It is evident that many art forms are rooted in religious and pagan rituals. Both Anthropology as well as History have abundantly demonstrated the close ties between practices that we nowadays call the arts – visual, narrative, dramatic, musical, choreographic – and ritual practices. As a matter of fact, before these two spheres of activity were demarcated, a modern invention, no clear separation existed between them. One is not just thinking of African or Amerindian tribes or even of Greek theatre. Far closer to us in geographic and temporal terms, during the European Middle Ages, for example, the circumstances of an individual’s personal and social life – such as being born, marrying, dying, hunting, working, exchanging goods, assuming a throne, commencing a new season in the year – were exuberantly marked by significant acts. They were and they continue to be marked thus, although some periods might be more discreet or minimalist. Some of these acts legitimise the existing order or confirm hierarchies. Others, with a grotesque realism, symbolically contest and undermine them. Yet others prepare what needs to exist in the symbolic order so that society dares to configure itself in an unprecedented manner. And yet others communicate with nature or the supernatural.
Pierre Francastel , a specialist in the Italian Quattrocento, showed that we can understand developments in the visual arts far better if we relate them to the festivities that took place during that age, namely religious, semi-secular or pagan games and processions: popular street festivals, medieval theatre and the grand entrances by monarchs served as a model for paintings, even religious paintings.
Many other examples could be cited if one wished to break down doors that are already wide open. It is not the facts but rather the implications of these primeval links between art and rituals that are so interesting and debatable: especially after the most consecrated aesthetic movements of the 19th and 20th centuries developed a fascination for all that was primitive, first in music and in poetry, then in the visual arts. The grand ennui that set in amongst the European cultural elite (the expression was coined by Schopenhauer as early as 1819) reflected an uneasiness with civilisation and a desire for a harmony that would have supposedly existed in a “community” in illo tempore. The ritualistic intentions of Wagner’s “Gesamtkunstwerk” or “total artwork”, or Baudelaire’s bain de foule, or the motto “Donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu” by the Wagnerian Mallarmé, reveal to what extent modern society’s taste for refinement was conjugated with a passion for the barbaric. With the hard-line of European High Modernism, it later developed into a rupture (in a very different way from the Romantics) with nature, with modern civilisation and with revolutionary (or even democratic) utopia, in a philosophical anthropology that was one of the darkest ever, leading to an increasingly obscure and gnomic desire. As Merquior reminds us, various analysts of modernism “have highlighted its hierophiliac meaning: its nostalgia for the sacred. In truth, successive aesthetic vanguards, from Romanticism, were just so many other gnostic “sects”, yearning for esoteric revelations and redeeming secrets.” If Modernity developed as the epic embodiment of the Negative, around absence, agonism and “decreation”, the idealised primitive life and its rituals appeared as the indispensible negative of this negativity.
A veritable policy of primitivism is an integral part of much of modern art or even gave rise to this art. To Cartesian man (individual, self-sufficient, stable, without dreams or a subconscious or even a body) primitivism opposes the challenges of the irrational, the illogical, the imaginary, the rough, the communal, the enrooted, the Dionysian. And the performing arts were perhaps the arts that were best suited for the illusion of a de facto return to rituals: if nobody would confuse a Cubist painting with an African mask (no matter how much the former might have been influenced by the latter), there are many who have long wanted to believe that a theatrical assembly was in fact reviving an ancient ritual. In other words, it went beyond the fascination for other cultures (Brecht and Chinese theatre, Artaud and Balinese dances, Grotovski and Haiti, etc.). In some cases, such as that of Artaud, who Susan Sontag considered to be a “shaman”, it was propounded (in 1927) that, “The most urgent revolution that needs to be realised is that of going back in time”. Feeling that our culture “smelled white”, Artaud turned his attention towards the different logics of other cultures: he studied the civilisation of Syria, visited Mexico, was enormously impressed by the Balinese dances that were presented in France, defended a “theatre of cruelty” that could rediscover the efficacy of the practices of primitive warlocks, which could be identified, “in short, with the practices of ancient magic”.
