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Theatre for Ritual 1, Question 1

Describe the origins of theatre and how it relates to ritual in at least one ancient Indo-European culture. (300 words minimum)

Ritual and drama have two particular things in common: action and narrative. These two things are fully interdependent, with actions being meaningless unless they convey the story the ritual seeks to tell, and the narrative cannot be understood by words alone. Perhaps a ritual may be more one than the other: it may be in pantomime with little or no spoken words, or there may be little action and a great deal of exposition; regardless, both elements must be in place in order to create a full ritual.

Early ritual, generally personified by the shamanic hunting rituals of the prehistoric world, was tied heavily to mimicry. When the hunt was called, the local priest or magician would don the skins of the hunted animal or a mask that represented it and join in a dance in which he mimicked the animal's actions, and the hunters would engage in a dance where they acted as more powerful images of the hunters they themselves were. In the end, the magician is "skinned" or "killed," creating an idealized image of the hunt's outcome. Often called "sympathetic magic," the aim of these rituals was to create a narrative of the upcoming hunt, a sort of mythic drama that the hunters could follow. If the dance was done correctly, the animal and the hunters would both have a script to follow, with the hunters gaining prowess and the animal, in the end, becoming their prey. (Brockett, 4-5)

In the Greek world, dancing and play-acting were also vitally important. We know that the Greeks celebrated the god Dionysus with dancing and dithyrambic choruses. It is often thought that the celebratory dances developed into comedy, while the dithyrambic choruses with their solemn processions developed into tragedy, leading most scholars to believe that theatre in all its forms developed from ritual. Throughout the Greek world, however, ritual continued to combine both the dance and song, telling stories through processional movement and choruses that accompanied the sacrifice. It was Thespis who first engaged in dialogue with the chorus, opening the way for others to assume the role of a deity on stage. This moved theatre away from a wholly narrative work sung by the chorus and into a performance where actors would assume the character of "someone else," whether a deity, hero, or fictitious person. (Brockett, 13-14)

It is interesting that there is no Greek liturgical drama: rituals would have narrative, but not dialogue. It seems that theatre and ritual parted ways very quickly, and that Greek ritual did not include "actors" or dialogue between people; when these things developed, they simply became "theatre" (though theatre was still staged primarily during the festivals. (Nielsen, 79-81)

Works Cited

  • Brockett, Oscar and Hildy, Franklin. History of the Theatre. Allyn and Bacon : Boston. 2007. Print
  • Nielsen, Igne. Cultic Theatres and Ritual Drama. Aarhus University Press : Aarhus, Denmark. 2001. Print


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