The Performative Ground of Religion and Theatre

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David V. Mason
  • New York, NY: 
    , October
     184 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


David V. Mason’s new book seeks experiential foundations to build better stages for theories of theatre and religion to play together. “Foundations” might even be too static a word. The Performative Ground of Religion and Theatre offers an invitation to think—and speak, and make, and do—religiously and theatrically at once. Mason provides language with which to redraw boundaries that protect one field’s supposedly serious engagements from another field’s supposed silliness. From its opening “mock” paragraph, Mason promises that his will not be another book of translation between symbols on the religious page and their display on a theatrical stage, or performance theory making sense of spiritual spectacles. Instead, Mason’s six chapters (and substantial conclusion) perform a series of dynamic explorations about how religious practitioners and theatregoers occupy common, performative ground.

Part of the argument emerges in the style of Mason’s prose. Fun and playful to read, Mason’s book subtly insinuates some of his argument in the book’s performance as a text, one presumes, meant for silent reading. I quite enjoyed the lecture style of its chapters—full of moments of internal dialogue in italics and movements of argument articulated in a simple flourish. The tone reminds the reader that this story could have been told otherwise, but Mason nonetheless commits to his particular choices. 

Mason’s analyses twin theatre and religion, and they occur from the point of view of an embodied, participant-observer. Among many others, we re-experience the play(s) of Samuel Beckett alongside Mason’s version of a history of Christian thought; the post dramatic performance artist Joel Parsons’s 2015 Any Hole Can Be a Vase alongside the site-specific performance of the paschal vigil at Saint John Orthodox Church in Memphis; a journey to learn about bhakti in Vrindavan, India, where “Krishna plays in every corner” (111), alongside a journey to witness the habituating play of monasticism at the (now closed) Abbey of the Holy Trinity in Utah. Mason guides us with an interpretation theory constructed from an array of conversing sages: Plato and Hans-Georg Gadamer to Elinor Fuchs and Mechthild of Magdeburg and Pierre Bourdieu and Margery Kempe to Jean-Paul Sartre and Abinavagupta and Kermit the Frog. Reading this book feels like taking a course, especially when it concludes by re-reading the Trois Frères cave paintings—one of our oldest examples of Mason’s sense of the human-animal necessity to create—as an instance of the performative ground of religion and theatre, “[t]he issue really isn’t product but process” (154). The same might be said of Mason’s book and the persuasive power of its religious and theatrical performances grounded as poesis and making rather than as mimesis and representation. Theatre and religion give us a feeling for performances that make the world.

Feeling-ness certainly matters for this study (65). Theatre appears to corrupt reality when it causes real feelings in the presence of paradoxical fictions; this is the danger which Mason identifies at the root of Plato’s antipathy to poets, and the Puritans who outlawed acting. Similarly, perhaps, religious ideologies corrupt reality when they promise divine presence in the context of paradoxical feelings. “Following Beckett into the reverberation of Schleiermacher,” the book argues how both religion and “theatrical performance are not fake, since what is dynamically present makes so clear that what is absent is absolutely absent” (49). Thus, Mason issues a corrective to the dominance of what he sees to be an Aristotelian literary theory which anesthetizes the performative power of religion and theatre by pointing elsewhere, representing through symbolic fakery. Better, Mason argues, to learn to follow how the Natyashastra, “essentially literary theory with no concern for performing was construed as a prescription for theatre” (134). Practices of devotion that both see and receive—akin to the Sanskrit word darshan (122)—offer a blueprint for ritualizing and mutual play that makes it difficult to distinguish between what phenomena makes a theatrical audience, and what makes a religious audience. Performing, Mason contends, does reality’s making (97-98).

The book’s notion of performativity invites illuminating discussions of character—and, by extension, ordinary and extraordinary personality—as a “cloud of intent, an amorphous nimbus of tradition, insights and imagination swirling together” (128). Performativity frames a vision of the activity of a theatrical/religious audience to be closer to the medieval Christian imitatio tradition than the quiet weeping of naturalism’s darkened auditorium. Mason thus reclaims in performativity an immediacy of poetic making rather than some expression of a pre-existing, hidden, interior, or distant essence. The book displays where religion and theatre work together without needing to retell a story of drama that evolves from and refers back to the primordial soup of ancient rituals. In fact, Mason demonstrates why the desire to retell these comfortable myths clutters sight of the performative ground on which he allows theatre and religion to stand or collapse together.

The Performative Ground of Religion and Theatre engages with a number of debates of interest to devotees of religion and theatre. While it feels like an introductory course, the book is not basic. This slim and sophisticated volume presumes at least a passing familiarity with many of its references, but provides enough orientation to encourage the excited reader to go and learn more. I would have found the argument helped by conscious concessions as to why Mason chose not to include something, perhaps foregrounding the performance choices that go into making any argument about religion and/or theatre. A longer version might subvert the feeling of too grand a narrative by applying Mason’s theory to Islamic materials, the Confucian mimetic traditions, as well as Judaism’s theatrical legacy. At the same time, Mason neither risks a philosophical theologian’s conclusions nor identifies the performative ground of religion and theatre as a symbol of “that which we call god.” But, as for the theatre critic, the feeling of being left wanting more is both a desire to restage the play and a compliment.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles A. Gillespie recently completed his doctorate in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.

Date of Review: 
May 9, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Mason is Editor-in-Chief for Ecumenica: Performance and Religion, the South Asia area editor for Asian Theatre Journal,and has been a board member of the Association for Asian Performance. His scholarship on religion and the arts appears in multiple books and journals.


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