Misty G. Anderson
University of Tennessee
Samuel Foote made history in 1760 with The Minor, a play that teased its audiences from the beginning with the prospect of “one of those itinerant field orators” for dessert, a reference to the wildly popular Whitefield, whom Foote regarded as a “public performer…like myself” and whom he proceeded to mock as Dr. Squintum. The debate would continue to rage for generations about the dangers of enthusiasm, especially hypocrisy and the transfer from religious to sexual excitement, versus the good that Methodists did in their communities and for their followers, but one debate was settled: the Methodist preacher had become, by 1760, a style, a readable and reproducible theatrical set of practices. The gestures, tropes and props to this day remain signatures of revival preaching, among them the preacher’s tear, the open bible, the extended arms, the upturned face, were already present and carried with them the twin temptations of entertainment and mimicry. And in fact it is this dazzling play of copy and original, of blasphemy and true belief, that make Whitefield’s and Foote’s performances so fascinating. The shock was a contemporary impersonation (at which Foote excelled) leveled at a member of the clergy. But the strategy, camp, tied closely to drag, shone a klieg light on the unsettled relationship between inward identity and outward affect that put both Methodism and queerness in the same camp.
I use the term camp in the full knowledge that it was not a category through which the period thought itself, even as I would argue that we can see the affective and performative styles of period beginning to produce camp’s discursive and kinetic architecture. I am embracing Sontag’s claim that camp, in addition to its signature hyperbolic performativity, depends on “a shared set of beliefs, dispositions, prejudices, preferences” that fosters “a shared feeling…a kind of love, love for human nature.” (291) While campy iterations of Methodist preachers depended on shared prejudices about Methodists and preferences for the containment of their theatrical excess to the theatre proper, they also implicitly registered the shared feelings and counterpublics that Methodism itself generated. These practices require both the presence of actual communities and the public iteration of those communities as parodic versions of themselves. In an age with an insatiable appetite for proto-campy performance (witness: the fop, the macaroni, big hair, drag and breeches roles), Methodism’s big arms and occasional jazz hands fit right into the blend. But Methodism also offered an affectively compelling model of community, cross-class, emotive, uncontained, and occasionally utopian, that held out the promise of meaningful belonging in the midst of modern alienation.
It is in this strange camp of love, performance, and the willingness to sacrifice good taste to affective pleasure that Methodism and queerness find a strand of shared origins. Methodism, which is notoriously difficult to pin down theologically, was nonetheless clear about the object of its human interest: the inward self. Yet its kinetic style, especially as practiced by Whitefield, was effusive, demonstrative, and full of observable and public somatic evidence— tears, outstretched arms, loud singing, and other outbursts. The account of the hidden self and its movements, its difference, its motivations, and its deviance from normative culture are the framework to correlating list of liabilities and social anxieties that both early Methodists and early queer culture generated: fear of recruitment; failure of scripts of class; practices counter to an emerging heteronormativity; and bodies that failed to contain themselves. That Foote mapped his critique of Methodism onto Mother Cole, a drag act that referenced both Mother “Jenny” Douglass, the evangelical madam of Covent Garden, and Christopher Smart’s Mother Midnight, strikes me as more than theatrical accident. Methodist and queer bodies both flout containment; they exaggerate scripts of class, gender, sexuality, and affect in an often campy display of the artiface involved in the body’s bourgeois, heteronormative discipline. Camp, going back to Sontag’s definition is “one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon…not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice.” (Against Interpretation, p. 275). As a strategy, it involves displacement, exaggeration, and masquerade in order to tell the truth but tell it slant by mimicking the performative terms of a given present. Most theorists of camp have tacked hard in the direction of drag, a term useful for thinking more specifically about the parodic destabilization of the still-emerging norms of sex and gender in the eighteenth century. So without leaving drag’s critique of gender identity and its unstable basis behind, I want to take the term camp to camp, specifically, the camp meeting, the early breeding ground of Methodists and the emergent performances of evangelical selfhood that they staged. Our time at camp will include a field trip to the Tabernacle, Whitefield’s meeting house in London, which reproduced some of the evangelical styles and kinetic excesses of the Bristol outdoor meetings that boosted the popularity of early Methodism. These spaces are part of the territorialization of bodies (otherwise known as the production of “good taste”) through exile, permission, abjection, and humiliation. In curious ways, both Foote’s aristophanic theatrical subculture and Methodism’s anti-theatrical theatricality both agree with Edith Sitwell, that “good taste is one of the worst vices ever invented.”
The repertoire of gestures that constituted mid-eighteenth-century counterpublics of camp and the camp meeting can help us understand performance as multiple, overlapping, and the trace of historical substitutions over time. Thomas King’s discussion of performance and camp in The Gendering of Men, 1600-1750, vol. 2, illuminates the strange intersection of evangelical Methodism and the prehistory of camp that becomes visible in the wide circulation of Foote’s imitation of Whitefield through his drag act with Mrs. Cole:
“What networks of institutions and discourses intersect in the performance space? How does a specific performance mark and facilitate the movement of these discourses from one interaction/setting to another? How is any one performance simultaneously located in multiple social spaces?….The key activity of performers is not the reproduction of an original, underlying, or transcendent signified but the reproduction of all the embodied skill and practical knowledge necessary for the appropriation and resignification of the spaces, techniques, and relations of performance” (v. 2, 22)
I am interested in taking these questions about overlapping networks of performance to three locations: first, the spaces of Methodist and queer performance, both the camp or field meeting and Whitefield’s London Tabernacle; second, their shared kinetic vocabulary of gestures, props, and ticks that are the “choreographies of meaning” that Diana Taylor argues make up performance and its repertoire; and finally, the accounts of their non- normative status, from the scurrilous to the violent, as the sign of their constitution as counterpublics. In my time on the panel, I hope to outline briefly the overlap between the representational and gestural economy of both Methodism and early queerness in eighteenth- century Britain, where these unlikely bedfellows are “camped out” together.