When Orwell stands before the crowd, he likens himself to a performer, rather than a peacekeeper or powerful official. He repeatedly uses metaphorical language to develop this connection. The thousands of gathered Burmese regard him as they would regard “a conjurer about to perform a trick;” he describes how, as he loaded the rifle, “the crowd grew very still, and a deep, low, happy sigh, as of people who see the theatre curtain go up at last, breathed from innumerable throats.” Orwell is constrained by the spectacle of his colonialist stature. His language demonstrates that colonialism is not fueled by genuine needs, duties, or obligations—but rather by the British need to perform the role of colonizer in order to maintain their colonialist power. Like colonialism, shooting the elephant is an act of senseless destruction; it is utterly unnecessary and goes against everyone’s real interests. Still, the colonial system grinds on, simply because each participant feels obliged to fulfill his assigned role within the larger performance. The colonist, Orwell asserts, “wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.” In other words, the colonizer is a performer who subsequently adopts, or is overcome by, his dramatic role, which becomes his real identity whether he likes it or not.
Performance Quotes in Shooting an Elephant
And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man's dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the "natives," and so in every crisis he has got to do what the "natives" expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant.
A white man mustn't be frightened in front of "natives"; and so, in general, he isn't frightened. The sole thought in my mind was that if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled on and reduced to a grinning corpse like that Indian up the hill. And if that happened it was quite probable that some of them would laugh. That would never do.
And afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.