The Condition of Ritual in Theatre: An Intercultural Perspective
- Performing Arts Journal
- The MIT Press
- Volume 11, Number 3 / Volume 12, Number 1, 1989 (PAJ 33/34)
- pp. 45-58
- Additional Information
The Condition of Ritual in Theatre An InterculturalPerspective j Ndukaku Amankulor IN MANY SOCIETIES the cultural form known as theatre goes together with religious and cultural practices. Theatre, as performance intended for the education, enlightenment, and entertainment of the public, functions as an extension of the mythology and cultural conventions associated with a particular group or community as well as an artistic activity which other people outside the group derive pleasure from seeing. More often than not, the performance takes place within the context and environment of festivity, fixed at such periods in the year when the performers and spectators would have ample leisure time to prepare for and participate in the performance. Theatre cultures of this kind are still very much in vogue in Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Oceania. In Africa, performances given by title or initiation associations and those used to mark the passage of the seasons or commemorate important historical events are invested with the best artistic traditions the group possesses and performed with a view, among other things, to advertising the people's performance traditions of excellence. The word "play" is frequently applied to such performances in ways that differ from other private sessions of the group's practices. Thus among the Igbo of Nigeria, for example , the Okonko orMmonwu performances, given by initiation associations with those names, are freely described as egwu (play). The context of play here embodies both the serious and the pleasurable and not-so-serious. On 45 the one hand, the public performances of a cultural group involve conventions such as masking which are protected by strict rules. Mask characters, for example, may not be unmasked in public nor are they supposed to fall while playing their roles. The spectators are therefore required to keep safe distances from them to avoid accidental collisions and irritations. On the other hand, the performances are presented to entertain and educate the spectators and to help them treasure memorable aspects of them afterwards. If the integration of ritual and theatrical conventions is taken for granted in non-Western performance situations, it is highly questioned in contemporary Western theatre. The apparent divestment of theatre from the ritual origin in Western theatre practice is a foregone conclusion. It is taken for granted. Ritual, with its evocation of negative connotations of primitive, superstitious, and unscientific behavior associated with savage peoples, has no place in the industrialized high-technological Western world of today. In a popular sense, ritual has become what Orrin Klapp describes, in his Ritual and Cult: A Sociological Interpretation, as a "bugaboo word" for the modern man. It reminds him of other terms with negative associations such as voodoo, mumbo jumbo, cult, and superstition. Ritual has also come to be associated, like myth, with something false, and as Ronald L. Grimes observes in his Beginnings in Ritual Studies, it is also associated with boring, empty routine. The negative associations of ritual, though not explicitly emphasized by anthropologists, are nonetheless implied in their writings which for the most part deal with traditional societies in Africa, Asia, and other places where religious ritual and theatre still co-exist. Unable to see the relationship between theatre performances in Europe and America and theatre performances in the largely non-literate cultures of the world, the anthropologists coined the phrase "ritual theatre" or "ritual drama" as a convenient label for distinguishing the "otherness" of non-Western performance traditions. This coinage changed the course of world performance studies as theatre scholars adopted the phrase, somewhat uncritically, specifically to describe or evaluate non-Western theatre and to isolate ritual in performance and theatre criticism. The term now has specific application to the performance culture zones of the world where they apply, but not in the West. This isolation has not only affected the healthy balance that should otherwise exist between ritual and theatre but it has also affected the course of intercultural performance, and obscured the creative interpretation and application of ritual in performance studies. In his article, "Ritual in Contemporary Theatre and Criticism," published in the Educational Theatre Journal(now Theatre Journal), Anthony Graham-White warned theatre critics of the dangers in adopting the term 46 "ritual" as a critical tool...