The Performance of Religion

Seeing the Sacred in the Theatre

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Cia Sautter
  • New York, NY: 
    , January
     190 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


How do people actually act on what they value most? As a professional dancer and a professor of religious studies, Cia Sautter is uniquely situated to comment on the complicated relationships between performance as a concept, the performing arts, religion, the sacred, and ethics. Often drawing from her own experiences as a teacher, dancer, storyteller, and scholar of performance, Sautter emphasizes the experiential aspects of performance as approach and engagement with the sacred, both formally through her use of ethnographic participatory-observation methodologies, and informally through her own personal reflections. Overall, The Performance of Religion: Seeing the Sacred in the Theatre argues that the realm of the sacred is not a separate sphere relegated to personal belief or institutional dogmas, but the living out of what Sautter calls our “most treasured values” (1). Since such sacred values are not divorced from any institution’s or individual’s participation in the public sphere, religion is always being performed, thus theatre and other forms of expressive art amplify what communities and individuals not only believe, but also cherish as right, good, and truthful. Furthermore, theatre—and dance specifically—can be like scrying tools for discerning such sacred realities in everyday life, as well as instructional aid for how to perform them. 

In order to illustrate the imbrications of religion, sacred values, and culture, Sautter turns to Shakespeare and other Elizabethan dramatists given that, she argues, this period did not necessarily witness the clean breakage of a newly secular society from a formerly religious one, as is popularly imagined. Instead, Elizabethan theatre grappled with religious questions of sacred values all the time, in ways that followed the letter of the Queen’s law disallowing religious drama, but nonetheless posed important questions of good conduct and perception—as with Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus—and ethical relationship to others and outsiders, such as in All’s Well That Ends Well. The final chapter, “Ending in Dance: Ethics, religion, and staged movement,” focusing on a performance of Macbeth at the Globe, examines the tradition of Shakespeare’s plays ending with dance sequences. After considering the various theories proposed for this, such as it was mere entertainment or a transitional technique to direct audience traffic at the end of a performance, Sautter convincingly argues that ending dances could have functioned as ways to comment and reflect on the content of the performance in nonverbal ways, discovering and discussing sacred values. The choice to focus on Shakespeare might seem a strange one (as the author herself readily admits), since ritual and religious themes are not uncommon in modern and contemporary theatre, dance, and performance art; but Sautter reasons that more understanding is needed of the religious history of western drama and performance. Too often, she contends, the study of religion or ritual is “othered” in academia by focusing on non-western sources, as if religion is not applicable to rational, western culture. To theatre and performance studies scholars such as myself, this contention seems uninformed about the rigorous academic discourse dealing with interculturalism in performance, but Sautter’s overriding point is well-taken: while some facets of western Judeo-Christian culture might still harbor anti-theatrical sentiment, the secular, empiricist branches of these modes of thought also harbor anti-religious sentiment.

As a work of critical reflection on “sacred values” in dialog with the author’s own teaching, dancing, and experience, this is a useful contribution to the growing interdisciplinary field of Religion, Spirituality, Theatre, and Performance, and Sautter’s writing is at its best when she draws from her background in performance and pedagogy. Some readers may find Sautter’s dismissal of post-modern philosophy as “too theoretical” problematic; others may agree. Her glosses on Judith Butler and Michel Foucault abandon opportunities for engagement with concepts concerning power and ideology that she seems to feel have no place in a discussion of sacred values—a stance that may leave some readers puzzled. There is neither deft positioning nor handling of the differences between modern, post-modern, and contemporary theory and philosophy, although the book constantly refers in general to “philosophy.” An attempt may have been made in the prologue to argue for a better appreciation of modern theology in theatre studies, given her focus on Paul Tillich and Martin Buber, but a specific thesis in this regard never quite surfaces. Still, some readers may not find these things to be flaws so much as points in the book’s favor, since Sautter succeeds in formulating an adaptable vocabulary for discussing the heady and chaotic intersections between performance and religion by offering “sacred values” as a framework that can support the many colorful facets of living experiences, and she clearly articulates that the question of sacred values as performed in culture and the arts is a necessary and powerful one.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Claire Maria Chambers is Associate Professor of Dramatic Literature at Sogang University in Seoul, South Korea.

Date of Review: 
January 29, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Cia Sautter is a professional performer and has taught religious and performance studies at the several US institutions and seminaries. She is also the author of The Miriam Tradition (2010) and numerous other chapters and articles.


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