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Ancient Art and Ritual
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Pages (PDF): 126
Publication Date: 1913
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Illustrated. Chapters include; Art and Ritual; Primitive Ritual: Pantomimic Dances; Seasonal Rites: The Spring Festival; The Spring Festival in Greece; Transition From Ritual To Art; Greek Sculpture; and, Ritual, Art and Life.
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THE title of this book may strike the reader as strange and even dissonant. What have art and ritual to do together? The ritualist is, to the modern mind, a man concerned perhaps unduly with fixed forms and ceremonies, with carrying out the rigidly pre-scribed ordinances of a church or sect. The artist, on the other hand, we think of as free in thought and untrammelled by convention in practice; his tendency is towards licence. Art and ritual, it is quite true, have diverged to-day; but the title of this book is chosen advisedly. Its object is to show that these two divergent developments have a common root, and that neither can be understood without the other. It is at the outset one and the same impulse that sends a man to church and to the theatre.
Such a statement may sound to-day paradoxical, even irreverent. But to the Greek of the sixth, fifth, and even fourth century B.C., it would have been a simple truism. We shall see this best by following an Athenian to his theatre, on the day of the great Spring Festival of Dionysos.
Passing through the entrance-gate to the theatre on the south side of the Acropolis, our Athenian citizen will find himself at once on holy ground. He is within a temenos or precinct, a place "cut off" from the common land and dedicated to a god. He will pass to the left (Fig. 2, p. 144) two temples standing near to each other, one of earlier, the other of later date, for a temple, once built, was so sacred that it would only be reluctantly destroyed. As he enters the actual theatre he will pay nothing for his seat; his attendance is an act of worship, and from the social point of view obligatory; the entrance fee is there-fore paid for him by. the State.
The theatre is open to all Athenian citizens, but the ordinary man will not venture to seat himself in the front row. In the front row, and that only, the seats have backs, and the central seat of this row is an arm-chair; the whole of the front row is permanently reserved, not for individual rich men who can afford to hire "boxes," but for certain State officials, and these officials are all priests. On each seat the name of the owner is inscribed; the central seat is "of the priest of Dionysos Eleuthereus," the god of the precinct. Near him is the seat "of the priest of Apollo the Laurel-Bearer," and again "of the priest of Asklepios," and "of the priest of Olympian Zeus," and so on round the whole front semicircle. It is as though at His Majesty's the front row of stalls was occupied by the whole bench of bishops, with the Archbishop of Canterbury enthroned in the central stall.
The theatre at Athens is not open night by night, nor even day by day. Dramatic performances take place only at certain high festivals of Dionysos in winter and spring. It is, again, as though the modern theatre was open only at the festivals of the Epiphany and of Easter. Our modern, at least our Protestant, custom is in direct contrast. We tend on great religious festivals rather to close than to open our theatres. Another point of contrast is in the time allotted to the performance. We give to the theatre our after-dinner hours, when work is done, or at best a couple of hours in the afternoon. The theatre is for us a recreation. The Greek theatre opened at sunrise, and the whole day was consecrated to high and strenuous religious attention. During the five or six days of the great Dionysia, the whole city was in a state of unwonted sanctity, under a taboo. To distrain a debtor was illegal; any personal assault, however trifling, was sacrilege.
Most impressive and convincing of all is the ceremony that took place on the eve of the performance. By torchlight, accompanied by a great procession, the image of the god Dionysos himself was brought to the theatre and placed in the orchestra. Moreover, he came not only in human but in animal form. Chosen young men of the Athenians in the flower of their youth--epheboi--escorted to the precinct a splendid bull. It was expressly ordained that the bull should be "worthy of the god "; he was, in fact, as we shall presently see, the primitive incarnation of the god. It is, again, as though in our modern theatre there stood, "sanctifying all things to our use and us to His service," the human figure of the Saviour, and beside him the Paschal Lamb.
But now we come to a strange thing. A god presides over the theatre, to go to the theatre is an act of worship to the god Dionysos, and yet, when the play begins, three i times out of four of Dionysos we hear nothing. We see, it may be, Agamemnon returning from Troy, Clytemnestra waiting to slay him, the vengeance of Orestes, the love of Phædra for Hippolytos, the hate of Medea and the slaying of her children: stories beautiful, tragic, morally instructive it may be, but scarcely, we feel, religious. The orthodox Greeks themselves sometimes complained that in the plays enacted before them there was "nothing to do with Dionysos."
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