The Haunted Actor: An Exploration of Supernatural Belief Through Theatre

The Haunted Actor: An Exploration of Supernatural Belief Through Theatre

by Alex Matsuo


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ISBN-13: 9781491849828
Publisher: AuthorHouse
Publication date: 01/22/2014
Pages: 202
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.46(d)

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The Haunted Actor

An Exploration of Supernatural Belief Through Theatre

By Alex Matsuo

AuthorHouse LLC

Copyright © 2014 Alex Matsuo
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4918-4982-8


The Spiritual Influence on the Origin of Theatre

"He opened his arms towards him as he spoke and would have clasped him in them, but there was nothing, and the spirit vanished as a vapor, gibbering and whining into the earth." —The Iliad: Scroll 23, Line 93

Establishing a connection between theatre and the paranormal (or supernatural) initially seemed far-fetched, but the more research that was conducted, the richer the connection appeared. Then I realized that these two elements, while they may seem very different, are in fact quite connected and intertwined with each other. But in order to establish this connection, the word "paranormal" has to be removed. This means we need to remove the label from the things we perceive as paranormal or simply unknown. Instead, consider the terms spirituality, gods, goddesses, religious icons, and the deceased, residual energies, just to name a few. The word "paranormal" is a broad term and in order for this connection to be properly established, we need to go into specifics.

For centuries, theatre has been integrated into our lives whether we realize it or not, but the aspect of performance remains a mystery for many. While there are those who consider theatre to be a dying art form, in reality, it is more alive than ever. Theatre has the ability to recreate life onstage, but the beauty and mystique of theatre is the fact that it can recreate life based on intent and interpretations. So in an odd way, theatre doesn't portray reality, but it portrays interpretation and intent. Theatre has been a resource when it comes to learning about the thoughts and emotions of people from the past and how they want their time and their state to be remembered. But where exactly did theatre come from and why has it survived for thousands of years? Fascination and the desire to learn about our past and ourselves through the stories of others has played a major role in theatre's survival and continued relevancy.

Some of our earliest plays have been used to study and research religious beliefs in ancient times. Theatre's beginnings are rooted in religion that evolved from the ritualistic acts of the past, to a performance consisting of an audience of our present time. The word "theatre" is broad and it can be overwhelming to dive into and find the spiritual influences that impact the performance experience that we know as theatre. To start, the word "theatre" is derived from the Greek word "theatron", which literally means "seeing place." The theatre is a place where audiences watch drama unfold and then, once it is over, resume their daily lives. Theatre has not always been a place for entertainment like it is today. And it still is not just a source of entertainment for many people around the world (your author included). Of course, there is theatre that is intended for entertainment purposes only, but there are also forms of theatre out there that are meant to question morals, beliefs, and our existence as human beings. That intent was one of the roots of theatre, as we know it today, just as we explore the unknown in an attempt to seek resolutions to questions for which we know no answer yet. There is a strong spiritual connection in theatre, as it derived from a term known as ritual reenactment, a religious ceremony in which a story from a culture's mythology or legendary past is performed and not merely retold.

So now we know that theatre began as ritual and storytelling. The storytelling aspect is best known as oral tradition. Oral tradition has ensured the survival of the many stories and lore that we know of today. Stories in the form of narratives were passed down from generation to generation and are an important element of our culture and identity as a society with spoken language. Before the stage was constructed, there were audiences for storytelling and ceremonies, and there were actors in the performance of rituals for the gods. The audiences weren't always human. Instead, the intended audiences were the gods. Scholars believe that the earliest form of theatre goes back to the Neolithic period towards the end of the Stone Age. Religious leaders and elders emerged as somewhat of a starring role in these rituals as they became more elaborate and audiences became better defined. Those who led these ritual performances were highly revered and given an elevated status among the group. Rituals were conducted for the purposes of duty, power and control. For example, to ensure a successful crop, or to please the gods in various areas of life. But these rituals did not come from nowhere. Rituals are rooted from habit, and then habit becomes tradition. Tradition then becomes ritual. Just as oral tradition was passed down through the generations, these rituals were also passed down.

Some of the earliest evidence of an official performance comes from ancient Egypt. The well-known Pyramid Texts contained dramas that would send the Pharaoh into the next life upon their death. Scholars believe that these were the earliest form of theatre with the intention of being a performance and not just a ritual for the gods. The Memphite Drama tells the story of the life, death, and the resurrection of the god Osiris and the coronation of his son Horus. However, one of the earliest and most important pieces of evidence of a large-scale production was the Passion play of Abydos. In similar fashion to the Memphite play, the Abydos play is also about the story of Osiris. The Abydos play took place in the city of Abydos, which is the burial ground of Osiris, and was a full-scale production. But in the minds of the Egyptians, were they trying to create a theatrical production, or please the gods? Or was it both? Could it be that perhaps the gods enjoyed theatre as much as mortals? Perhaps the same can be said for the ghosts and spirits that we encounter today in the paranormal investigation world.

