate, assert and discover collective identity. The local community figures out what it is, in its various forms, simply by periodically taking a good look at itself. It does this in a nearly spontaneous manner, demanding almost no preparation nor much discipline, and with little regard for coherence or consistency. So, in the next town’s version of the parade, a large fake “Mexican” marching band, with an all-Anglo membership sporting 50’s Hollywood-inspired garish TexMex garb precedes several smaller, disciplined, all-Hispanic Mariachi bands in authentic, black and silver “charro” outfit. (The charro - or Mexican cowboy- costume is itself a fairly recent micro-showbiz invention brought from Northern Mexico by several waves of immigrants and perfected here.)
The fact that the parade rests largely on improvisation, its minimal organization, both exclude the emergence of bureaucratic authority or of any other undemocratic feature. In its good-natured near-anarchy, the parade can thus be thought of as fundamentally American in its form as well as in its contents. At the same time, shorn of the confusing aesthetic pretensions, free from heavy connotations, and cut from the symbolic baggage associated with the theatrical and religious performances of other cultures, it is one of the purest forms of collective identity enhancement. Here, folks just look at folks to figure out who and what folks are, kind of.
[Editor's note: this essay first appeared on Dr. Delacroix's blog, Facts Matter, on July 4th 2011]