The Historical Impact of Religion and Ritual on the Theater

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When looking at the history of theater historians often argue that theater originated through religion and it’s rituals. Ritual can be defined as “a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.” This “prescribed order” is what links ritual to theater performance. Every service has a beginning, middle, and an end; along with costumes, props, set text, and music. The influence religion had on theater can be seen throughout the cultures of Athenian Tragedy, Sanskrit Drama, Japanese Noh, and European Medieval Mystery Plays.

Religion played a huge part in the lives of the people of Athens. Greek theater pretty much revolved around religion. The religion was built upon the worship of a set group of gods with a leader named Zeus who ruled along side his wife, Hera. Under Zeus and Hera were other gods who ruled over specific things such as, Ares the god of war, Hermes the messenger, and Aphrodite the goddess of love and fertility. The Greek would throw annual festivals to honor the gods and theater became a central event of said festivals. These performances were not only entertainment but had religious purpose as well. The ruler Pericles made it possible for all classes to attend theater and it became an event for all man to partake in. Perhaps the biggest festival was that of City Dionysia, a festival to honor the god Dionysus (god of the vine). This festival lasted for several days and had specific days dedicated to dithyrambs and later tragedy, comedy, and satyr were added as well.

The three best known Greek tragedy writers are Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Aeschylus is often considered the “founder of Greek drama”. However in The Frogs written by Aristotle he is called rhetorical. Aristotle does consider him a better dramatist in comparison to Euripides later in the play. Aeschylus also introduces the idea of a second character while Sophocles introduces the third character. Sophocles wrote many of the Greek tragedies we still study today such as, King Oedipus, Antigone, and Electra. King Oedipus conforms the most to the description of Aristotle’s “tragic form”. Lastly, Euripides, who is considered the most modern of the three. In fact, he was criticized for being “too modern”. Euripides embraced the idea of believable female characters and showed an understanding of women. This is truly seen in the tragedies, Medea and The Trojan Women. These plays became one of the main ways the people of Greece were becoming educated about their gods and myths. People felt connected to the stories either by participating in them or going to see them. Also, because the festivals were available to all classes everybody was able to learn and pass the stories on.

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Ritual and religion has a great impact on theater of the Asian culture. Dramatic performances usually were based on rituals of the Spring planting and Fall harvest. Performances also took place either in a Temple or near one. Asian dramatic performance reached it’s peak at a time when religion and philosophy were at a central focus in the culture. There were two religions that were circulating around Asia at this time , Buddhism and Hinduism. Buddhism suggests, “suffering is inherent in life and that one can be liberated from it by mental and moral self-purification.” While Hinduism, “emphasizes freedom from the material world through purification of desires and elimination of personal identity.” During this time dancers were employed to act out stories from the Buddhist scriptures.

Sanskrit drama was written in the language of the noble class and was meant to be performed in court circles. Much of what we know pertaining to Sanskrit and Indian drama can be attributed to the Natyasastra. The Natyasastra contains information on the mythological order of Indian drama and talks about theater serving as a means towards enlightenment or a way to move towards the divine .

Japanese Noh theater was heavily influenced by the religion of Shinto, or Way of the Gods as well as Buddhism. In Noh theater it is typical that religious characters will appear such a priests and demons. The plays are very spiritual in general . Take the story of Komachi at the Stupa for example. It is seen at one point that one character takes the spirit of another character and performs a pantomime. Often times characters will pray to Buddha in Noh dramas. The beginning of Noh plays usually begin with a Buddhist priest on a journey and he comes across a well known site like a tomb or a tree.

Lastly, European Medieval Mystery plays which “dramatize a series of biblical events, from the creation to the last judgement.” The word “mystery” derives from “ministerium” which means “a religious service or office”. This put all together literally screams religion . The most famous place for these plays to be performed was the feast of Corpus Christi. Staged outdoors and told in the vernacular the plays were aimed for larger audiences and to appeal to the masses. Set in Biblical times the story of Noah and the creation were popular stories. Anachronism was commonly used as well as in the introduction of comedy. Comedy can be seen in the story of Noah where his wife constantly argues with him while his neighbors harass him.

Religion and ritual can be seen throughout history not only as influence on theater but as inspiration. People of these cultures look to theater for knowledge, worship, and even fellowship.

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