Drama: Drama and Religion
Drama: Drama and Religion
DRAMA: DRAMA AND RELIGION
Although it can be said that the presentation of drama and religious ceremony are analogous, the two practices are not always directly related in world history. The notion popularized in the early twentieth century by the Cambridge School that drama springs directly from ritual has been largely discredited. However, religious practices and dramatic presentation often share many common elements: costume, storytelling, a playing space, and an audience. Also many of the world's dramatic forms are derived from religious rituals and are still, in some way, connected to religious celebration. With that in mind, drama has had a long, sometimes intimate, sometimes adversarial relationship with religion.
Scholars generally assign drama and religious ritual to a continuum with the following divisions: ritual with performative elements, ritual drama, drama presented as part of a religious festival, and secular drama. While this continuum cannot be used as a trajectory of theatrical development, it provides a useful tool with which to understand the many kinds of relationships theatrical performance has had with religious practice. Some societies developed rituals with advanced elements of performance but never developed anything approaching a secular drama. Conversely, some societies adopted a secular performance form independent of religious ritual. At the same time, many in Western society have assigned the secular theater a religious importance and power, particularly during the mid–twentieth century, when interest in so-called primitive cultures surged.
Ritual Comprising Performative Elements
To understand the relationships between these various forms and concepts it is useful to examine the ritual practice of Egungun. Egungun ritual influenced later performance forms in Yorubaland and what came to be known as Nigeria. Yoruba religion centers on deities related to nature (the orisha ) and ancestor worship. The followers of Yoruba believe human spirits travel back and forth to a spiritual plane between lives, and followers look to the spirits of their ancestors for guidance.
The ancestor may appear to someone in material form embodied by a dancer from the Egungun secret society. The ancestor can be summoned at particular times of need or may appear regularly during cyclical rituals, such as the Egungun Festival. The dancer wears elaborate costumes, which consist of a mask and long strips or panels of fabric. The dancer whirls around so that the long strips of fabric fan out and create a breeze. This breeze is said to be a blessing passed from the ancestors to the living. No one may touch the dancers, however, and men with whips or sticks keep the dancers and the spectators separated.
The Egungun ritual contains other performative elements, including songs of praise for the orisha and satirical sketches. The ritual does not possess the elements of a ritual drama in that it does not contain a set narrative, characters, or specific dialogue, but according to Joel Adedeji (1972), Egungun had a direct influence in the development of dramatic forms such as the Yoruba Alarinjo theater and on the postcolonial drama of such writers as Wole Soyinka (b. 1934) (Adedeji, 1972, p. 254).
The earliest known record of ritual drama comes from an Egyptian stele erected around 1868 bce. It is the account by Ikhernofret of his participation in the Mysteries of Osiris at Abydos. The stele reads like a list of heroic accomplishments: "I overthrew the enemies of Osiris. I celebrated the Great-Going-Forth, following the god at his going. I sailed the divine boat of Thoth." The drama he is recounting, often called the Abydos Passion Play, recounts the life, death, and resurrection of Osiris. It is difficult to get an accurate idea of how elaborate or developed the performance may have been or where one might place it on the continuum between ritual and drama.
Another example of ritual drama is the Mayan dance drama Rabinal Achí (also known as the Dance of El Tun). Scholars have long studied the accounts of ritual warfare among the Mayans, but in the 1990s Nikolai Grube deciphered the glyph for the word dance. Several precolonial dances have survived, including the Dance of Giants, a solstice ritual of the lunar gods in conflict with the solar gods, and a pole dance in which dancers attached to ropes wound tightly around a pole slowly descend (fly) to the ground from the top as the ropes unwind.
The text of Rabinal Achí is the only Mayan precolonial dramatic text to survive. In the nineteenth century a Queché actor named Bartolo Zis first transcribed the text into Queché using the Roman alphabet. The French priest-explorer Charles Brasseur de Bourbourg, after seeing a performance, convinced Zis to recite it to him. The drama retells the story of the ritual warfare between the Rabinal and Queché warriors during the Mayan Classic period (300–900 ce). In the story the Rabinal warrior has captured Cawek, a Queché warrior. Rabinal brings Cawek before the Rabinal chief, where Cawek's request to say good-bye to his homeland is met with silence. Cawek leaves the room and returns sometime later angry at the idea that anyone might have assumed that he had fled. He then bravely faces his sacrificial death.
