The Shattering Power of the Theatre

I. “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”

Peter Brook

II. “All the world’s a stage.”

William Shakespeare


Adrian Lester as Hamlet in Peter Brook’s production

Perhaps theatre is the most primal of all arts. As far as we can tell, it developed alongside and through agricultural and religious ritual. The mask, its main symbol, is age old, with the first objects of this kind dating back to the Neolithic period (ca 7000 BC). In Ancient Greece, theatre was dedicated to and inextricable from the cult of Dionysus. Drama and dream are two words that come from a common root, which means that the theatre offers a way of looking behind the curtain straight into the eternal dimension. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche saw the beginning of the theatre in the ecstatic performance of hymns sung and danced in honor of Dionysus:

“In the Dionysian dithyramb man is aroused to the highest intensity of all his symbolic capabilities. Something never felt before forces itself into expression — the destruction of the veil of Maja, the sense of oneness as the presiding genius of form, of nature itself. Now the essence of nature must express itself symbolically; a new world of symbols is necessary, the entire symbolism of the body, not just the symbolism of mouth, face, and words, but the full gestures of the dance — all the limbs moving to the rhythm. And then the other symbolic powers grow, those of music, rhythm, dynamics, and harmony — all with sudden spontaneity.”

In his classic work Dionysus: Myth and Cult, Walter Otto speaks of the “shattering” appearance of the god as the one who simultaneously brings “pandemonium and silence.” The central Dionysian symbol appears to be the mask. Otto saw the mask as “the strongest symbol of presence.” In his view, it depicts a god or spirit who appears, who is encountered, but who is also a being from beyond:

“It is the symbol and the manifestation of that which is simultaneously there and not there; that which is excruciatingly near, that which is completely absent – both in one reality. … The final secrets of existence and non-existence transfix mankind with monstrous eyes.”

In this passage Otto captures the essence of the theatre: it is palpable and material, arresting and tangible, but at the same time the spectator feels that there is a division, a line that cannot be crossed because the reality presented on the stage is not of this world – it invokes the metaphysical dimension.

My first theatrical epiphany occurred while watching Peter Brook’s Mahabharata on TV when I was about twelve years old. It was a deeply transformative experience, arresting from the very first moment when I saw the orange flames that preceded the opening credits. In his captivating book about the theatre entitled The Empty Space, Brook speaks of the Holy Theatre as the one which makes the invisible visible:

“We are all aware that most of life escapes our senses: a most powerful explanation of the various arts is that they talk of patterns which we can only begin to recognize when they manifest themselves as rhythms or shapes. We observe that the behaviour of people, of crowds, of history, obeys such recurrent patterns. We hear that trumpets destroyed the walls of Jericho, we recognize that a magical thing called music can come from men in white ties and tails, blowing, waving, thumping and scraping away. Despite the absurd means that produce it, through the concrete in music we recognize the abstract, we understand that ordinary men and their clumsy instruments are transformed by an art of possession. We may make a personality cult of the conductor, but we are aware that he is not really making the music, it is making him—if he is relaxed, open and attuned, then the invisible will take possession of him; through him, it will reach us.”



Peter Brook

The theatre has the power of awakening our imagination, through which our inner eye opens to the images that populate the invisible. On the stage, objects, gestures and words transform into universal symbols. If what we have experienced was the Holy Theatre, we feel that a profound and invisible eternal truth has made itself present in our midst. The transient moment that can never be repeated in the same way (the theatre is all about portend though fleeting moments) has been endowed with a symbolic dimension. I remember being particularly struck by a performance of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting of Godot, which I saw years ago on a school trip. One prop particularly caught my attention with an irresistible force: a suitcase full of sand carried by Lucky, a slave to the character Pozzo. I resonate deeply with the following passage from Brook, in which he gives homage to Beckett’s unique talent of symbolization:

“Beckett’s plays are symbols in an exact sense of the word. A false symbol is soft and vague: a true symbol is hard and clear. When we say ‘symbolic’ we often mean something drearily obscure: a true symbol is specific, it is the only form a certain truth can take. The two men waiting by a stunted tree, the man recording himself on tapes, the two men marooned in a tower, the woman buried to her waist in sand, the parents in the dustbins, the three heads in the urns: these are pure inventions, fresh images sharply defined—and they stand on the stage as objects. They are theatre machines. People smile at them, but they hold their ground: they are critic proof. We get nowhere if we expect to be told what they mean, yet each one has a relation with us we can’t deny. If we accept this, the symbol opens in us a great and wondering O.”


