“The origins of theatre go back far into the past, to the religious rites of the earliest communities...Songs and dances in honour of a god, performed by priests and worshippers dressed in animal skins, and of a portrayal of his birth, death and resurrection” (Hartnoll, 1968)
Hartnoll traces the development of Greek tragedy (where we are told we can find the origins of the Western theatrical tradition) from the dithyramb, a form of hymn, usually based upon a mythological story, which was sung around the altar of Dionysus during religious feasts. Indeed the emergence of theatre from ritual is often widely regarded as fact. The textbooks tell us so, Wikipedia tells us so.
Alas, there were no anthropologists, biologists, sociologists, theologians, psychologists or theatre scholars present at the time to confirm for our benefit that this supposedly organic process ever took place. We have no solid proof of the emergence of theatre from ritual; our deductions rely on artefacts which hold an infinite number of possible histories within them. And these objects can often mislead us with their tales...
As David George writes, “Ritual has been a popular explanation for the otherwise puzzling fact that theatre clearly originated at different times and in different places that had no connection to each other”. George cites the example of a cave painting featuring a man wearing reindeer antlers. Now there are a thousand reasons why this man may be wearing reindeer antlers other than the possibility that he might be, for example, a reindeer shaman. Now even if he is in fact a reindeer shaman of some sort, he must have at some point learned the efficacy of assuming another persona, the value of “dressing up”. Because as George reminds us, “Acting...is older than shamanism – which depends on it”. If we assert that theatre and drama evolved from ritual then it would be foolish not to recognise that “the religious ontology of that ritual must have had some latently ‘dramatic’ element already”. Theatrics are an essential element of all rituals.
Rather than searching in terms of origin-based theories we would do better to use a little Buddhist logic; to instead focus on the mutual conditionality of ritual and theatre. Neither can be definitely said to predate the other, rather they seem to spring from the same fount. George again:
“[Ritual is] not so much a set of practices as also a cognitive model, one that conceives of a split universe, at once transcendent and immanent...the Ritual originates out of the need to create liminal realms...the cognitive structures of ritual and theatre are very close”
Indeed, once we stop playing the chicken-and-egg game we realise that ritual and theatre did not emerge one from the other, rather that they have a common origin. This origin lies not in the “constructed chronologies of history” but in the “archaeology of cognition...in the most basic act, the one we all begin with as soon as we are born”. It is well understood that infants learn social codes through imitation and that emotions are learned behaviour, adopted through observation and reproduction. The imitation of emotions, in this sense, leads to the emotions themselves (Bermudez, 1995). From birth we are all performers, whether caught up in the social dramas of our own lives, the rituals of our communities, or the theatres of our minds.
Of course this notion of “primordial performance” is nothing new. In many ways it forms the fundamental basis of a great deal of Asian theatre. In Hinduism, for example, ritual and theatre alternate in inspiring each other; Shiva (as Shiva Nataraj) represents the primordial power of performing. Whilst in Buddhism, performance is sometimes considered a medium to enlightenment. Even meditation is a form performance, where “multiple realities, coded in cosmology and enacted in mythopoeic drama...”come alive” in direct experience (Laughlin).
The theatre practitioner and researcher Jerzy Grotowski used performance as a framework in his quest for “a definite and particular form of spiritual knowledge” (Schechner, 1997). He was primarily interested in how particular elements of performance such as sound and movement, as used in traditional rituals, can impact the physical , psychological and energetic states of the performers in a precise and measurable way. It seems that he too recognised the “primordial” foundations of both ritual and theatre; the direct access they provide to our higher consciousness. Grotowski’s work is in some ways akin to Laban’s system of Movement Psychology which is taught in schools of drama and dance today.
The anthropologist Victor Turner refers to the way in which drama (and therefore theatre) because of the way it serves as a form of social metacommentary, is widely regarded as springing from conflict. The same can be said, Turner claims, of ritual:
“Not only rituals of affliction by even life-crisis rituals (birth, puberty, marriage, funerary, and so forth) and season rituals (first-fruits, harvest, solar solstice, and the like) have reference to conflict”.
But if theatre and ritual are practically one and the same, why give them different names? Schechner argues that, “Theatre comes into existence when a separation occurs between audience and performers.”
It is exactly this separation which FoolishPeople attempt to break through by creating immersive theatre and now immersive film. By dissolving the false barriers between actor and audience, ritual and theatre can once again be united, harnessing their unique powers for both social and spiritual purposes. Oh yes, and some "entertainment" value too....but more on that next time.
(Images: Maya Deren, Divine Horsemen; Ceremoni Voudou, by Gerard Valcin; traditional depiction of Shiva)