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Religion, Theatre, and Performance: Acts of Faith ed. by Lance Gharavi (review)
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Reviewed by
Lance Gharavi, ed. Religion, Theatre, and Performance: Acts of Faith. Routledge Advances in Theatre and Performance Studies. New York: Routledge, 2012. Pp. 248, illustrated. $106.11 (Hb).

The book that Lance Gharavi of Arizona State University has edited begins and nearly ends with Gharavi’s assessment of the place of religion in the fields of theatre and performance studies. In his introduction, Gharavi is unequivocal. “[An] education in theatre or performance studies that does not take religion and spirituality into account is an incomplete one,” because, as he asserts, “religion is an ineluctable part of the cultural context” (5, 6). Nevertheless, Gharavi argues that, at present, “[t]hough there are a few journals, groups within academic organizations, and scattered specialists dedicated to studying the intersections of theatre/performance and religion, these have largely operated at the margins of the professional discourses” (8). Gharavi’s argument is compelling. Just as we expect graduate students – whatever their own identities or ethno-cultural backgrounds – to know something of how African-American identity is dramatized, the uses of theatre to LGBT communities, the play of liberal politics in dramatic literature, and so forth, so, too, should some examination of the ways religion appears in theatre be a part of an advanced education. That is, religion ought to be among the subjects and theoretical frameworks at the core of theatre and performance studies, but it isn’t.

Religion, Theatre, and Performance: Acts of Faith does not offer a coordinated defence of the proposition that religion or spirituality merits a more significant place in graduate curricula. What constitutes “religion” or “spirituality” may be too contested for any cohesive, comprehensive argument in its defence. Instead, this edited volume collects essays that indicate the rather disparate reasons that religion matters to the study of theatre.

The book’s three sections address the individual actor or religious person as an individual actor, under the heading “Religious Actors”; theatrical and literary traditions, under the heading “Dramas and Theatres”; and the relationship in performing between the religious and the non-religious, under the heading “Secularization and Its Discontents.” Thirteen scholars, in addition to Gharavi, contribute material to the book and address [End Page 261] religious traditions as disparate as Judaism, Tantra, and Quakerism, as well as theatrical topics as distinct as Egyptian drama, Michael Chekhov, and evangelical Christian apologetics.

The book’s first section, with essays by Ronald L. Grimes, Donnalee Dox, Andrew White, Anthony Kubiak, Henry Bial, and Tamara Underiner, begins with an examination of ritual in a performance-studies mode and – via a variety of disciplinary methodologies; principally, anthropology, sociology, and a spectrum of approaches from religious studies – ends with discussions of the ways in which theatre and theatrical performances assert individual and community identity. Between these two termini, the essays of this first section parse the ways in which theatre is, essentially, a machine that constructs, reconstructs, and displays personhood. Ritual studies are essential to understanding this quality of theatre, as the essays in this section demonstrate. Grimes, for instance, offers a tentative but well-conceived definition of ritual that has clear theatrical implications: “Ritual is embodied, condensed, and prescribed enactment” (38). And although Grimes insists that ritual is not performance, he still sees the inescapable ambiguity of the language that forces the association of ritual and theatre. “[We] need a verb different from but related to act,” Grimes writes. “Ritual action is . . . similar to acting (the sort that transpires on-stage or in film), but ritual is not identical with pretending” (38–39). The subsequent essays, on the other hand, especially Anthony Kubiak’s, push against this sense of a necessary distinction between religion’s salient action (ritual) and an understanding of theatre as fundamentally representational. His study of Tibetan tantra shapes Kubiak’s understanding, such that he concludes that theatrical performance “denotes the sense of making manifest” (81). That is, rather than pretending, theatrical performances, like tantric practices, bring something that did not exist before into existence – embodied, condensed, and (perhaps) prescribed. Theories of religion and ritual necessarily sustain this conclusion and are indispensable to a theory of theatre that would escape the limits of mimesis.

The middle section of Gharavi’s...