Symbols are eternally reborn in modern costumes. The great artists of the theatre have never had any doubts about the fluidity of all material representations of the underlying symbolic order. We have seen marvellous performances of female Hamlets, as we have seen Hamlets of all races. The Tragedy of Hamlet envisaged by Peter Brook achieved the seemingly impossible by bringing Hamlet back to life for the modern audience. As one critic wrote,


“It is a landmark production of the most hackneyed great play in history precisely because it compels us to see it with utterly fresh eyes. The fine Polish critic Jan Kott–an influence on Brook’s early work–wrote memorably about Hamlet that he’s become like Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. ‘We know she is smiling even before we have seen the picture,’ Kott wrote. ‘Mona Lisa’s smile has been separated from the picture, as it were.’ … Peter Brook’s aim is to see behind the smile.”


The sublime way Adrian Lester delivers the famous monologue sounds unbelievably contemporary.

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11 Responses to The Shattering Power of the Theatre

  1. The Liverpudlian poet Brian Patten wrote a poem about masks –

    One night a poem came up to a poet
    From now on, it said, you must wear a mask.
    What kind of mask? asked the poet.
    A rose mask, said the poem.
    I’ve used it already, said the poet,
    I’ve exhausted it.
    Then wear the mask that’s made out of
    a nightingale’s song, use that mask.
    Oh, it’s an old mask, said the poet,
    it’s all used up.
    Nonsense, said the poem, it’s the perfect mask,
    still, try on the god mask,
    now that mask illuminates heaven.
    It’s a tight mask, said the poet,
    and the stars crawl about in it like ants.
    Then try on the troubador’s mask, or the singer’s mask,
    try on all the popular masks.
    I have, said the poet, but they fit so easily.

    The poem was getting impatient,
    it stamped its feet like a child,
    it screamed. Then try on your own face,
    try the one mask that terrifies,
    the mask only you could possibly use,
    the mask only you could wear out.

    The poet tore at his face til it bled,
    this mask? he yelled, this mask?
    Yes, said the poem, yes.

    But the poet was tired of masks,
    he had lived too long with them,
    he snatched at the poem and stuck it in his face.
    Its screams were muffled, it wept, it tried to be lyrical,
    it wriggled into his eyes and mouth.

    Next day his friends were afraid of him,
    he looked so distorted.
    Now it’s the right mask, said the poem, the right mask.
    It clung to him lovingly and never let go again.
    Brian Patten

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Maia Tuitele says:

    I’ve thought a lot in the past few years about theater, what it can do, and how it can be misunderstood, in the context of its relationship with shamanism. Shamanism is often called “theater” in a dismissive way, meaning that it’s fake, a performance with no connection to reality. In my admittedly biased opinion, that shows profound misunderstanding of both theater and shamanism.

    Yes, shamans can and often do engage in very theatrical displays, acting out aspects of the journey for those watching and for the one being journeyed for. That’s theater; it functions to make present a process none of those people can witness directly, and ironically given the general opinion of such theatrics, to make it more real and more healing for them. Watching Adrian Lester’s monologue, I see similar things: He invites us in, draws us closer to witness the healing in the play — brutal and tragic, but an at least temporary restoration of order from the outrageous chaos-illness that characterizes the play’s events until the very end.

    All this is understood more now than it was in the academic literature of, say, 50 years ago, but the understanding is still uncomfortable and imperfect, and tinged with an alarmingly demeaning attitude of “Those savages need that kind of frippery.” This from people who come from cultures that often fail to understand the difference between entertainment media and reality. (Think that’s exaggerated? Ask someone who’s never been here what the southern US is like, and you’ll get an answer cobbled entirely from movies that are 50 years out of date even if they were made last month.)

    I say all this as a shaman who doesn’t “perform,” because in only the most extraordinary circumstances are others present when I journey. I understand the purpose and value of shamanic theater, though, and I believe an argument can be made that if shamans were the first spiritual practitioners, they were also the first professional actors.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks a lot – very interesting and valid points. I omitted the following quote from my post in the last edit, but I think it pertains to what you said: “All drama began as sacred or magical drama, seasonally performed, having the same universal theme: the challenge, trial, marriage, sacrifice, and resurrection of the hero, or sacred king, or savior. The audience participated with songs, dances, sexual orgies, laments, eating the god and rejoicing at his restoration. One object was attainment of religious ecstasy: entering into the “dream.” (Barbara G. Walker).


  3. Jeff Japp says:

    Great post Monika. I love live theater. There is an outdoor amphitheater Will be going there soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. herongrace says:

    Were our first stages sacred spaces where donning the masks and costumes representing the Gods, we asked them to accept us as their channels to receive their gifts bestowed upon us?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Definitely. It is said that theatre began in Greece, but more and more scholars agree that already in Egypt a ritual drama in the festival of Osiris was the first theatrical achievement. Granted, the word theatre was invented by the Greeks, but the experience is much, much older and definitely connected to religious rituals.


      • herongrace says:

        Thanks! I always believe that what we are told came out of ancient Greece, leads back to a far more ancient and civilised Egypt.

        Liked by 1 person

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