The dancers of the drama, the Twelve Yellow Eagles and Twelve Yellow Jaguars, wore elaborate costumes and masks. The drama was accompanied by music, and Brasseur included musical notation in his description. His version includes two trumpets (probably European-style) and a drum, although scholars assume that other native instruments were used in the precolonial performances. The anthropologist Georges Reynaud made special note of the "parallelism" of the dialogue. The ritualistic dialogue consists of "parallel" responses in which the second speaker repeats what the first speaker says before adding more dialogue to the conversation. The dialogue also contains ritualistic salutations and closings.
Dancers continued to perform the ritual drama into the twenty-first century, although as Carlos Escobar (2001) points out, some question how much the text must have changed through the ages, especially after the Spanish priests outlawed such rituals in 1625. Zis inherited the oral text in secret, and subsequent translations present an even greater filter of the text. Richard Leinaweaver (1968) noted that in a twentieth-century production the masks, costumes, and musical instruments were placed on a sacred altar the night before the drama was staged, a syncretic practice that performers of the sacred autos, the Catholic liturgical dramas, also occasionally observe (Leinaweaver, 1968, p. 15).
The Difference between Ritual and Secular Drama
Ritual drama developed in many societies in large part because drama and religious ritual share so many elements and structural qualities. As Richard Schechner notes in Between Theater and Anthropology (1985), both employ the use of "restored behavior," or behavior that is repeated. The repetition sets dramatic performance and ritual behavior apart from the behavior of everyday life. The distance of the performers from the behavior makes the behavior "symbolic and reflexive" in a way that regular behavior is not.
Religious ritual and dramatic performance both employ the use of a "frame" to set these behaviors apart from everyday life. These may be as complex as the concentric circles of ritual sacrifice that separate the world of the sacred from the world of the profane or as simple as the rectangle of the proscenium arch in the Western theater. But herein lies the key difference between ritual and the performance of secular drama.
Arnold van Gennep (1960) explained that in the ritual, such as the rite of passage, the ritual subject moves through three phases: separation, transition, and incorporation. The subjects pass through the ritual frame into a marginal, or liminal, state where their status is ambiguous. Then the subjects are restored to everyday life in a new state, with a new status. Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss (1964) also defined ritual as "a religious act which, through the consecration of a victim, modifies the condition of the moral person who accomplishes it or that of certain objects with which he is concerned" (Gennep, 1960, p. 13). As Victor Turner (1982) noted, while ritual behavior can be defined as obligatory, collective, integrated, and transforming—or liminal —secular drama is optional, individual, removed, and although it may question the status quo or experiment with form, it is ultimately void of the transforming quality of ritual. It is, therefore, merely liminoid.
Drama of Religious Festivals
Of the secular dramatic traditions, many coincide with religious festivals, and many of those can be traced back directly to a ritual drama or a ritual practice. Nigerian scholars have traced the Egungun ritual origin of Alarinjo theater, the court theater of the Oyo Yoruba kingdom that predated colonialism. While the drama may be tied to religious practice, dramatic traditions such as Alarinjo demonstrate an elaborate theatrical practice in which artisans train for specific tasks within the theatrical art, such as acting, dance, costuming, mask making, set design, or music. Often a system of guilds and schools control the selection and training of the artists and oversee the production of the theatrical event. In other words, artists are producing art for art's sake.
Scholars know very little about the origin of Sanskrit drama, a performance form that remained popular from approximately the second century ce to the ninth century. While some say that Sanskrit drama has its origins in the popular traditions, others argue that it shares many elements with certain religious rituals. Regardless of its origins, the Sanskrit theater of India has a close relationship with Hindu temple festivals. According to Farley Richmond and his colleagues (1990), the Nāṭya Śāstra, the ancient Indian dramaturgical text, equates dramatic performance with holy sacrifice (Richmond et al., 1990, p. 47). The Nāṭya Śāstra also gives Sanskrit drama divine origins. In the story, Brahmā creates drama as an alternative to the less desirable behavior in which people were engaged. The gods gave the priests the charge of creating and maintaining the dramatic tradition (Richmond et al., 1990, pp. 25–26).
While Sanskrit drama, in its ancient form, did not last past the ninth century, other forms grew up in its place. Wealthy families offer kathakali performances at temple festivals and other important events. Kathakali evolved from a Sanskrit drama derivative and plays devoted to celebrating the life of Kṛṣṇa. Although it may have sprung from devotional worship, kathakali is an institution unto itself. The kathakali actor undergoes extensive training from a young age. Kathakali students learn elaborate makeup art specific to their character types. In addition to the dance steps, the actor must learn a series of hand gestures and complex facial expressions. It is through the face that the actor evokes the appropriate rasa and reflects the psychic state of the character.