In Mexican tradition, November 1st and 2nd mark Días de los Muertos, also known as Day of the Dead. This ritual consists of making altars for deceased loved ones consisting of many things such as the loved ones' photos, favorite food, articles of clothing, salt, sugar, beverages, water, candles, incense, just to name a few. Celebrants have taken to painting their faces like sugar skulls and dressing in elaborate costumes during this festive celebration as their loved ones cross over from the other side to the world of the living. The Roman festival Parentalia was a festival honoring dead parents, starting on February 13th and ending February 21st, and essentially consisting of private celebrations of the dead where families would visit the tombs of the dead and offer sacrifices of wine and bread. These are just a few of the traditions where honoring the dead had become an elaborate production all over the world, all based on the idea of the survival of consciousness or the survival of the soul.

Ritual reenactment evolved from an oral tradition to something much more elaborate which we all know as theatre. The strongest roots of theatre lie in ancient Athens. The ancient Greeks were well-known for being exceptionally spiritual, with a religion that consisted of many deities with rituals to please them. During this time, Athens was a city-state along with the city of Sparta. Athens consisted of ten tribes that formed the city's political and military units. Athenians were advanced in writing and a little bit of everything related to creativity and the arts, while Sparta's focus was on war and raising soldiers. The reference from the movie 300 where the Athenians were portrayed as artists and poets was very much accurate, much to the historians' amusement. Athenians composed ancient hymns, known as dithyrambs, which were sung to please Dionysus, the god of fertility, madness, performance and wine. Dithyrambs often consisted of about 50 men or boys singing and dancing for Dionysus. The hymns eventually became more elaborate with the addition of costumes and masks, and the hymns being sung in a procession. Among the ten tribes in Athens, dithyrambs were composed for other gods starting around 500 BCE, with less focus on Dionysus. There were also rituals linked to Dionysus with terms and phrases named after them, such as the term "tragedy", which means "goat song"; this came from the ritual sacrifice of animals and got its name from the goat's dying bleating. Men would wear the goatskins, believing them to be sexually potent.

Dithyrambs were likely the inspiration for Athens' ruler Pisistratus to create an annual festival called "City of Dionysia" in the sixth century BCE. It is believed that the ancient Greeks modeled this festival after the Egyptian dramas. It is also rumored that Pisistratus created it in order to enhance his own popularity. The festival became very popular as the province of Attica also had its own City of Dionysia festival about one month after the celebration in Athens. This was a very social event where people gathered to watch plays and dithyrambs in a series of contests where individuals and groups competed. This festival included competitions in music, art, dance, and poetry and it lasted for about one week. It was financed by some of Athens' wealthiest citizens, also known as the choregos.

The festival was an interactive time where people of the community, regardless of their financial state, could participate in some way. The choregos (the wealthy citizens) were elected by the city magistrate, also known as the archon, to finance the performances, and if they won, the money would be shared between the playwright and the choregos. They would fund one of the three playwrights that were competing for a prize at the festival. It would be up to them to hire the musicians and the chorus, as well as provide the costumes and the support needed for the playwright that they were assigned to. The state would also provide each group with a leading actor. However, the responsibility of preparing the actors and the musicians for the performance was up to the playwright, who might also act and perform in the plays.

In the City of Dionysia festival, day one would be a display of the actors and chorus members; day two consisted of a parade showcasing the city officials, which would then lead to the theatre where there would be religious observances and sacrifices; day three would be the dithyramb performances, with each of the ten tribes sponsoring two dithyrambs: one dithyramb of men and another of boys. This lasted for two days, and there would be judges who gave out awards. Day four would have five comedies performed, and these comedies often directly addressed current events. Day five would mark the beginning of the main dramatic contest where playwrights would present a trilogy of tragedies, presented over a three-day period. Aeschylus' The Oresteia is an example of a trilogy presented in the contest. The Oresteia consisted of the plays Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides. These tragedies could consist of a single theme, or they could cover a series of events. Along with the tragedies, the playwright also had to write a "satyr play", which followed the tragedy and provided comic relief. The satyr play would be a parody and comedy, and this would inspire the Athenians to eventually include a category for comedy in the festival.

