As I have mentioned recently, I have been doing a lot of thinking about the place of ritual in society and therefore in theatre. Being an educator, your life is dominated by ritual of sorts – the cyclical passing of the school year, graduation ceremonies and so on. As I write this, outside my windows, down in the bay, are the sounds of a Dragon Boat festival which celebrates the death of Qu Yuan, with the accompanying rhythmic drumming and traditional Chinese instruments. Again, ritual!
A week or so ago, I watched a TV documentary from the BBC entitled Feasts in which a writer, Stefan Gates, makes a journey across India to discover how feasts and celebration divide – and bring together – a turbulent nation that can be riven by religious tension and extremes of wealth. In it, he visits a society Hindu wedding in Rajasthan, which is outrageous in its extravagance, expense and show of wealth. Gates then travels to Kerala and experiences the Onam Festival, a Hindu celebration that brings this massive state of millions of people together, Hindu and Christian, rich and poor alike. Ritual.
I’m a regular visitor to India. I love the country , it’s people and all that it embodies, but I have never really explored why I have that affinity. Gates’ documentary made me come to a realisation – it is the ritual that exists in every aspect of the country’s life, and at every level, whether you are millionaire businessman in Bombay (my Indian friends tell me off when I use Mumbai), or a Dalit in Punjab. The difference between where ritual ends, performance begins and indeed, when it then turns in celebration, is all very blurred. Daily life feels like theatre in India. I’ve witnessed weddings in a tiny Maharashtran village, Uksan, that last for days and combine ritual, performance and celebration in a cacophony of sound and colour. I think most people are familiar with the Hindu Festival of Holi – loud brash and immensely vibrant. And the fireworks! Indians seem to manage to squeeze fireworks into every event.
Gates’ programme itself is of course making a wider social comment about the immense disparity between wealth and poverty in India. But he finds himself taken aback because in Kerala, The Onam Festival crosses all cultural boundaries, including religious ones. This is not a suprise, Kerala was on the old spice route and is a real mixture of east and west. Onam lasts ten days and includes many traditional dance and theatre forms including Kathakali and Puli Kali (Tiger Dance). The latter is pure popular theatre and Gates himself described it as intoxicating and an extraordinary experience. Again, Ritual.
So back to Artaud. Artaudian theatre is, by its very nature, a ritualistic theatre. It is intended to be full of passion and emotion in order to provoke an emotional reaction from the audience. It is intended to be void of rationality in order to probe at the mental status quo of the audience. The idea of the theatre is to appeal to the five senses and rarely anything else.
In an excellent post on Suite 101, David Porter talks about ritual as a key ingredient in performance.
Physical Theatre: Ritual is Key Ingredient in Performance-Making
Life’s rhythms revolve round rituals: daily tasks, birthdays, weddings and funerals. In creating meaning on stage, performers harness the power of rites.
Almost everything people do regularly has a ritualistic feel. Getting dressed every morning, preparing/sharing food, anniversaries, courtships, conducting business and great occasions of state – are rituals, patterns of regular human behaviour. Often, social convention rites/rituals dictate further ritual: for example, shaking hands on greeting, waving goodbye. Devisers of performance must reflect that in their creating. Then they have to experiment with it.
In psychiatry an action performed obsessively can be interpreted as evidence of compulsive disorder. It is often revealed in manic dance. A ritualistic dance or going through the regular motions of a life with all its tasks, may be called a rite. However, physical theatre practitioners use dance as but one element in the creative and experimenting process.
There is religious ritual as well as secular, a set of ceremonial actions like public worship, hallowed by time. Public performance and spectacle from the ancient Greeks
to Medieval Mystery plays have drawn on religious imagery and symbolism to tell stories with messages. Performance is the enactment or creation of a version of myth, belief or historical event. It may be political, personal, social but it reflects human life through dance, drama, music or a mix of all three, performing arts.
Ritual in Performance Arenas
In ancient times, the sacrifices and appeasement of various deities informed crowd behaviour which became rites which became absorbed into theatrical convention……..Nowadays, sporting events like boxing, wrestling, football, cricket, rugby, baseball are played out in often circular spaces, a large audience around, perhaps increased by television viewers, and although it’s sport, it’s also entertaining spectacle that stirs strong emotions. The same applies to bull-fighting,…….. Son et Lumiere events, some street theatre activities and circus, whether people like the genre or not. When the floodlights go on, the event is heightened into pure theatre.
The New Zealand national rugby union team ritualistically precede games with the ka mata haka, a traditional Maori dance. This combines ancient warrior practice with psychological advantage for the participants by demoralising opponents through a dance performance.In Japanese Noh theatre, slow, deliberate, ritualistic, symbolic movement characterises theatrical tale-telling, unchanged for centuries.
The theory that theatre originated in ritual was accepted by such practitioners as Jerzy Grotowsky (Polish), Peter Brook (English, but mainly resident in France), Arian Mnouchkine (French), Eugenio Barba (Italian) and Richard Schechner (American), all of whom have contributed ritual elements into theatre performance to restore its lifeblood at different times. Schechner has said that while performance is an inclusive term, theatre is one node on a continuum that reaches from the ritualisations of animals through life’s everyday rites to performances of great magnitude.
Artaud and Theatre of Cruelty
Attending traditional theatre has rituals of its own: tickets, ordering drinks, programmes, lights down, usually polite attention to the performance. Listening to a concert is similar, plus the convention of no-clapping between movements. Bertold Brecht broke traditions with his making strange (verfremsdungseffeckt), forcing audiences to know they’re watching performance by actors demonstrating a viewpoint.
Physical theatre tends to break old traditions. Antonin Artaud, (1896-1948) led with theories about assaulting the senses of the audience. His Theatre of Cruelty, total theatre ideas were heavily influenced by surrealism, oriental theatre, Balinese theatre, masks, magic and myth, colour, rhythm, sound, ritual, ceremony, spectacle, psychoanalysis, the drugs he took and the mental illnesses he suffered from.
He explored the cruelty of existence rather than mere bloodshed or torture, the works he devised attacked spectators’ subconscious to release deep-rooted fears that they normal suppress and made them face their inner reality. The technique is both derided and imitated today. Anything in-yer-face, from the dark psychosis is broadly Artaud, and useful in physical theatre creation. To be ‘Artaudian’ means to risk everything in an experimental performance, acknowledging ritual or not. His name now signifies the theatre of scream, despair and inner torment.
One group who are exponents of physical theatre, risking through experimentation, challenging the traditional stage/performer/audience settings, are London-based Complicite. Founded in 1983, this is a constantly evolving ensemble of performers and creators. Artistic Director, Simon McBurney, says that there is no Complicite method, but collaboration is essential. They constantly incorporate new stimuli, new integrations of music, text, image, visual art and action to create what he calls disruptive theatre.
Experiments arising from ritual produce fruit in the devising process. Most people are unaware they‘re partaking in minor daily rituals, but are deeply conscious of the great rites of life. Physical theatre, draws on that great force to create and experiment and so adds to the richness of that life they are celebrating, examining, exploring and fulfilling.
If you are feeling adventurous, there is a great chapter here titled RITUAL IN THEATRE (Ritual concepts in Artaud and Grotowski), which is taken from a PhD dissertation written by H. Sadasivan Pilla, which is really interesting. The dissertation itself, The Uses and Functions of Rituals in Malaylam – their relevance to the ritual concepts in the theatre of Artaud and Grotowski, focuses on the performance traditions of Kerala (where Mayayalam is the spoken language).
So that kind of brings me to a neat end, full circle, if you wish.