The Nature of Drama

In his Poetics (Aristotle, 1965), Aristotle describes the ritualistic beginnings of the dramatic arts:

“Both tragedy and comedy had their first beginnings in improvisation. The one originated with those who led the dithyramb, the other with the leaders of the phallic songs which still survive today as traditional institutions in many of our cities.” (Aristotle, 1965:36)

“As Alan Little suggests in his book Myth, Society and Attic Drama (Little, 1942), this original aspect of Greek theatre, inevitably, entailed a merging of religious, social and psychosocial imperatives that can be seen as missing in the Christian paradigm (Little, 1942: 70). The theatre’s place as a crucible of cathartic social importance can, in some senses, be seen to be abandoned with the onset of clearly defined delineations between the secular world of Art and the religious world of the Judeo-Christian Church.

“In this essay, I would like to look at the works of a number of leading playwrights and dramatic theorists and examine the ways that they attempt to reassert the importance of myth and ritual in the theatre and the degree to which drama, itself, mirrors the functions and processes of mythology and religion.

“Antonin Artaud’s The Theatre and Its Double (Artaud, 1985) stands as one of the most revealing and intriguing texts on the nature of theatre written in the Twentieth Century (Knapp, 1980). As Derrida suggests in his essay The Theatre of Cruelty And the Closure of Representation (Derrida, 2004), at its heart, Artaud’s work represents a deconstruction of the very relationship that exists between author, actor and audience:

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” “(For Artaud) Western theatre has been separated from the force of its essence, removed from its affirmative essence, its vis affirmative. And this dispossession occurred from its origin on, is the very movement of origin, of birth as death.” (Derrida, 2004: 293)

“For Derrida, as for Artuad, the real essence of theatre resides in the spectacle, not the speech. In his essay Mise En Scene and Metaphysics (Artaud, 1985), for instance, Artaud stresses the importance of production over text, eradicating the hierarchical dominance of author over actor. For Artaud and the theatre of cruelty, the true meaning of theatre was in the mise en scene, the spectacle that is, at once, violent and disturbing, as described in Theatre and the Plague (Artaud, 1985) or unrepeatable as in No More Masterpieces (Artaud, 1985):

” “I suggest we ought to return through theatre to the idea of a physical knowledge of images, a means of inducing trances, just as Chinese medicine knows the points of acupuncture over the whole extent of the human anatomy, down to our most sensitive functions.” (Artaud, 1985: 61)

“The unrepeatable cathartic violence espoused here recalls Aristotle’s assertions on the social function of tragedy. It is only through an embracing of myth and ritual, asserts Artaud, that the true artistic function of theatre can be realised and Artaud’s plays and screenplays like the short but highly visually arresting The Spurt of Blood (Artaud, 1988), in which reality and nightmare merge into a play that is, in some senses, all mise en scene reflects this.

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“However, there are many modern playwrights that also concern themselves with the place of ritual in, not only, contemporary theatre but also the wider social consciousness; one of the most obvious being, of course, Peter Shaffer. Shaffer’s plays constantly attempt to reassert the importance of ritual and myth as valid discourses, in both Equus (Shaffer, 1993) and The Royal Hunt Of the Sun (Shaffer, 1964) there is a constant comparison and evaluation of the bipolar binaries of reason and un-reason, Christian and pagan, spirit and body.

“From its first opening scenes, Equus consciously apes the Attic dramas that, obviously, form a part of its cultural foundation. The descriptions of the horses in the Notes give us the first notions we have of this:

” “On their heads are tough masks made of alternating bands of silver wire and leather: their eyes are outlined by leather blinkers. The actor’s own heads are seen beneath them: no attempt should be made to conceal them.” (Shaffer, 1993: xxiii)

“We are reminded here not only of the Chorus in Attic theatre but also the Japanese Noh plays (Waley, 1988) and the costumes worn by the Balinese actors written about by Artaud (Artaud, 1985: 36-49). Shaffer, straightaway centres his play within a history of ritual rather than mimetic drama, the actors that play the horses in Equus mirror, not so many actual animals as their totem. The audience, in this sense, becomes not merely observers of a drama but participants in a shared artistic creation, much like those attending a rite or ceremony where the importance of the actions and images are based in myth and ritual rather than mimesis.

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“Of course, the plot to Equus also reflects this sense. Dysart can be seen very much as a dramatic equal to Pizarro in The Royal Hunt of the Sun: the Western rational man, whose views and belief systems are questioned and, eventually, overthrown by the vital energy of paganism.

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