We also have a backstage—the part of our experience that is not on public display and which we seek to keep private. The process of hiding our backstage processes and only showing our front stage is what Goffman calls “mystification,” meaning, let’s say, that the host likes to clean the sink, vacuum the stairs and wipe the finger prints off the doorjamb before the guest arrives. Arriving, we say, “Wow, your house is beautiful! I wish mine was this clean,” as if we believe that their home always looks spotless. As if we do not also clean our homes when we have company. We seek to mystify, and we allow ourselves to be mystified by others.
Our backstage is like a wait station at a fancy restaurant. It is like the slaughterhouse from which neatly wrapped steaks emerge for the grocery shelves. It is like the dressing room where the athletes are naked and vulnerable; it is like the teacher’s lounge at the middle school. Our backstage is our bathroom. We have many physical backstages in life, which suggests that for every backstage there is a potential front stage where we present what is presentable. The delicious plate of food, delivered by a clean, happy waitperson, turns the diner into an audience. The would-be backyard barbecuer, looking for the right cut of meat on display at Safeway, is the audience for that performance of “Bloody butchery? What bloody butchery?” The well-lit stadium, filled with fans and magnified by the media, makes an audience out of millions of people both local and remote. The classroom turns students into an audience for the school’s performance of “We Will Tell You What to Think About and How to Think About It.” The living room, where we open the front door dressed and made-up to greet our dinner guests, is the setting for our performance of “Aren’t You Impressed?” or at least “Please, Like Me and my House.”
Another kind of backstage is what we’re thinking and feeling behind the expression that we’re wearing on our faces. Front stage, we look like we’re paying attention; we’re taking good notes on the guest lecture; we’re sitting up straight. Or, we’re performing something else, the rebel version: “I don’t care. You don’t scare me and you don’t interest me, so I’m going to read the newspaper AND listen to my i-pod while you talk. I’m going to text my friends, or tap on my laptop keys, because I don’t care.” That’s a front-stage performance of high status, a performance titled, “I’m too important to be bothered with you.” (What we don’t think that we’re performing is, “I’m too stupid to be able to follow what you’re saying,” Or, “I’m a narcissistic pain in the arse.” ) But, we’re not always in control of how our performances are perceived. And, backstage, we might be having an experience that we desperately seek to hide in our outer expression. If I have a migraine at an important job interview, I must not crease my brow or appear uninterested. If I feel incompetent or vulnerable or needy at a job interview, I must not appear so; I will smile and nod and perform what I do not feel in order to mystify my audience, my interviewer.
Whenver we are in the presence of others, we have a backstage and a front stage operating. When we are intimate with others- our best friend, our twin sister, our lover- the backstage may be far less monitored: we pick our toenails as we watch The Daily Show, or burp, or fart; we leave the bathroom door open when we use the toilet. Managing the impression that we make on others is exhausting, and we are relieved when the burden is significantly lessened by familiarity, love, affection and trust. But even with our closest mates, we do not reveal everything. There is always, always something held back, if not consciously then in spite of ourselves. We have schemes, fantasies, desires that we have never shared and never will. Joseph Campbell called it the Shadow or the Shadow Self; Billy Joel called it “the Stranger.” Erving Goffman would not say there is one essential self, but rather many potential selves, and points out that the first meaning of the word person is mask, which implies that there is something behind the mask. He would say it’s another mask.
I am not saying that everything we do is a performance. If I sneeze because sneezing accomplishes a social goal for myself, such as allowing me to leave the room momentarily to collect myself, that is a performance. If I sneeze to demonstrate to someone in the elevator that her perfume really, truly is taking up too much space, that sneeze is my performance of victimhood, meant not as a low-status move but as a way to demonstrate to the perfume-wearer that I have been mightily offended by her scent overtaking my personal boundaries—my performance of “Victimhood-as-Power.” I am better than she, because she has made me suffer. If I sneeze because I have a tickle and can’t stop the sneeze, the sneeze isn’t a performance, but everything I do afterwards is a performance: I will try to save face. Check to make sure there’s nothing embarrassing clinging to my skin. Wipe my nose with a Kleenex, perhaps trying to hide the nose-wiping, which is a sort of performance of modesty, a performance of “I don’t really have a body or bodily fluids.” I will save face by apologizing, “Excuse me!” or making a joke: “Kablooey!” or by blaming something outside of my control: “Damn pollen!” I will try to create affiliation: “Anybody else have allergies? Then you know how bad it is!” Or, I will pretend nothing happened. A performance of “Sneeze? What sneeze?” or “I’m too important or secure to be bothered or stopped by a reflex.”
Actors have to understand all this, or they suck. Bad actors look like they’re faking it; we don’t buy their performances. Bad actors don’t get that their characters are made up of little performances; that their characters have backstages from which front-stage actions are set in motion. Characters in a play come to life when the actor does what characters in real life do: negotiate status. Occupy multiple roles before multiple audiences. Maintain and protect a backstage while creating and sustaining a front stage. Seek to mystify. Preserve face. Make, use and misuse symbols. Perform rites and rituals. Perform roles. An actor whose character fails to do these things is a bad actor. A one-dimensional actor. An actor who does not understand human behavior. In other words, the actor must, within the context of the play, perform a character who is, himself, performing for the other characters. An actor’s performance of a role is a performance of a person who is performing something. It is said of Shakespeare that his characters’ backstages are transparent to the audience. When Hamlet turns to the audience and wrestles with “To be or not to be,” we see his backstage. But, behind that backstage is perhaps another backstage- that of a man who is performing a feat of logic—“To die, to sleep—to sleep, perchance to dream…” in the face of the illogical. At the very least, behind Hamlet’s visible backstage, there is an actor portraying Hamlet, and that actor’s own backstage: he has a cold. His marriage is falling apart. He has a hangover. He is terribly insecure and fears the critic from the Denver Post who he knows is in the front row tonight.