2016 Session: "Theaters Sacred and Profane"

Mellon School 2016
The Mellon School Class of 2016 Photo Credit: Akhila Vimal



Religious thought has long shaped the history and theory of theater. From the Festival of Dionysus to the English mystery play cycles, from Nō to Kathakali to the Rabinal Achí, theater has often been continuous with forms of worship, sacrifice, and communion. Does theater originate in religion? And if so, how has this origin shaped its history and practice? For the past century, both scholars and practitioners have been fascinated with the ritualistic origins of theater and performance; yet as much as theater borrows from ritual, it also seeks to move beyond it. How do we approach the question of theater’s debts to religion today, at a time when longstanding narratives of secularization and modernity are being revised? To what extent are our theoretical habits of mind shaped by underlying religious assumptions about the status of texts, presence, liveness, and transubstantiation? What theoretical tools and modes of inquiry (e.g., political theology, secularization theory, philosophies of religion) are available to reflect on these habits of mind? These and related questions will be explored in seminars, workshops, lectures, roundtables, and discussions.


Sarah Beckwith (Duke University) 
Henry Bial (University of Kansas) 
Marvin Carlson (CUNY Graduate Center) 
Julia Lupton (UC Irvine) 
Derek Miller (Harvard University) 
Heather Nathans (Tufts University) 
Ann Pellegrini (New York University)
Martin Puchner (Harvard University) 
Andrew Sofer (Boston College)
Emily Wilson (University of Pennsylvania)


Abimbola Adelakun
Afroditi Angelopoulou
Nadia Anwar
Bënil Biswas
Roy Brooks-Delphin
Jyana S. Browne
Amanda Culp
Helen Cushman
Sarah Dorgbadzi
Jason Eckard
Adron Farris
Hanna Golab
Kellen Hoxworth
Nicole Jerr
Marija Krnic
Michael Meere
JL Murdoch
Marden Fitzpatrick Nichols
Karen O'Brien
Miles Osgood
Claire Pamment
İrem Seçil Reel Şen
Emily Shortslef
Athena Stourna
Niko Suominen
Katherine Swimm
Dana Tanner-Kennedy
Stephanie Vella
Akhila Vimal
Katherine Walker
John Warrick
Kelly Whitford


The first amendment to the Constitution promises that, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."  Yet for a nation that was ostensibly founded by those seeking freedom from religious persecution, be they Puritans, Jews, Presbyterians, Catholics, or Quakers, the United States quickly established faith-based strictures governing our behavior -- including theatre-going -- that have remained alive in the public imagination well into the twenty-first century. 

Successive waves of evangelical uprisings, from the first and second "Great Awakenings" in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries, to contemporary Hell Houses, have challenged theatre-makers to unravel theatre's connections from the faith traditions that continue to form a critical part of what many consider an "American" identity.  Whether investigating the "synagogues of Satan" (a popular eighteenth-century American epithet for theatre), or a "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" (from the Book of Mormon), the links between American theatre and religion offer rich territory for exploration. 

This seminar examines the development of pro- and anti-theatrical rhetoric on and offstage in American culture over the past three centuries, examining plays that include religious content, characters, or rituals.  It explores both Christian and non-Christian traditions, including Puritans, Quakers, Catholics, Mormons, pagans (in the form of "witches"), Native Americans, Jews, and Muslims.  Through plays, sermons, and studies of rituals and performances beyond the playhouse, we consider how American audiences have constantly renegotiated their relationship between theatre and faith. 

Plays covered may include (among others): Triumphs of Love, Catherine Brown, the Converted Cherokee, A Tale of Lexington, SuperstitionUncle Tom’s Cabin, The Christian Slave, Deseret Deserted; or the Last Days of Brigham Young, Ben Hur, The Green Pastures, Black Nativity, Fiddler on the Roof, Back of the Throat, Please Don’t Touch the Indians, Book of MormonSister ActThe History of Invulnerability

Reading excerpts from works by: Joshua Bellin, Henry Bial, John Brooke, Jon Butler, Marvin Carlson, Gay Gibson Cima, John Fletcher, Tony Kushner, Frank Lambert, Perry Miller, William Pencak, Jacqueline Shea-Murphy, Megan Sanborn-Jones, and Jill Stevenson (among others).

SEMINAR 2: SECULAR THEATERS (Martin Puchner and Rebecca Kastleman) 
When and to what extent did the theater become secular? This seminar attempts to pose these questions by exploring how secular aspects of theatrical performance—for instance, theater as a mode of civic engagement, commercial enterprise, and artistic experimentation—have been wrested from its ritual and religious functions. Theater scholarship has tended to observe a boundary between ritual enactment and aesthetic performance, positing that each domain requires a distinct set of interpretive strategies; the field of performance studies, by contrast, has often characterized the divide between ritual and theater as a mobile and permeable one. Both scholarly frameworks assume that, at least within the western theatrical tradition, the prevailing tendency has been for ritual and theater to grow increasingly distant from each other. Our seminar begins from the position that as theater became separated from ritual, it underwent a process of secularization specific to its own medium—a process that tracked, but did not directly correspond with, similar transformations in other domains of the arts and letters, such as poetry and philosophy. Whether we understand this narrative of theatrical secularization to be one of emancipation or decline, it is necessary to articulate such a “secularization theory of the theater” and to situate this theory among our core presumptions about the theatrical medium.

In this seminar, we examine how the process of theatrical secularization unfolded, and consider this process in relation to secularization debates that have recently arisen across humanistic and social-scientific disciplines. Throughout the course, we ask how the secularization of performance has conditioned our understanding of theater as form and medium. The seminar will feature dramatic readings including Shakespeare's Richard II, Brecht’s The Seven Deadly Sins, and Soyinka's The Bacchae alongside theoretical texts by Weber, Girard, Asad, and Schmitt. Daily presentations by participants will supplement these readings and frame our queries in light of participants’ own research.