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The Origins of Theatre

Victor Turner, Durkheim, Van Gennep

In November 2011 the sociological journal Society held a symposium on Chapter Thirteen of Robin Fox’s book The Tribal Imagination — “The Old Adam and the Last Man, Taming the Savage Mind.” My contribution (RS) dealt with some issues arising from the writings of Victor Turner, Durkheim, and Van Gennep. This short excerpt toward the end of the article takes up the question of the origins of theatre.

From Ritual to Theatre

In From Ritual to Theatre Turner reminds us on page 114 that the etymological meaning of entertainment is “held-in-between”. In agricultural societies in historic times it was a “liminal or liminoid phenomenon” held in between bouts of plowing, harvesting, eating, house-building, and so on. In the introduction to his book he says that its essays “chart my personal voyage of discovery from traditional anthropological studies of ritual performance to a lively interest in modern theatre, particularly experimental theatre.” However, the claimed historical connection between ritual and theatre is not uncontroversial. A severely semiological work by Eli Rozik, The Roots of Theatre: Rethinking Ritual and other Theories of Origin, (University of Iowa Press, 2002) argues uncompromisingly that “The medium of theatre could not have originated in ritual, since these are ontologically different entities.” The claim that they “could not have originated in ritual” sounds a bit extreme, but that they “need not” is surely defensible. As a one-time film-maker who recorded a number of the Australian Aboriginal ceremonies that figure in both Durkheim’s and Van Gennep’s writings about religion, it may not be inappropriate here for me to simply describe what I saw — suspending judgment and ignoring definitional fuss for the time being: e.g., Is it ritual? Or drama? Or theatre? Or communitas? Or what?

Anyway let’s clear the decks. For the sake of evolutionary argument let us agree that story-telling must be roughly as old as language, and that hunting adventures and the haps and mishaps of gathering roots and berries must have been recited around camp fires for countless millennia. Any storyteller of imagination will “act out” certain scenes to make them more interesting; he at first does this solo before an audience of varying size; and the larger the role of the histrionic the more a division is recognized between the “as is” descriptive world of everyday and the “as if” imaginative world of fiction and myth. We thus have a suite of four elements: story, mimesis, actor and audience, and an emergent awareness that in the “as if” world depicted in drama, which soon goes far beyond merely describing events to the telling of some very tall tales indeed, everyday reality is not to be expected.

Australia appears to have had a largely isolated hunter-gatherer population for 40,000 to 50,000 years before European settlement. I suggest that throughout this period the above suite of theatrical elements may well have existed, and that there are no strong reasons for believing that it did not. All traditional Aboriginal ceremonies told a story; actors personifying totemic figures acted scenes from the story; the performance space separated them from an audience; this spatial separation might be seen as gradually strengthening a cognitive separation between different orders of human social reality, the “players” belonging to one and the audience to another. It is true that the roles of such totemic characters as “kangaroo-men” and “emu-men” are conventional and their actions relatively unvarying. We might say there is an element of ritualization. Nevertheless audiences appreciate the predictable action as much as any modern audience appreciates the predictable death of Claudius or the fate of villains in general. The classic ethnography of Spencer and Gillen, The Native Tribes of Central Australia (1899) describes a ceremony in which actors playing a series of sinister “Kurdaitcha men” (or witches) are violently killed by an old man who is their would-be victim. The authors write that:

A mock fight took place in which the Kurdaitcha was always worsted and tumbled down, the old man each time giving him a final tap with his club, which particularly pleased the audience, for in these performances there are certain conventional actions which must be observed by the actors. One after another the Kurdaitcha men came up, and each was worsted in his turn.

When apparently all had been killed the old man still went wandering about, and the same performance was again gone through. After about fifteen minutes had been spent in this way the old man leisurely walked back to the group of spectators, once more killing each of the men before he got there.

