Winter - 2013 Theatre1

Published on January 15th, 2013


Life is a Theater

By Joachim Vogt Isaksen


“In order to be successful, one must project an image of success… At all times.”

This was a quote by Buddy Kane in the movie American Beauty, where he replied to the remark that he and his wife seemed happy at the party the night before. The quote is characteristic for the movie’s central theme, namely that an image is something that is created, and does seldom reflect who you really believe is on the inside.

The main characters Lester and Carolyn Burnham’s facade is one of a perfect family in American suburbia. They are to the outside world a perfect husband and wife, in a perfect house, in an upper middle class neighbourhood. But behind the perfect facade lurks a sad marriage, where Lester is going further and further into a hopeless depression. Since how they feel about themselves does not match with the expectations of the surroundings, they have to create an alternative reality; they project an image of success that they show to the outside world.


The presentation of self in everyday life

In his book the Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, the American sociologist Erving Goffman used a metaphor from the theater to describe how people adjust their behavior in accordance to the audience that is involved. His concepts of front stage and back stage describe how people play out different roles at a given moment, comparable to how actors behave differently when they are on stage as opposed to when they are backstage.

This metaphor is transferable to how people behave in real life, as we all perform roles as if life was a theater. When we are acting in front stage, our behavior is open to judgment by all those who observe us. One the other hand, when we are backstage, we can discuss, adjust, and get feedback on our behavior from a smaller group of people, without the critical evaluation from the audience. When we are backstage we can express ourselves more freely, and reveal sides of ourselves that people on the outside may find unacceptable.

Everything we do in social interactions is connected to certain expectations relevant to the situation. No matter what your intention is from the interaction, such as achieving specific goals, developing a friendship etc.; you have an interest in getting a desired response from the other person. In order to maximize the probability of reaching this response, you will adjust to the expectations of the situation. In other words, you will play out certain preferable sides of yourself while at the same time hiding others, depending on how you want to be perceived. According to Goffman we use impression management as a tool to make ourselves look more appealing to other people while we are on the front stage. Based on this notion all people are manipulative to a certain degree.

The barrier between front stage and back stage

According to Goffman people build a strong barrier between the front- and the back stage. People are more vulnerable in the backstage and struggle to preserve the authenticity of the front stage performance. You are not alone if you adjust your behavior to the audience that is involved. You will, depending on the type of the audience, display different personality traits, and you are always aware of how you present yourself.

When people say that they appear authentic all the time no matter who they meet, they are really trying to present themselves in a more favorable way by putting up an appearance of being more honest. Such a statement is in itself an act, as it is totally unrealistic to be hundred percent authentic when you are “on the stage”. It is probably not desirable either, and it would often lead to a social suicide, if you honestly and without any shame publicly displayed your back stage persona all the time.

When you present yourself it is important to make yourself look good, especially when you feel terrible. If you feel sick one day you probably take more care of your outfit, as a means to overcompensate for feelings of discomfort, and more importantly; hide how you really feel about yourself.

Many people will try to appear more intelligent when interacting with smart people, for example by highlighting academic achievements that “prove” how smart they really are.

You have probably noticed that people feel an urge to overstate their earlier athletic achievements when they interact with successful people within sports. They may remark: “if I only made other priorities in life, I could have been a top athlete today”. When they return to the backstage setting they will admit that it was probably a lack of talent that prevented them from becoming professional athletes.


Conforming to social pressure

What I have described above is called Goffman’s dramaturgical model of society. Life is a theater that involves an act with both actors and spectators. The individuals play out roles as if it was in a scene, where their goal is to behave in accordance to the act.

The actors measure how well they play out their roles by evaluating other people’s response. Some of the most obvious ways people influence other people’s perceptions is by adjusting the way they look, such as by the way they dress. Women often steer impressions by wearing huge amounts of make-up. Many men have late at night been fooled into believing that the girl they met at the night club had the looks of a super model, a masquerade that is soon revealed when the newly coupled move to a backstage location.

I should point out that the way people act is not solely applied to satisfy expectations from the surroundings, but is also used to communicate personal identity, also known as “who you are”. But since people most of the time act in ways that do not conflict very much with the expectations of others, they tend to hide their true identity. Since people want to be liked, they will choose to behave in a conform way when they are front stage, making only a small part of their personality visible. One of the main insights from Goffmann is that we are con artists where our job is to put out the best presentation of ourselves. We therefore manipulate the audience into liking us, increasing our chances of being accepted by society.


Self-presentation through Facebook

Through social media, such as Facebook, people often post private pictures and information, staging a personal performance. On Facebook we can control what kind of facade we want to expose with the help of dramaturgical means. The divide between front stage and back stage is much less clear on Facebook than in the “real life situation”. In the social media the divide between receiver and sender, fiction and reality, becomes blurred and foggy.

An important question today is whether electronic communication will remove the traditional divide between the front stage and back stage. It is reasonable to assume that one of the main reasons that Facebook is so popular is that it offers an opportunity to display oneself on the front stage in a more “controlled” way, compared to the “real life situation”. The self-presentation on Facebook is incomplete, as people for the most part focus on the positive aspects of life, through pictures, status updates, and so on. On the other hand, people seldom take part in negative self-presentation on Facebook.

The modern forms of communication equipments are richer in opportunities when it comes to self-presentation. They are also more open to manipulation, as self-presentation is easier done behind a computer than through the traditional face-to-face interaction. I will therefore pose the following question: will the use of social media lead to a world with more manipulation and less authenticity?


Further reading:

Goffman, Erving (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Harmondsworth: Penguin.


*Parsifal photo by Ethan Prater, conversation photo by Chip Griffin, night club photo by Bryan Gosline.







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