Theatre and Religion Fflur Edwards Kirsty Nicol Katie Ravenscroft Sarah Thewles
The relationship between Theatre and Religion
The origins of theatre are in religion. Theatre is believed to have evolved from religious rituals.
Theatre developed from the acting out of religious rituals (early people acting out natural events such as the changes in the seasons in order to try to understand them)
This early dramatisation involved moving rhythmically and painting parts of the body.
It is known that people did this from about 40,000 BC.
Paintings showing this kind of dramatisation have been found in caves in France dating from 40,000 – 10,000 BC.
The paintings are half human half animal characters in dance like moves.
They were wearing the heads and skins of animals, the first signs of early masks and costumes.
In these cave paintings they
were probably acting out natural
events like the change in the
seasons, like having one character
dressed as Winter killing another
Theatre evolved from ‘Shamanistic’ rituals, where instead of representing the supernatural the actor becomes a medium through which the supernatural speaks.
The actor puts himself into a trance and allows the supernatural (gods) to perform through him.
This often involved dancing using a vast amount of energy, because he danced so long and so hard people felt that he must have been in possession of supernatural powers.
Masks were often used by these actors and they believed that by putting on the mask they would be possessed by the spirit.
Body paint and elaborate costumes were also used to get into this role, which we still see in modern day productions such as ‘The Lion King’ with there elaborate masks and costumes.
Stage 2- Ancient Egypt-About 3,500 BC
Carvings depicting masked dancers have been found dating from 3500 BC
Its during this time that the drama became more than just religious ritual.
However these themes were still purely religious and would be for a long time to come.
Priests wearing masks acted out stories for example stories of what happened to the soul after death.
Fragments of prayers carved on the walls of tombs have been found from this time-they are known as the ‘pyramid texts’
One famous ‘passion play’ from this period is the ‘Abydos passion play’-this is performed annually from about 2886BC until 400AD. It tells the story of the killing of Osiris by his brother Seth and Osiris’s resurrection. This play is typical of the themes of the period- birth, death, and the cycle of the seasons. Such dramas were performed to ensure the fertility of women, animals and the land. By about 450BC it is thought that comic elements were included in such plays e.g in the Abydos play Hurus is the comic element-a baby who eats so much he becomes enormous.
Stage 3 Greece 6 th century BC
Some say that this is when the drama became free of the religious ritual.
Now the subjects dealt with were legends or history- but there was still a religious (or moral, or political) message.
This was when the dithyramb ( a choral song chanted at festivals to honour Dionysis the god of wine) was improved and developed by actor and playwright Thebis who added to the chorus a part for an actor who wore a mask and portrayed several characters, Because of this development a dialogue between the chorus and the actor became possible.The chorus also danced to make the action more dramatic.
Following a period of tragedy playing only comedy based on mythological characters were introduced.
In the rome, by 3C BC most theatre festivals were secular(non religious) and theatrical performances became crude dependent on jest, slapstick, wit, wordplay and song. Mime and pantomine became increasingly popular.
Stage 4-AD37-68 Rome
During the persecution of the christians under Emporor Nero in Rome, mime was used to ridicule the christian faith on stage.
Stage 5-5 th & 6 th Centuries AD
After the triumph of Christianity the theatre of the time was considered to be so unworthy and debased that all performers of mine were excommunicated and in the 6 th Century AD all theatre closed. Acting and performing was deemed sinful by the powerful Catholic church.
Once again processions and rituals become the only way to express the supernatural and the succession of the seasons.
Stage 6 -9 th and 10 th Certuries AD
Once Again drama rises out of religion – this time from the Catholic Mass Service.
The frist play was the dramatisation of the Easter visit of the 3 Mary’s to the empty grave of Jesus Christ-this was expressed through through action, impersonation and dialogue.
Stage 7-11 th and 12 th Centuries
Now the Easter play was followed by depiction by depictions of the Nativity and the other Bible stories. The action took place initially at the church altar and in the other parts of the action was performed outside the plays existed independently of the church service.
Lay (non priests) became more and more involved.
Stage 8-15 th early 16 th Century AD
The Mystery plays become important, often 50 or short plays depicting all kind of bible passages were performed over 2 or 3 days. Initially organised by priests they were taken over largely by guilds of workers involved in appropriate work- e.g. the shipbuilders world enact the building of Noah’s Ark etc
Morality plays becomes popular-these were in essence dramatised sermons and concerned with the struggle between good and evil. These were performed initially within churches and then outside.
In the 15 th and 16 th centuries interludes (farces dealing with non-religious themes) also become popular.
Stage 9-16 th and 17 th Centuries AD (in Europe)
In Europe (but not in the England) the Catholic Church established Jesuit Schools. These produced school plays on all kinds of Biblical themes. Moliere was educated at one of these schools.
Stage 10 – Late 16 th and 17 th Century England.
The Protestants defeated the Catholics and with their reign the morality and mystery plays were no longer popular.
Plays were now used to mock the Catholic faith.
In 1590 playwrights were prohibited from dramatizing religious issues although playwrights such as Shakespeare writing historical plays fared well during the time of Elizabeth 1 st (1533-1603)
Many powerful people including those who ran the City of London Authority regarded theatre as immoral and discouraged such entertainment.
In 1642 the Puritans closed all theatres and forbade dramatic performance of any kind. There was then an almost complete gap of 18 years before the theatre re-emerged under Charles 1 and flourishes once more.
After this time, at least in England, theatre has been less closely linked with religion (in some other countries such as America the link was very strong until much later .) In America the Puritanical settlers prevented the development of the theatre there until the early 18 th century. Touring companies from England had to be very creative in the way sold their work there – e.g. Othello was promoted as “a moral dialogue in five acts”