When close to home a combined attack was made upon him, but with no success, as he killed them all and the performance ended with him standing, brandishing his club over their dead bodies, which were heaped together in front of him. The actions of the old man and of the Kurdaitcha men might have been copied from a stage fight. (My emphasis, RS)

In the 1970 film Pintubi Revisit Yaru-Yaru a scene showing a man and boy ambushed at night followed a similar scenario. But were not Aboriginal “increase ceremonies” solemn religious events rather than enactments of violent affrays? In most cases they were — or they were in large part. At these, the Durkheimean boundary between the sacred and the profane was very clear. In the late 1960s our film production team provided transport for the Aboriginal participants, all of them male since women were excluded from such events, back to sacred sites in the desert where the action took place. These were waterholes and rocky outcrops often associated with caves, where totemic spirits dwelled, and they were sometimes many miles from where the men were living at the time. Coming closer, bumping along the dusty desert tracks, we passed both territorially and psychologically from the profane to the sacred, a change signalled conversationally as talk became more constrained, sotto voce, and whispered. Upon our arrival a hush descended, followed by the weeping of men whose failure to visit the site in recent years, because they resided far away, made them feel a guilty regret for neglecting the spirits of their ancestors. (Sandall, see Endnote about films.)

At this introductory stage initiates might be shown the churinga. These long boards carved with totemic designs were described by the Australian anthropologist L. R. Hiatt as “the religious property of one clan… conceived as a tangible relic of the clan’s totemic ancestry.” (Hiatt 1996: 107) Stored well hidden at normal times in obscure crevices and caves, their recovery and display preceded the main ceremonial action. A dramatic example of this occurs at the beginning of the film Pintubi Revisit Yumari. At dusk the six-foot tall churinga were held erect by a line of ten men of seniority, while smoke swirled about them from blazing spinifex fires. Young men and juvenile initiates then raced across 100 yards of desert to embrace the totemic relics, while fearsome guttural rumblings rising and falling — the baleful admonitions of neglected spirits? — were flung at the initiates as darkness fell. The intimidating nature of the occasion exemplified the universal teen-taming and team-building aspects of male initiation; in earlier years the rite of subincision would probably have accompanied the event. (See Appendix for film links.)

Now, in terms of Arnold van Gennep’s three major stages as set out in The Rites of Passage (separation, transition, incorporation; or séparation, marge, aggrégation in French), the long drive to the sacred site of Yumari in Western Australia involved an unmistakable spatial separation. And by the time the initiates were being frightened into submission by the display of totemic relics we were well into the transitional stage. At another site, shown in the film Emu Ritual at Ruguri, the mood of awed respect for the ancestral shrine lasted through a period in which neophytes were introduced to the painted designs on the walls and ceilings of a cave. These designs had been restored by men senior in the hierarchy of sacred knowledge, and men who belonged to one of two moieties (or ‘phratries’ in Durkheim). Plainly, Turner’s “structure” was ever-present. By the same token, however, the communitas-creating music never stopped. It accompanied all ground painting, cave painting, and body painting, along with the building of the wood and hair-string emblems called wanigi; hour after hour its hypnotic and intriguing melody and rhythm served to transport listeners into another realm. Durkheim, drawing on the accounts in Spencer and Gillen’s 1899 The Native Tribes of Central Australia, describes how even if the music momentarily stopped and “the singing died away”, it would suddenly be taken up again. (Durkheim 1965: 249)

Neurobiology and the matter of rhythm

The neurobiological interest of all this may be obvious, as also its relevance to Fox’s discussion of “savage rhythms and civilized rhymes” in Chapter Nine of The Tribal Imagination. Likewise the matter of neural disinhibition. From Aboriginal songs beaten out with a heavy stone on the cave floor in the film Emu Ritual, to Gregorian chant, to the contemporary mosh pit with its writhing ecstatics, one can see why Oliver Sacks says “the primary function of music is collective and communal, to bring and bind people together.” Truistic, if not trite, the point is nevertheless worth reiterating. He goes on to write that “people sing together and dance together in every culture… and one can imagine them having done so around the first fires, a hundred thousand years ago.” In the documentary films I am describing, however, one does not have to imagine it: they vividly show an artistic union of music, dance, and mimetic theatre that appears to be of immense human antiquity. Regarding the collective excitement and social bonding of music Sacks continues: (Emu Ritual)