Even though Artaud’s proposal was marginalised for several decades, in 1954, at a conference entitled The Festive Nature of Theatre, Hans-Georg Gadamer sensed that European culture longed to return to festivities. One should interpret this festive nature as something that results from a meeting of people who are “raised out of their everyday existence and elevated into a kind of universal communion”: “We feel that the communal spirit that supports us all and transcends each of us individually represents the real power of theatre and brings us back to the ancient religious sources of the cultic festivals”. The characteristics of this festive nature comprise the unique and singular nature of the festivity (Roger Caillois and Mircea Eliade also insisted on this dimension of discontinuity of celebration in the everyday warp and weft), a temporality where the past and the present merge, the elevation outside our everyday lives and the creation of another state: “Something drawn from within ourselves takes shape before our very eyes in a form that we recognise and experience as a more profound presentation of our own reality. (...) When a word is well spoken, when a knock upon a door is well timed, something presents itself that no amount of technical simulation with the most sophisticated methods can ever really achieve.”
The fact that he wrote in 1954 about a theatrical tendency which became far more evident during the following decade is proof of Gadamer’s excellent intuition. During the 1960s, European culture became obsessed with immediacy and contact, with closeness, and with what Marc Augé more recently called, “the actuality of Paganism”: an anthropological vision of man, whose identity is defined by relationships with others, with the universe and even with invisible forces, whether or not they might be called gods. And this is precisely what Gadamer was deducing: this need to return to an experience in which we are not mere spectators of a morally uplifting Schillerian lesson, but are instead participating in a more or less festive act. And in which the stage (or its new substitutes) can be reinterpreted in another manner when there is this hunger for festivity and Neo-paganism, precisely because it maintains a collective nature and favours the living presence of bodies, human gestures, direct communication and immediacy. This does not at all imply going back in time, because a music concert by Metallica can nowadays for many people represent the epitome of ritual festivity, although certain individuals expounding upon the ritualism of shows, ranging from Artaud to Eugénio Barba, only seem to find rituality in archaic practices.
In any case, it is essential to emphasise the rupture that perforce takes place between the ritual experience and the aesthetic experience. A famous text that Walter Benjamin published in 1936, entitled The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, highlights precisely this shift in the status of art, which earlier had a ritual value and had now acquired the values of authenticity and exhibition, based on radically different presuppositions. When some elements which were inserted into a fairly complex set of relations are isolated and detached from these other relations, as an aesthetic object, and are inserted into another context, which is to be art, they are and are not, but above all are not, ritual objects.
Hence, Gadamer’s text emphasises that between the initial “festive nature” and the recent desire to return to it, there was a radically different phase, which he dubbed “permanent theatre”, created by aristocratic and bourgeois circles, in the context of a modern industrial society, where a “repertoire piece” is enacted every night. That singular, unique nature that festivities perforce possess had already been lost. This was another kind of experience: “Now, for the first time, we are faced with the task of mediating between the contemporaneity of the present and the presence of our historical cultural heritage”. There was now an enormous gulf between the public and the actors, something that had not been present during Greek festivities, in the Dionysian cults, in religious processions, not even in medieval or in Baroque theatre.
In the light of such radical transformations, how can one continue to affirm that everything is religion or that everything is but a manifestation of the same cultural essence? This idea is not sustainable either theoretically or historically, not even in the context of the performing arts. One must study phenomena in terms of their history and their spatial, temporal and aesthetic typology. Some examples: in Shakespeare’s time, and even a few centuries before and after his age, there were many itinerant groups such as those who dedicated their efforts to works of a more historical or literary nature, without any religious or ritual connotations. In spatial terms, it is possible to discern a transformation (which occurred earlier in the field of painting) that, during the 15th century (Frank Kermode noted it even before Francastel) was far ahead of concurrent developments in the field of theatre: space now began to be organised and structured on the canvas according to the rules of perspective; later, during the 16th and 17th centuries, the same thing happened in the domain of theatre, with the framed stage supplanting the painting and finally achieving “a compromise between the figuration born from ancient traditions, concepts of a unitary and abstract space born from a modern scientific spirit, and the marvellous traditions of popular shows” (Francastel, p. 245). Once again, this can only be understood if we keep in mind that in the transition from the 15th century to the 16th century, already influenced by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation as well as by the development of the modern state, there was a drastic change whereby celebrations moved from the street to interiors.
