Religion and theatre still interact dynamically

Even now, after so much has developed and so much has been said about it, the close inter-relationship between theatre and religious ritual remains an interesting subject.  After so many thousand years in the evolution of human society the two still exist in the same space and the spectacle of their dynamic interaction has not grown stale.  Theatre started as religious ritual with a belief in its magical powers; several centuries and worlds of enlightenment later, today’s religions still depend on the power of their continued partnership with drama and theatre.

In numerous traditional African cultures, religious practice, theatrical acts and the rites of normal social life appear inseparable. The people recognise differences between the religious and the secular, but a variety of acts pass over easily from the sacred to the entertaining and have value both as social function and entertainment in everyday life.  The indigenous theatre of the Caribbean contains countless examples of traditions which were religious ritual in their original forms or are still practised as such.

One of the known cradles of western drama is the Greek theatre of Athens in which plays, particularly the tragedies, directly served religious belief.  They received the support of the state because they actually taught the population how to live with God. More than that, the very performance before an audience was a religious act, dedicated to the god Dionysus or Bacchus.  The link was symbolically maintained with an actual ritual performed at the altar on stage at the beginning of each performance of a play.  Even the Greco-Roman ritualistic orgies, preserved in mural drawings, had a religious function.  The “bacchanal” of contemporary Trinidad and Brazilian carnival descended from those traditions.

When what remained of that theatre of Greco-Roman origin declined, the great St Augustine rejoiced at the passing of an evil institution, yet theatre in Europe had its rebirth in his own church.  Quite reminiscent of the primitive ‘magical’ rites, the Mystery Plays and Miracle Plays which dramatised stories from the Bible developed from liturgies and simple scripts fashioned by priests and performed in services in the Roman Catholic church.  In England these little theatrical exhibitions with their Latin dialogue grew into full plays, eventually moving beyond the church into secular society.  They also linked with other developments of ‘pagan’ ritualistic origins in the English countryside.

In the Caribbean and in Guyana the associations are similar, and the alliance of theatre with religion is as fast as it is elsewhere.  The nature of the African survivals has already been mentioned and there are interesting examples from the Amerindian.  The performances of the shaman in his ritual cures are unabashed theatre, while there is much of the dramatic in the kanaima and ventriloquism.  Examples abound in “the three great religions,” held up as Islam, Christianity and Hinduism.  There is a wealth of relevant material in Christmas and Easter, as there is elsewhere in that religion.  The same may be found in Ram-leela, which Trinidadian villagers call “Ramdilla” and other festivals such as Phagwah (Holi) and Deepavali of the Hindu faith.

Generally, one may remark on the flamboyance, colour and spectacle of the Hindu festivals with their theatrical vivacity and multiplicity of pictures, in contrast to the staid, less ostentatious Islamic practice.  The Muslims eschew images and forbid pictures of God, whose likeness no one knows; their music is well nigh bereft of melody, but how true is the notion of their lack of lustre?  It is quite nearly a myth.  In its heyday, and even where it survives now, the Hosé (Hosay, aka Tadja) is not devoid of stature.  In the late nineteenth century, even the fiercely hostile colonial writers in Trinidad remarked on its colour, craft and impact.

But what is there to surpass the unimaginable vastness, theatre and spectacle of the Haj (Hajj)?  Last week Eid Ul Adha was celebrated along with the Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca which is described as the largest manifestation of religious devotion in the world.  Like most large traditional religious festivals, Eid has its exhibition of public outreach which appeals to people and utilises dramatisation to transmit Islamic beliefs.  An example of this is the Qurbani, itself a fascinating sight at the bigger mosques in which hundreds of bulls are slaughtered.  The blessed meat (Halaal) must be shared out with one third distributed to the needy, one third to friends and family, and one third kept for those making the sacrifice.

This ritual sacrifice is one form of the dramatisation of Islamic belief as contained in and communicated through the story of Ibrahim and Isma’il, also told in the Christian Bible and Jewish Torah as the story of Abraham and Ishmael.  It exemplifies unqualified obedience and devotion to God and relates how Ibrahim has a dream in which God asks him to sacrifice his son Isma’il.  Both father and son agree that the sacrifice should be done, but when God recognises the faith, trust and loyalty of his servant, who was prepared to sacrifice that which was most dear to him, he commands Ibrahim to discontinue and sacrifice a ram instead.

This is commemorated in the Qurbani, which goes further, since Islam stresses that Allah has no interest in man’s sacrifice, but in his obedience and dedication and his charitable acts towards all mankind.  The sacrifice is symbolic of Ibrahim’s exemplary piety combined with the spirit of charity, sharing with others, and concern for the poor and needy that all Muslims should have.  But far surpassing what is seen in the Qurbani is the Haj, which also includes Qurbani since one of the many rituals is the sacrifice of animals.  Every Muslim who can afford it must make that pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, a journey to the sacred founding of Islam, to commemorate the work of the Prophet Mohamed (On Whom Be Peace) and to dramatically retrace the journey taken by Ibrahim and Isma’il.

The sight of two and a half million Muslim pilgrims in and around Mecca praying in supplication in mosques and in the other dramatic rituals must be a breathtaking spectacle of unsurpassable grandeur.  The activities of the pilgrims dramatise many important aspects of the story of the sacrifice and Islamic belief.  On the first day they go to the Shrine at Kaaba, a black stone placed from heaven which rests at its place but does not touch the ground.  It marks the very centre of the world, the central spot from which all the lands and oceans of the earth moved in geological time.  Wherever they are in the world, Muslims must face that location whenever they pray.

At that place the pilgrims also move seven times between Mount Marwa and Mount Safa where the shrine is; the Zam Zam Well with flowing water in the middle of the desert.  This plays out another part of the story.  When Isma’il was a baby, his mother Hagar needed water to save his life, but there was none in the desert.  She ran desperately between the two mountains in search of water until the miraculous discovery of the well, around which she built a wall.

The pilgrims then spend three days and three nights in the Meena Valley known as the Tent City because they are housed there in huge tents.  During this period they go to Arafat, where they must stand in the open on one night dressed only in two pieces of cloth to symbolize that all men are equal in the sight of Allah.  Even in the tents, which are air conditioned, the pilgrims sleep on the ground where they reflect on the earth, the creator and the creation.  The reflection focuses on what the creator has created, not so much the creator himself.  Islam has no discrimination, they are exposed to the night and all will be brought to assemble at Arafat on Judgement Day.  After Mustalifa, the exposure in the open, the Qurbani sacrifice is performed. 

By far the most theatrical is the stoning of the Shaiteen, which is the most dramatic retracing of the events of the story.  When Ibrahim was making his journey to the place for the sacrifice Shaitan (the devil, Satan) made three interventions.  He went to Hagar and tried to incite her by telling her that Ibrahim was about to kill her son.  But she rebuffed his approach and stoned him.  He went to Ibrahim to try to interrupt his mission and was again stoned by the Prophet.  His attempts to disrupt were further made when he went to Isma’il to tell him that his father was about to kill him, but the son already had knowledge of the sacrifice and also stoned Shaitan.  So the pilgrims retrace the journey and throw stones at obstacles representing the Shaiteen at three points.

This ritual also performs a kind of casting off of sins and rejection of temptation, leaving the individuals purged.  With the sins gone, they are like new born, so after the Hajj is accepted, the pilgrims shave their heads.  It is a grand and complete dramatic journey with deep-rooted meaning in what must be the greatest theatrical performance on earth.

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