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Ritual and Ceremony in the Drama Thomas B. Stroup It is the simple argument of this paper that a playwright’s use of ritual and ceremony in his plays often provides essential and convenient dramatic functions and just as often furnishes even more profound artistic values. Essentially mimetic, rites and ceremonies formalize events or occasions often repeated in human society, elevate them and set them apart, in other words, dramatize them. Hence their natural appeal to the dramatist as he looks about him for means to present his visualized art, the success of which presentation often requires something more than the unformalized, casual, or unique happening. Now, I am well aware that my claims (especially that cere­ monies and recognizable rituals inserted into plays heighten the emotions of the audience, create empathy, enable recogni­ tion, and illuminate meanings) were and are still questioned by the realists and those dramatists of the realistic movement. As typical of this questioning, one may cite William Frost’s article on “Shakespeare’s Rituals and the Opening of King Lear,”l in which the author contends that the ceremonial first scene, in which Lear holds court, is a commonplace, undramatic event whose properties and form are well anticipated by the audience; whereas the final scene, which is not ritualistic, is fraught with exciting events and heart-rending surprises. Frost goes on to list the innumerable rites and ceremonies common to Elizabethan drama, such as prayers, formal curses, funerals, marriages, dances, feasts, banquets, ceremonial arrivals and departures, formal oaths, trials, banishments, royal court scenes, etc. (He might have added that the Spanish, Italian, French, and later English plays also made use of such phenomena.) Then he maintains that we no longer put up with such stock-in-trade to the considerable improvement of the art of drama. One recog139 1 40 Comparative Drama nizes, of course, that the insensitive playwright or producer who merely introduces the ceremony or ritual for its own sake and expresses it in words and form invariably the same may blur the meaning and dull the emotions. The rise of realistic drama in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries brought with it a tendency to present all events (however spectacular, violent, and melodramatic) as unique, never before encountered, and hence most surprising, thrilling, and all the more dramatic. They tended apparently to disregard ceremonial life, ritual, and for­ malized behavior as not also realistic. But I think recent years have brought a reformation of such attitude and practice, at least among the most notable drama­ tists. The success of Thornton Wilder (who is not moved by the wedding and the funeral scenes of Our Town?), of Eliot, or Frye, or Diirenmatt, or Genêt, or Brecht (the funeral procession in his Arturo Ui is obviously suggested by that in Shakespeare’s Richard III), or many others among recent playwrights is good warrant of the change. They have recognized the immense sym­ bolical, allegorical, and universalizing values of these essentially dramatic phenomena. They realize that by rite or ceremony one short episode may compress, because it is immediately recog­ nized for what it is, a meaning that might often take a whole “two hours traffic” to convey. And the management of such extra values is in great measure created by something more than recital of dialogue, however well-spoken the lines. For each of the ceremonies or rites the dialogue must be accompanied with the proper, wellrecognized movements, gestures, postures, signs, and panto­ mimes. Indeed some of the avant-guarde critics would lead us to the extreme position: that pure drama requires no dialogue at all. Assuredly Joseph McMahon rightfully explains that Genêt “is seeking myth in the renewed sense of that weakened word-— as a means of expressing imagistically that which cannot be adequately wrought discursively—and he is seeking to do this by relying on what has been the most potent conveyor of myth: its immersion in ceremony.”2 Genêt’s use of submerged rites in the inverted world of his drama, where man embraces evil as his only good, may not be the same as the Greek or the Elizabethan dramatists’ use, or those of Calderon’s Autos...


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pp. 139-146
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