It is also necessary to study, without essentialisms, eventual contagion and migrations. For example, Northrop Frye created a typology in which he compares three other kinds of shows to mimetic theatre (with continuous and not communal time). The autos, medieval scripture plays, mythical plays or heroic romances, with the common possession of a myth, with a spectacular mixture of the popular and the esoteric and an abundant use of music. This type is applicable to Japanese Noh theatre, Greek theatre and Wagner. The comedy of a happy, utopian society, with music and dance, represents the type that Frye dubs a mask and it is echoed in opera and cinema. While returning to the archetypical mask (and anti-mask), the community of the auto could reappear, however, sans gods, in a sinister limbo (death or future) detached from time and space, subjectivised, with a scant distinction between illusion and reality – such as in the plays of Goethe, Strindberg, Pirandello or Claudel.
The main forms of contagion took place, in theatre (especially with Grotovski and his followers) and in performances from the 1950s onwards, with ritualist currents that are one of the possible lines within these fields. As Herbert Blau has noted, there is simultaneously a desire to deny theatricality and to return to theatricality (but a pure, primitive, in-person theatricality). Above all, performances have been an arena par excellence for recreating rituals and going beyond them, owing to a loss of meaning. Sometimes the performer makes strong and symbolic associations with, for example, archaic or Christian rituals. However, it is a subjective construction, lacking the legitimacy of the ritual (that a priest or a shaman has). Spectators can only share such associations; they are not fixed symbols and one can discern an evident gap between significance and significant. However, this semantic addition is devalued as being secondary because - to cite Austin’s words - the referential function is dominated by the performative function: the spectator’s attention “is not directed towards a possible meaning, but is instead concentrated on the physical execution of an action, on the one hand, and on the effect that this has on the body of the performer, on the other hand.” It is because the spectators do not necessarily believe in this ritual that often the risky, dangerous, use of the body appears as a possible and necessary legitimisation of its fiction.
Performativity has become a more common and consequential value than rituality. It no longer matters whether Artaud was thinking of the gestures of Lascaux or of Foz Côa (or if he could do so) when he demanded that an actor have the magical efficacy of a shaman, who, in singular acts, “makes the one who acts and the one who comes to see him act gain something in their bodies”; in fact, one does not represent, one acts” (a requirement repeated so often, betrayed so often, even because of the theoretical nature that affects performances as a genre). In general, one could say that accentuating performativity is to fight against or impose limits on representativist (irrespective of whether this is realistic or symbolic) and dualist (reality/representation) thought. The purpose is to replace them by presence, physicality, a non-fictitious time and space, an accentuation of the energy, singularity and fleetingness of the performative act, as well as to ensure an articulation between various arts, in a way that redefines theatre as well as other arts, art and culture.
Whosoever knows how to develop presence without being under the illusion of managing to escape the symbolisation that makes us human thus emerges victorious. As Lévi-Strauss wrote, what rituals seek to overcome is not the world’s resistance to man, but the resistance of man’s own thoughts to man – and that is why ritual is “that characteristic mixture of obstinacy and impotence”, maniacal and likewise desperate. While the recent development of interactivity (favoured by new technologies but which already appeared for example, and in an anti-technological manner, in the Living Theatre of the 1960s or even in Duchamp during the first decade of the 20th century) sometimes makes it possible for spectators to transform themselves into actors, it simultaneously favours the reappearance of the awareness that we represent characters and that there is no essence that can be revealed without them.
A Realidade Figurativa, S. Paulo, Perspectiva, 1982 (1965).
O Teatro e o seu Duplo, Coimbra, Fenda, 1989.
In The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays, Cambridge University Press, 1986, pp. 57-65.