The Origins of Greek Drama
Also associated with a religious festival, Greek tragedy supposedly evolved from dithyrambs, or choral dance drama, to honor the demigod Dionysos. To some extent, high school and college textbooks have oversimplified the relationship of tragedy to Dionysian worship, influenced perhaps by the century-old theory of Gilbert Murray that rituals of vegetation deities, specifically the Dionysian sparagmos (ritual rending), were evident in the tragedies of Euripides. However, as William Ridgeway suggests (and Herodotus before him), dithyrambic performance was not limited to religious worship as the people of Sicyon used the dithyramb as a tribute to ancestors and dead heroes. Also while the dithyramb may have influenced the development of tragedy, the dithyramb continued to develop as an independent form. Scholars have begun to look at Greek dramatic forms as having a multitude of influences instead of looking for one ritualistic ur-drama that must have predated Aeschylus.
In the sixth century bce Peisistratus established the Greater Dionysia. The festival included many activities celebrating wine and fertility, such as the procession of the phallus. Like two of the other Dionysian festivals, the Greater Dionysia included dramatic contests. According to the Marmor Parium, the first tragic contest occurred in 534 bce. Although the priest of Dionysos occupied the central seat at the dramatic performance, the dramas themselves do not reflect a particular religious belief. Rather, they reinforce Athenian class and political ideology. Athenian playwrights of the fifth century bce seem particularly interested in analyzing the benefits of Athenian institutions, such as democracy or the courts. The plays were performed at a religious festival but other than that have very little connection with religious thought.
Religion and Drama at Odds
While many religions included drama as an important part of religious observance, some religions (especially the Christian and Islamic) forbade theater. Even before Rome became a Christian empire in the late fourth century ce, the early Christian Church looked with disfavor on dramatic performance. Tertullian wrote De Spectaculis at the end of the second century ce, sometime after his own conversion to Christianity. He devoted his entire treatise to explaining why Christians should not attend any of the entertainments such as races, gladiatorial combat, Atellan farce, and tragedies.
Most of Tertullian's explanations are simple: Christians should not take pleasure in watching others being harmed, nor should they witness licentious behavior. His thinking also reflects some of the complexities of early Christian thought. He noted that watching such entertainment aroused passions that could lead to sinful feelings and actions. Tertullian condemns the practice of acting itself, stating: "[God] regards as adultery all that is unreal.… He never will approve any putting on of voice, or sex, or age; He never will approve pretended loves, and wraths, and groans, and tears" (chapter 23). Tertullian found the very idea of performing a role sinful.
In the first half of the treatise, Tertullian lays out what seem to be the most vehement of his reasons for avoiding the entertainments: their pagan origins. The fact that the theater of Rome was a temple of Venus and that the Greek theater came from the Dionysian festivals, Tertullian states, are reason enough to avoid theatrical entertainment. The theater became the site of conflict between Roman pantheism and emerging Christianity.
The Catholic Church, in its quest for a monopoly on spectacle during the medieval period, continued to campaign against the theater, decreeing excommunication for anyone who attended theater instead of church and declaring that no plays should be performed on Sundays. While very little evidence exists of secular drama's persistence and development during this time, scholars deduce that the continual stream of declarations by the church is evidence enough.
Liturgical Drama: Medieval Ritual Drama
In the late medieval period the Catholic Church began to develop a theatrical practice of its own. Many scholars believe that the liturgical drama grew out of the Mass in the form of a trope, or a lengthened musical passage used to elaborate some moment in the liturgy. The most widely cited trope is the Quem Queritis, the trope that accompanies the Easter Mass in the form of a dialogue between the three Marys and the angel at the tomb. This simple passage was accompanied by stage directions written in the tenth century by Bishop Ethelwold in the Regularis Concordia, instructing the monks to position themselves around the tomb "in imitation of the angel seated in the tomb, and of the women coming with spices to anoint the body of Jesus" (Gassner, 1963, p. 37). The tropes were performed on the platea (a flat space in the front of the church) in front of a mansion (a small structure that signified a location such as the sepulcher, manger, or Hellmouth).
The theory of the development of liturgical drama holds that these miniature dramatic presentations in the form of tropes became more elaborate and developed into the later outdoor vernacular religious drama, following the ritual-to-drama trajectory. But some scholars, such as Dunbar Ogden (2002), dispute that, pointing to the fact that the tropes continued to develop as a separate form parallel to the outdoor drama (Ogden, 2002, p. 35).
