Nearly this time last year, I was headlong into classwork, and I used this column to ponder the fact that plays can have universal themes throughout history, and thus maintain the true definition of the term “classic.” This year, classes begin next week, and I approach the year with a new academic puzzle to ponder: the pitfalls and epiphanies inherent in explaining to present-day college students that theater was linked to religious ritual for the vast majority of its lifetime.
For the purposes of this column, I’d like to take a moment to define the term “ritual.” Certainly the theater has particular patterns that are performed in something of a repetitive manner upon each visit. For example, we understand that when the lights go out, it is time to pay respect to the action on stage. Some people prefer to dress up for theater; in my experience this has actually prevented people from attending, as they don’t feel they “have clothes for that kind of thing.”
No, for this column, I’m suggesting that ritual actions performed by audience and artist alike that not only happen often, but have significance — a communal and irreversible significance that transcends physical state. They’re actions that are performed for the betterment of the soul.
From Ancient Greece through the Middle Ages, the Western World intertwined religion and theater. In Ancient Greece, wars would stop in honor of theater festivals. Beyond the desire to avoid the ire of the gods, citizens required to attend festivals would do so willingly and gladly. The thorough catharsis in tragedies and the proportionate and matchless levity in comedies would cleanse the soul of the average Greek citizen. Appropriately, citizens always paid the gods their dues. It was understood that the tithing and reverence in these festivals would allow citizens to reap the blessings of the resultant bountiful harvests and prosperous business dealings.
But how do I recreate this scenario for students who live in a world where religious ritual is, for lack of a better word, optional? In the healthy breadth of diversity available to students today — which I fully endorse — how can I make students connect to something that couldn’t be further from their current experience?
This discussion came up between me and another academic, who suggested that virtually all art is a direct response to religion. She felt that at times throughout our history, religion had become a restrictive element to people’s lives, a tension then relieved by artistic expression. This could explain the number of times any art form has been associated with evil or evildoing.
But that didn’t explain to me how ritual could have been lost along the centuries. For the better part of the 20th century, many theater artists chose to attempt to explain the human condition — warts and all — regardless of religious deference. For such a complex topic, perhaps there was no time to offer a prayer to a god from an ancient culture who no one really remembered anymore.
However, maybe it isn’t that necessary. Regardless of the Greeks’ need to appease their gods with works of art, plays are used to help us analyze the social ills of today. They served that purpose for the Greeks, too. But for the Greeks, social analysis and religious respect balanced the scales.
But perhaps today the ritualism is done in a different way. I recently read an article summarizing the reports of a psychological study done in London, meant to measure biorhythms of audience members. The results were astonishing. Evidently, when an audience views a play, the bodily rhythms of individuals often will involuntarily sync: heartbeats, breathing, you name it. Despite having little relationship with each other, reports showed that subjects remained synced even through intermissions, and after the plays had finished. During the event, the audience members experience the same events as one entity, ignoring any sense of individual biological makeup.
So, perhaps there is something about theater that is ritualistic simply by experiencing it. Maybe there needs to be no reverence to any gods to feel a communal sense soul-cleansing. Just attendance seems to be transcendent enough.
I’ll see you at intermission!
by Aaron Odom