The Uses Of Anachronism
There are those who feel that the highest praise of a Renaissance Festival is summed up in the word "authentic." The purpose of a Festival is to re-create as much as is possible a village of the sixteenth century. All costumes should be made entirely by hand, even to the appropriate undergarments. Food should be limited to that which was available in the period. Certainly all speech and entertainment should be "period" to the last detail, and anachronisms should be avoided at all costs.
I am not one of those people.
The purpose of a Renaissance Festival is to entertain the patrons who come through the gate. A Festival is first and foremost a theatrical production, historical fiction rather than a history textbook. A certain amount of artistic license must therefore be allowed. Our costumes may look period, but they are made on machines. Potatoes are legitimate fare, even though they come from the New World. As for entertainment, a minor anachronism here and there does very little harm, especially if it is funny.
This is not to say that anything goes. Like any other form of theater, a Festival strives to create a coherent illusion. Anachronisms damage that illusion to varying degrees. As long as the overall illusion is consistent, some small anachronisms are perfectly permissible. Nevertheless, there are certain rules and guidelines which govern the uses of anachronism.
When in Doubt, Leave it Out.
The most basic rule is "Donít use an anachronism if you donít have to." Most of the time, this Rule of Necessity governs behavior, because most of the time there is some way to do what you want to do in a period context. This is an area in which it really pays to do your homework. There are a lot of concepts and ideas floating about in the Renaissance which are analogous to modern concepts. For example, a computer becomes a printing press, and an automobile becomes a carriage. The more you learn, the more effectively you can cover your anachronisms.
Sneaking One In
Some anachronisms can easily be gotten away with. These fall into the category of "unrecognizable incongruities." Sometimes an anachronism is unrecognizable because it is hidden, as in the case of a machine-stitched costume. Most often, however, unrecognizability arises from the ignorance of the audience. Most people do not know, for example, that potatoes came from the New World. A large number of people in fact associate the potato with the Old World, because it became such a staple in later centuries. Much the same can be said of most of the music that is played at a Festival. Almost none of it is actually period, but it does no damage to the illusion because it seems period. The case could even be made that music is one instance in which anachronism is actually necessary, for if a Festival presented only period music, the patrons, raised on rock and roll as they are, would end up bored stiff by it. One other obvious example of the necessary anachronism is the privy. A modern entertainment event simply cannot do without reasonable sanitary arrangements. Most Festivals, however, at least have the good sense to wall the privies off from the rest of the site, so that the illusion is maintained, at least from a distance.
Playing One Off
Occasionally it is possible to play off an anachronism, especially if it comes as a joke. The trick is not to acknowledge that you have said anything funny. For example, a character may approach a patron and, in the course of their interaction, hand her a potato and say "This spudís for you." The patron knows itís funny, the actor knows itís funny, but he plays the character as confused, perhaps saying "What? I am giving thee a gift. Wherefore dost thou laugh?" This technique often has the added bonus of making the patron laugh even harder! Even so, in the interest of maintaining the illusion, make such jokes a rare occurrence, rather than central to your character.
Some You Just Canít Use
On the flip side of this coin, there are some anachronisms that can never be used without almost terminal damage to the illusion. Plastic cups (or plastic anything else, for that matter) spring immediately to mind, as do political, television, and other topical jokes. The most common problem, however, is the use of the term "OK." There is no other single phrase that sounds more American. It is guaranteed to remind an audience that they are watching twentieth-century actors putting on a show. Furthermore, "OK" is never necessary, as there are a variety of period synonyms ("all right," "most well," etc.). The use of any of these or other similar anachronisms instantly destroys the illusion that we all have worked so hard to create. Whatís more, the patrons can hear these jokes anywhere. They come to the Festival to see something different, so give them that difference.
If You Absolutely MustÖ
Should you feel that you absolutely must use an obvious and un-disguisable anachronism, a good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, "Is this going to be funny enough to justify the damage to the illusion?" A single cleverly-done topical reference in an otherwise period show can be extremely funny, if it is done with a "nod-and-wink" to the audience, a way for the actor to say "Yes, this is all a game weíre playing, but isnít it fun?" A prime example of this comes from Carl Asch, who plugs his bandís recordings by saying "I would like to say this in my finest Renaissance Language: ĎCDís and tapes are available.í" Under such conditions, the incongruity gives the audience the feeling that they have been let in on a joke that the rest of the patrons do not really understand. Then it falls to the performer to lead the audience back into the world of the Festival by maintaining a sense of authenticity throughout the remainder of the performance.
Maintaining the Illusion
Above all other considerations is the necessity of maintaining the illusion. If the reality of the Festival setting is well maintained, a small anachronism here and there will do minimal damage, and will create a contrast with that reality. Since contrast forms an important part of comedy, a minor anachronism surrounded by a greater illusion will usually get a laugh. But by all means keep the use of anachronism to a bare minimum. The incongruity will only be funny if there is a strong disparity between the anachronistic reference and the rest of the show. If too many anachronisms are used, the humor is lost along with the illusion. Always bear in mind the Rule of Necessity, and use anachronism sparingly, if at all.