…there seems to be, in some sense, an actual binding or ‘marriage’ of nervous systems, a ‘neurogamy’ (to use a word the early mesmerists favored). The binding is accomplished by rhythm — not only heard but internalized, identically, in all who are present. Rhythm turns listeners into participants, makes listening active and motoric, and synchronizes the brains and minds (and since emotion is always intertwined with music, the ‘hearts’) of all who participate. (Sacks 2008: 266)

This “synchronizing” of brains and minds may also be thought of as aiding the experiential fusion of past and present where the Aboriginal “Dreamtime” was actualized, its totemic heroes materialized, and they became prepared to enact their legendary travels and adventures once again. Dramatically, we have a story often filled with blood and violence and rapine; we have scenes of action drawn from mythology; we have mimetic impersonations of definite characters; we have allowance made in these impersonations for a degree of individual interpretation. On other matters theatrical, was there during these totemic re-enactments some sort of physical boundary line dividing audience and actors? No: neither a line nor a proscenium. Audience and actors faced each other on level ground. But a clear space marked the performance region of the two or three actors, on the one hand, and the thirty-odd men of the audience/chorus on the other. This loosely corresponded to the contrasting social realities of the “as if” world, where anything is possible, and the “as is” world where men cannot usually fly or travel underground. Next, carrying the emblems of the rite, the men representing the dreamtime heroes moved away to take up their positions — positions perhaps 100 yards distant across the desert.

Then the action began, each actor dancing out from the heat-hazy horizon toward the audience/chorus accompanied by continual cries and exhortation, until, at the climax, his approach brought him close to the others — so near that it was time to return from the Dreamtime to the world of everyday. While it is true that the sacred site was initially treated with hushed respect, it would be wrong to imagine that solemnity always prevailed. In the film Walbiri Ritual at Gunadjari the most eagerly awaited performance involved the totemic hero Wadaingula, a kind of subterranean sexual predator who travelled underground, emerging periodically to rape and pillage, rape evidently being his preferred mode of insemination. The man playing Wadaingula carried before him a six-foot artificial phallus. While he danced, accompanied by prodigious choral uproar and clattering boomerangs, this emblem — it was just a long bundle of straw tied with string — began to detumesce (the Birth of Tragedy perhaps?) to the hilarity of everyone who was there. And a good time was had by all.

So what exactly was this? Ritual? Drama? Comedy or tragedy? Who shall say? Whatever, it was assuredly, as Turner writes commenting on rituals in Central Africa (Turner 1982: 109) “an orchestration of symbolic actions and objects in all the sensory codes — visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, olfactory, gustatory — full of music and dancing and with interludes of play and entertainment.” And the fidelity of Durkheim’s now 100-year-old account in The Elementary Forms was striking. A dance included in the film Pintubi Revisit Yaru-Yaru shows a snaking line of men, one behind the other, rising from a kneeling position with their hands on each other’s waists and swaying from side to side in unison. Here is Durkheim, drawing on Spencer and Gillen:

With fires lighted on all sides, making the whiteness of the gum-trees stand out sharply against the surrounding darkness, the Uluuru knelt down one behind the other beside the mound, then rising from the ground they went around it, with a movement in unison, their two hands resting upon their thighs, then a little farther on they knelt down again, and so on. At the same time they swayed their bodies, now to the right and now to the left, while uttering at each movement a piercing cry, a veritable yell, “Yrrsh! Yrrsh! Yrrsh!” … One can readily conceive how, when arrived at this state of exaltation, a man does not recognize himself any longer… Feeling himself dominated and carried away by some sort of an external power which makes him think and act differently than in normal times, he naturally has the impression that he is no longer himself. (Durkheim 1965: 249)

