Incongruity is often used as a tool in comedy to entertain the masses, specifically used in comedic satire. When a large, heavy-set man walks in a room and has a squeaky, high-pitched voice or when a Tyrannosaurus squeals like a fangirl at a teenage boyband concert, these are moments of incongruity. Incongruity means out of place — something that does not fit in its location or situation so When an audience expects one thing but gets something else, that is incongruent and often it is funny. But there are also situations when incongruity is not funny, like when a meaningful performative act is not done how it is expected to be done.
Working with the idea that a performative act as an expression that changes reality in some way, going beyond simply describing or referring to something else, I would like to take a look at a time that someone turned such an act on its head, when they intentionally used incongruity to accomplish something.
In August of 2016, Colin Kaepernick, a football player for the San Francisco 49ers, sat (and later kneeled) during the national anthem at preseason games in protest against increasing police violence against African Americans and inequality in the United States. It is custom, tradition, and considered respectful to stand during the National Anthem at all sporting events. It is supposed to be a statement of support for people who fight to protect the country and a symbolic commitment to standing behind the nation as a supportive citizen.
Kaepernick's action, what we could call an infelicitous performative act, was a purposeful resistance to the expected. Sitting or kneeling during the national anthem was an incongruent action he took to make a point, to cause discussion, and to cause change. Unfortunately, this action was highly controversial and received both with great approval and great disgust. At a time when the United States had become severely divided on many political and social issues, Kaepernick's protest caused people throughout the country to feel both offended and heard, angry and inspired, appalled and celebratory. "Taking a knee" became quickly associated with denying the United States flag and the people who fight in the military for conservatives that found these actions disrespectful.
Because the action of sitting or kneeling doesn't fit with what is expected and it changes the perception of an individual's allegiance to the country, it was and still is extremely controversial. It is significant because of what the performative act means and what it means to not engage in that action, or even–in this case–to adjust it. The misperformance of this ritual, especially in a difficult political and socio-economic time for the United States makes a bold statement. At such a volatile time between political parties in this country, this one infelicitous peroformative act is easily manipulated to mean something different than intended and has been taken out of context and past its original purpose opposition and the media.
The difference between Performance and Theatre begins with specificity. Performance is a broad term, including many different forms of entertainment and storytelling. Performance can mean anything from just simply the act of doing anything to a Commedia Dell'arte performance of The Servant of Two Masters in full Italian costume. Theatre is a category of performance. Dance, Concerts, Sports, these are all performances, but not Theatre.
In order to draw a distinction between these other forms of performance, I must clarify what these two terms mean.
Performance, a general concept of presentation can mean either
Performance is not a singular thing with a singular purpose. It is a category of many forms of action and/or entertainment.
Theatre is a kind of performance, a category, or a type. Aristotle in The Poetics lays out a formula for the art form of Theatre:
Of course, Theatre has become more complicated since Aristotle's time; often it includes some level of social impact, does not necessarily include music, uses various of levels of spectacle, and illuminates a range of depth and struggle in the human spirit. This is what makes Theatre different from other forms of performance. In Some Thoughts on Playwriting, Thornton Wilder distinguished Theatre from other art forms with four characteristics that are unique to it:
Aristotle's formula for the composition of a theatrical work paired with Wilder's distinction between this art form and others help clarify what is and is not theatre. For example, a Basketball game has elements of theatre, but it is not the same thing. It lacks a plot and thought/theme/ideas. It has a structure, but that isn't the same as plot and theme. The game is heavily concentrated on spectacle and rather than watching characters, spectators (not audience members) watch real people playing a real game vs. something imaginary. Another difference is in those who observe the two; an audience must hear the show in order to experience it. A basketball game must be watched, but does not necessarily need to be heard to be experienced. These key differences show that it is a performance, but it is not theatre.
It is important to delineate these types of performance to understand their format and function and to observe them analytically. To analyze types of performance, there must be clarity about what specifically each kind of performance is. Anyone who watches a play, movie, dance, concert, or sporting event enhances their experience and is able to both analyze and appreciate the type of performance to a higher degree. Anyone who wants to do that can only do so by understanding the distinctions as well as the similarities.