Cycle Plays, Miracle Plays, and Morality Plays: Medieval Religious Drama
With the establishment of the Feast of Corpus Christi as a churchwide celebration by Pope Urban IV in 1264, outdoor religious drama began to form. Whether it developed from the trope or not, the festival allowed for several developments: the presentations could be much more elaborate outdoors, and the stories could be performed in the vernacular because they were situated outside of the formal Mass. Furthermore, since the festival was an annual festival, all the events of the church calendar were covered at one time, allowing for the dramatization of the life of Jesus or even the entire Bible from the Creation to the Last Judgment. The outdoor cycles continued to use the mansion and platea staging from the indoor pieces.
In addition to the cycle plays, groups of performers began to perform miracle plays and morality plays. Miracle plays dealt with the lives of saints or participated in debating a church controversy. The Croxton Play of the Sacrament examined the issues of transubstantiation and whether Jews can convert to Christianity. Morality plays instructed the audience in how to be a good Christian. For instance, Everyman instructs Christians to attend confession regularly in order to assure that their accounts are in order when death unexpectedly arrives.
Christian Drama in the Americas
By the dawn of the Renaissance, Christian drama was popular all over Europe from the cycles of the British Isles to the autos of Spain. The autos quickly spread to the Americas with the colonization of much of the New World by the Spanish in the sixteenth century. The priests who accompanied the conquistadors attempted to supplant indigenous rituals with autos to indoctrinate the indigenous people in the ways of Christian practice.
The priests also encouraged the converted native people to stage their own Christian pageants, which became an opening for the performance of political subversion. Many scholars have noted the contradictory semiotics of La conquista de Jerusalén (The conquest of Jerusalem, 1543). The Franciscans charged the indigenous converts of Tlaxcala to perform the pageant during the Feast of Corpus Christi. The frame of the pageant is the liberation of Jerusalem from the Moors. In a layering of symbols, the Christians were dressed as the new captain general of New Spain. The Moors were dressed like the former captain general, the conqueror of the Aztecs, Hernando Cortés. This created a performance of the "reversal of the conquest," with the indigenous people defeating Cortés at Jerusalem.
Church Influence on Modern Secular Drama
With the Renaissance came a new secular drama, especially in places where the religious drama was outlawed to prevent religious conflict in a Europe increasingly divided along Catholic and Protestant lines. In England, Elizabeth I outlawed religious drama in 1559 and specifically suppressed cycle plays in 1570. University students continued to study the classic plays of Rome and used them as models along with a variety of other sources, including the Bible, for Renaissance drama. Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus (c. 1588) reflects the conflicting cosmologies of the medieval world and the English Renaissance. The play resembles a morality play with the forces of good and evil fighting for Faustus's soul. Although Faustus condemns himself to hell for the knowledge he gains, he remains a Renaissance man, a humanist, and a seeker of scientific truth.
In Italy, with the power of the church on the wane, powerful Italian families, such as the Medici family, began to celebrate an Italian culture that preexisted the church. The Medici family poured money into creating spectacles that often used Roman mythology as the main theme. But Christian morality maintained an influence on the high arts, and morality occupied an important position as a central component of the concept of verisimilitude in drama. The neoclassicists, who advocated returning to the ideals of Horace and Aristotle in the sixteenth century, stressed that truthfulness meant a higher, moral truth rather than a specific, historical truth.
Christian clergy continued to be a powerful force in shaping the direction of the development of Western drama. A few years after Protestants in England had managed to successfully close the theaters during the Commonwealth, the Protestant minister Jeremy Collier helped to put an end to Restoration comedy when he wrote his "Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage" in 1698. Unlike some of his predecessors, Collier felt that drama should not be banned because drama could be used for didactic purposes. But Collier disliked how evil was rewarded in Restoration comedy. He objected to the licentious behavior of Restoration comedy characters, particularly the women. He also objected to characters taking the Lord's name in vain and mocking the clergy. These were sentiments that were shared by the increasingly powerful merchant class, initiating a sea change in the nature of English drama.
Modern Theater as Religion
While experimental movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries seemed to challenge the Christian moral imperative, many avant-garde artists became interested in the spiritual practices of non-European cultures. One of the most influential of these artists was Antonin Artaud (1895–1948). In 1931 Artaud witnessed a Balinese dance at the Colonial Exposition, a performance that had an immediate and profound effect on Artaud and launched his writings about his "Theater of Cruelty." For Artaud, the key to the truth lay hidden deep within the human psyche, a psyche that had been perverted and repressed by civilization. Artaud wanted a theater that would act on the senses with sounds and images visceral enough to force the members of the audience to see their true selves. For Artaud, the so-called primitive societies of Bali and Mexico had escaped the effects of European civilization and were able to convey something deeper in their performance by way of gesture and facial expression.