And of course the dancer “is not himself.” Or not his hunting/killing/eating material self. For the duration of the dance he dwells in the imaginary “as if” world of myths and totems along with Wadaingula and kindred spirits. Whilst there his condition is transformed, exalted, liminal, betwixt and between. The dance recorded by Spencer and Gillen was performed among the Warramunga. The territory of the Pintubi tribe whose ceremonies we filmed was further west, and the Pintubi dance ended less boisterously than the Warramunga version as I recall. At the finale the line of men were kneeling down again, their heads lowered and their bodies locked closely behind each other.

Silently, dust hanging in the windless air, an elder who might well be called a master of ceremonies, acting with priestly deliberation and gesturing with the delicacy of someone awaking sleepers from a dream, went slowly down the line touching each man in turn. Released from the world of the Dreaming, they rose to resume their ordinary lives. Subdued conversation began again. Had Durkheim been able to see this action first-hand he would have been pleased to note that each man in the line formed an identical segment like the parts of a centipede — the very model of mechanical solidarity. And, indeed, much more than that. Central Australian increase ceremonies, held annually, were intended to encourage the growth and proliferation of animals and vegetation, and of the fertility of the totemically associated clans. As such, the theory behind them, enlarged on in a broadly religious context by Van Gennep at the conclusion of his book, is “a cosmic conception that relates the stages of human existence to those of plant and animal life and, by a sort of pre-scientific divination, joins them to the great rhythms of the universe.” (Van Gennep 1960: 194)

Note re documentary films

The various ethnographic documentary films mentioned in the text were all produced between 1967 and 1972 by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (now the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander Studies). They have been rarely seen for forty years, and I am reliably informed that insuperable obstacles prevent their research use at the Institute. The reasons are various. Firstly, in the early 1970s the elders of the communities concerned were anxious to preserve the secrecy of the rites. Secondly, the matter of exclusivity became a political issue. Thirdly, however, it must be recognized that nudity, the copious blood-letting some ceremonial activities entailed (human blood from opened arm veins was spilled on various sacra, was spurted as an elixir into the mouths of elderly participants, and was also widely used as a fixative for building emblems), along with the overtly sexual nature of some scenes, all made such records discomfiting for those who want a sanitized, euphemized, and romantically falsified version of the Australian Aboriginal past, and who find such records deeply embarrassing. For others they offer a unique glimpse of old-time ceremonial realities.


Selected video sequences are available for the following ethnographic documentary films:

Emu Ritual

Pintubi Revisit Yumari


Mulga Seed Ceremony


Durkheim, Emile. (1965) The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Free Press: New York [Original French edition 1912]Neurobiology
Hiatt, L. R. (1996) Arguments about Aborigines. Cambridge University Press: UK
Rozik, Eli. (2002) The Roots of Theatre: Rethinking Ritual and other Theories of Origin. University of Iowa Press: Iowa City
Turner, Victor. (1969) The Ritual Process. Aldine: Chicago
Turner, Victor. (1982) From Ritual to Theatre. PAJ Publications: New York
Sacks, Oliver. (2008) Musicophilia. Vintage, New York
Sandall, R. Documentary films. Pintubi Revisit Yaru-Yaru, Pintubi Revisit Yumari, Emu Ritual at Ruguri, Walbiri Ritual at Gunadjari, The Mulga Seed Ceremony. All titles directed by Roger Sandall and produced by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander Studies, Canberra.
Spencer, Baldwin, and Gillen, F. J. (1968) The Native Tribes of Central Australia. Dover: New York [Originally published 1899]
Van Gennep, Arnold. (1960) The Rites of Passage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. [Originally published 1909]

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