Unfortunately, Athenians were not interested in performing plays more than once (in fact it was the law), and thus, many plays were lost over time. However, the death of Aeschylus would bring about a change to the law so that his plays could be performed multiple times in his honor, which is why his works, such as The Oresteia, survived. An important thing to note is that The Oresteia is one of the first plays to feature a ghost. Ancient Athens was not the first society where the value in preserving plays was not very high, but we'll explore more in the Elizabethan era later. But the fact of the matter is it took special exception in order for these works to survive. Along with paintings, architecture, and sculptures, we can learn more about the spiritual state of our ancestors by looking at the plays that were written of the time. Works such as these resonated with the culture of that time, and provided that opportunity for emotional catharsis whether it was through comedy or tragedy. It would be during these ancient times that the connection between text and emotion would be established and highly regarded.

In late 525 BCE, a man named Thespis would become the most well-known winner of the festival, as he leapt onto a cart and recited poetry as if he were the character himself. His performance would be one of the most memorable due to the added emotional intensity and unique delivery. This was the creation of the first solo performance. Thespis is most remembered as the very first actor, which is where the term "thespian" gathers its roots from. Even though there were actors before Thespis, he seems to have been the first one who consciously attempted to create a character and perform for an audience, to the people, rather than go through the motions in attempts to please the gods. Thespis' groundbreaking performance would also set the standard where language was written specifically for individual characters, as well as developing the relationship between the chorus and individual actors or characters. Even though there is an element of myth intertwined with this story, this would mark the end of reciting words and the birth of acting by utilizing emotions to tell a story. Granted, the oral tradition was likely an emotional experience, as the stories that resonated the most evoked emotion from the audience by using the different vibrations of the human mind's emotional state.

The Theatre of Dionysus was the first theatre in Athens, and was built in the shadow of the Acropolis. Eventually, theatres would become so popular that they sprouted up all over Athens. When the plays and festivals were not occurring, these theatres would be used for religious practices and communication with the gods. Once again, would the religious official become the actor and performer with the gods as the audience and receivers of the performance? Clearly, this shows the rich relationship between the supernatural and the stage. Theatre is much more than just a stage with actors and costumes, but truly an experience where metaphysical worlds converge and the lines between spirit and reality are blurred.

The structure of Greek plays was influenced by the early dithyrambs and a storytelling structure that was founded upon oral tradition and ritual reenactment. The earliest Greek plays only had one actor in them, the protagonist, and then a chorus of people who would aid in telling the story. Hence where the term "Greek chorus" originated. The chorus is a common trait in Greek plays. Greek playwright Aeschylus then added a second speaking role to his plays, which would become the antagonist. Sophocles, a pupil of Aeschylus, would go on to add in an actor for the prologue, who would set the stage for the play, and then the deus ex machina, who would swoop in to tie up any loose ends. Medea is a perfect example of a deus ex machina coming in to help the main character flee after she murdered her and Jason's children, but not before killing the woman betrothed to marry Jason (Princess Glauce) and her father (King Creon). The deus ex machina came in the form of a chariot given to her and driven by her grandfather, Helios, also known as the god of the sun. In this context, the gods provided a way out for the main character when circumstances would originally look grim; there is almost a miraculous element to this.

Greek plays revolved around human interaction with the gods. Normally there would be some lesson to be taken away from the play with some sort of moral advice. These plays are dramatized interactions with the gods, whether the deities were active characters in the plays or not. They were clear indications of the amount of faith that was put into the Greek gods in seeking to please them. These plays were used to investigate and explore the world in which the Greeks lived. There were spiritual benefits in watching a play. The term catharsis, coined by Aristotle, means to purge, purify or cleanse the body of emotions. Catharsis was seen as the result of tragedy, which was healthy for the soul. Watching these hypothetical interactions with the gods on a stage provided lessons in such a way that guided people on how to live their daily lives in honoring and interacting with the gods. Many of these hypothetical situations (in the form of plays) would have tragic endings, serving as a lesson and a grim reminder of how much control humans really did possess over their own lives and the choices they made.


Excerpted from The Haunted Actor by Alex Matsuo. Copyright © 2014 Alex Matsuo. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Acknowledgements, ix,
Introduction, xi,
Chapter 1 The Spiritual Influence on the Origin of Theatre, 1,
Chapter 2 Supernatural Belief in Elizabethan England, 11,
Chapter 3 The Ghosts of Japanese Theatre, 29,
Chapter 4 The Theatre and Spiritualism, 47,
Chapter 5 A Brief Overview of the Portrayal of the Supernatural in Contemporary Theatre, 57,
Chapter 6 Performance Magic, 70,
Chapter 7 Witchcraft and the Stage, 81,
Chapter 8 Acting Techniques as Portals, 96,
Chapter 9 Ritual and Performance, 110,
Chapter 10 The Actor and The Shaman, 117,
Chapter 11 Dramatic Curses and Superstitions, 129,
Chapter 12 Performance as the Catalyst, 139,
Chapter 13 Creating a Production out of Investigating, 153,
Epilogue "All the World's A Stage", 169,
Bibliography, 177,
About the Author, 183,

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