This primitivism of Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty influenced several avant-garde artists: Jerzy Grotowski of the Polish Laboratory Theatre, Richard Schechner's Performance Group, Julian Beck and Judith Malina of the Living Theatre, and Joseph Chaikin of the Open Theatre. Grotowski (1968) sought to use ritual to induce actors into "casting off his everyday mask" and to lose themselves as a kind of sacrifice (Grotowski, 1968, p. 34). He advocated a theater without lights, a stage, or elaborate costumes so that he could remove the separation of the actors from the audience; and he used long and arduous rehearsal workshops to create communitas among his actors.
In 1968 the Open Theatre embarked on the Bible Workshops, a series of improvisations designed to explore some of the concepts in the Bible. Through these workshops the Open Theatre explored the life of Jesus and the stories in Genesis. Chaikin encouraged the company members to read Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell to inform their exploration. The improvisations developed into the dramatic work The Serpent: A Ceremony, a play that drew connections from modern political assassinations to what the group believed were the roots of such violence in the Bible.
Feminist Spirituality and the Theater
In the 1970s and 1980s cultural feminist theater took up the use of ritual in performance. As Jill Dolan noted in The Feminist Spectator as Critic (1988), many women left avant-garde groups and formed their own when it became clear to them that women's issues were being ignored. As part of the feminist theater movement in France, Hélène Cixous reiterated Artaud's belief that gesture and movement could somehow subvert language, which to Cixous was phallocentric. But as Dolan pointed out, women's groups in the United States rarely followed her lead and looked instead to discover a feminist narrative, which was seen as cyclical and connected to the earth. The cultural feminist groups often used ritual in performance. For example, the group At the Foot of the Mountain used ritual as a companion to their performance of Ashes, Ashes in which they asked the audience to visualize saying good-bye to someone close to them as the apocalypse approached. Dolan recounted a ritual performed in conjunction with Story of a Mother II in which the group encouraged the audience to celebrate mother-daughter relationships and their matrilineal history. This development in cultural feminist theater fit within a larger trend by cultural feminists to return to Wiccan spirituality in what was perceived as a return to a matriarchal society that predated patriarchal religions such as Christianity.
Postcolonial Drama and Religion
In the nations formerly colonized by the British, many scholars have documented the ways colonial administrators, uneasy with the idea of using Christianity to teach English morality, used Shakespeare in place of the Bible. Now, as part of the project to revive national traditions, many native dramatists have employed religious elements from their precolonial cultures.
Miguel Ángel Asturias used the Mayan dance of Los Gigantes in his play Soluna (1955), a title that literally means Sun/Moon. The central character envies the spiritual life of the indigenous peasants around him. He has been told that a mask he received from a sorcerer will make time run backward. He dreams that the peasants act out Los Gigantes, the Mayan ritual fight between the agents of the Sun and the agents of the Moon. When he awakens, the train carrying his wife, who had been in the process of leaving him, wrecks after an eclipse and an earthquake, and she returns to him. While Asturias appropriated Mayan spiritual elements in his work, it should be noted that Asturias was not a Mayan but rather a white Guatemalan anthropologist who studied with Georges Reynaud at the Sorbonne. Some scholars have been critical of his European-informed look at the Guatemalan native people.
Wole Soyinka has written about Yoruba spiritual practices in his plays, such as Death and the King's Horseman (1975), which involves Egungun and the ritual suicide of the king's horseman on the night of the king's burial. The foreign administrators, who lack understanding and sensitivity to the Yoruba religion, continually trivialize Yoruba practice, even to the point of wearing Egungun costumes to a Western masked ball. They attempt to stamp out the "barbaric" customs and interfere with the horseman's task to tragic effect.
The Future of Drama and Religion
The future of drama and religion is impossible to predict. In some cases, religion will continue to act as a censor, suppressing seemingly objectionable material, as in the case of funding being pulled from four performance artists who were National Endowment for the Arts recipients in 1990. Certainly the two will continue to share common elements, especially their creative potential. As Schechner says of ritual, dramatic performance "opens up a time/space of antistructural playfulness" where creative choices and solutions can be explored and rehearsed (Schechner, 1993, p. 233). The exploration of new religious ideas will continue to spur new material and create new dramatic practices, and drama will continue to be shaped by religious ideas.
Performance and Ritual; Ritual.
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E. J. Westlake (2005)