As we mentioned in the previous post, not only were theatre goers in the ancient world going through a cathartic experience, purging negative emotions, there was also a spiritual trance quality to Greek and Roman theatre. Music accompanied the articulation of the lines, some of which were sung, the chorus chanted, incense perfumed the air, and a religious sense of reverence and awe filled the amphitheater.
And not only was the experience of the audience steeped in a spiritual atmosphere, the ancients believed that even inspiration came from a higher order of mind. The whole concept of the Muses — the nine archetypes believed to bring inspiration to the artist, writer, scientist, and musician, to all the arts — should be understood in a non-literal sense. The Muses were not lesser Gods sitting on the foothills of Olympus, nor beautiful humans who inspired the artist, nor were they mere metaphors for artistic inspiration. Rather, they are the higher faculties of consciousness that help mediate inspiration between the deepest core of divine realization (our Divine Nature), and our conscious mind, so that we may then ‘capture’ the form and render it intelligible to an audience.
As the great Sufi musician and teacher, Hazrat Inayat Khan puts it:
And it is by focusing his mind to the divine mind that, consciously or unconsciously, man receives inspiration.
This phenomenon is so great and so wonderful that its joy is unlike any other joy in the world. It is in this joy that the inspirational genius experiences ecstasy. It is a joy which is almost indescribable. It is an upliftment. One feels that one is raised from the earth when one’s mind is focused on the divine mind — for inspiration comes from the divine mind.
What the great musicians, poets, thinkers, philosophers, writers, and prophets have left to the world is always uplifting, although it is not every soul who comprehends their work fully, and therefore not every soul can enjoy it fully. But imagine their own enjoyment of what came to them; there are no words to express it! It is in inspiration that one begins to see the sign of God, and the most materialistic genius begins to wonder about the divine Spirit when once inspiration has begun to come to him.
When a mass of people, a group or audience, goes through catharsis together, when they all at once, altogether, get the existential horror of human ignorance and its consequences, this is in itself a collective spiritual experience. Equally, when we sit in a theatre with a few thousand other souls, and we are all laughing at the comedic display and futility of the human ego, that, too, is a massively-shared enlightenment experience.
The former was brought home to me forcefully in my twenties when living in New York and my girlfriend, Jane, and I went to see the premiere of Kramer vs. Kramer. From the very beginning of the movie, so expert was the acting, so mesmerizing the direction and cinematography, that the audience sat rapt and silent. Very slowly, as the drama builds, revealing the callous damage and havoc the divorce between the parents, (played by Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep), is wrecking on their son, I began to feel the collective horror of the people around me.
Little gasps, involuntary comments, and then the beginning of tears. We all looked on in abject revulsion at the selfishness and aggression the adults were acting out, each in their deluded belief they were doing the best for their child. By the time the movie builds to the court room scenes you could hear widespread crying. And then, at the conclusion, when the parents have their epiphany and realize what they are doing to their child, another sort of crying broke out all around — one of relief, of pity, of catharis.
I left that theatre wiping away my own tears. While I had not yet gone through a divorce, nor been a parent, (fortunately, my divorce happened before I met my wonderful wife and we had our daughter). But the experience was so powerful, so enlightening, that I knew I would do everything in my power to never put a child through the agony of seeing their parents wage war with one another. I, and any other fellow audience member with an ounce of heart, were now one degree more educated, one degree more compassionate, one degree more civilized and illuminated by the wisdom of our culture.
As the American playwright, Ellen McLaughlin says,
There is a kind of brilliance to the light in Greece . . . Things are simply more visible there than they are anywhere else. So it’s not surprising that Greek thought is filled with notions of visibility and hiddenness.
Ajax himself, not exactly an introvert, has a speech about how it is inevitable that all things will come to light eventually. For the Greeks this was not just an unavoidable truth, it was something of an injunction. ‘Know thyself’ was the singular command and warning of the Delphic oracle, after all. Whether we will or not, the truth insists itself. It wants to be known.
Our natures are mysterious and terrifying. We all know this. There is a personal darkness we are familiar with inside us, even if we have never had to stare it in the face. We can shut it deep within us, but we’ve heard it thumping around in there on quiet nights when we are alone with the worst of ourselves. We all need help with that. The Greeks had this rather outlandish notion that if we could see ourselves from the length of an auditorium, look at ourselves outside ourselves, as played by actors, doing the awful things that we, human beings, know we are capable of doing, and suffering the worst that we can imagine, we might be purged of our own darkness by the terror and pity such experiences in the theater provoke in us.
It’s not surprising that theater festivals were frankly religious events for the Greeks. That ancient notion that there is a spiritual component to what happens in theaters. . . We’ve all felt it, onstage and off, that transformative thing that can happen as we watch actors, those intimate, necessary strangers, acting for us and as us out there in the merciless light.
And so we come to find that the theatre arts awaken our spiritual intelligence — that philosophical ability to not just pontificate about the theatre-going experience, but rather to tap into higher faculties of consciousness and perceive higher levels of reality, while metabolizing the darker memories and tendencies of our egos.
When we are in this state, life begins to look completely different. We begin to understand that man is not just a material being; that the end of suffering is a possibility; and that the ability to go beyond suffering into unity with the Transcendent, whatever we call it, is a latent power existing in everyone. This is Philosophy as a Way of Life, in the phrasing of Pierre Hadot, and holds a key to healing in transpersonal psychology.
A philosophical study of theatre challenges us to awaken our spiritual intelligence, to become aware of what kind, and how many, healing agents there might be in the theatre experience, and how to make that study part of our daily life. We can then bring philosophy into the living room watching television, we can bring awareness to the cinema, and we can go with respect and humility to our town’s local theatre hall, hoping that the artists will take us to a higher place.
In our next post we will look at enculturation, or how theatre, since the earliest days of civilization, has played a central role in the education and enlightenment of human beings, much like the examples I’ve given of Simona’s experience with American Beauty, and mine with Kramer vs. Kramer. Through the ‘magical’ agency of the spells and enchantment cast by story-telling and acting, people are shown what it is to be human, how to ascend a ladder of moral and spiritual maturation. Or, as Plato pointed out, used wrongly, to manipulate and terrorize, the theatre arts can also make us descend a ladder into the confines of the lower ego and its hell.
Finally, we shall look at the history of the persecution and censorship of theatre. The fact that theatre is such a powerful liberating force for our collective consciousness is manifestly proven by just how threatening it is to religious demagogues and totalitarian rulers. . .