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Turner: From Ritual to Theatre

Turners (1982) analysis on cultural performance has much relevance to the project, his book: ‘From Ritual to Theatre’ (1982), provides an informative study of the ways in which performances can be perceived. Turner highlights the factors that can contribute to the true expression which often lies under the capitalist culture in which entertainments such as ‘The Venezian Carnival’ exist.

In Turners (1982) analysis of social dramas it is noted that entertainments such as theatre are often a way in which to ensure that issues within society are not left unaddressed. Turner writes of ‘social dramas’ as a way in which to address issues and also highlight possible solutions in a very indirect form yet establishing the order and avoiding a revolt against that order as such. Turner has named this concept ‘redressive machinery’ and it purpose is defined as:

To patch up quarrels, “mend” broken social ties, “seal up punctures” in the “social fabric,” by the juridical means of courts and the judicial process or the ritual means provided by religious institutions. (1982:10)

Turners develops this concept of ‘social dramas’ as a way in which to neutralise problems within society, recent events such as the 2011 riots that spread across the UK within this notion can be viewed as a escalation within modern society, of a social drama:

Social life, then, even its apparently quickest moments, is characteristically “pregnant” with social dramas. It is as though each of us has a “peace” face and a “war” face, that we are programmes for co-operation, but prepared for conflict. (Turner 1982:11)

Here Turner has highlighted that if a situation or issue within society is not addressed, there is no kind of social functions suggesting a remedy it can become a much larger concern.  Turner goes on to explain there are 3 stages of ‘social drama’, the first stage being the initial state of the social drama, as the human race has developed there is now many more ways in which to assign meaning to words, images in which are infiltrated into society, the second stage is when the social drama is present within all aspects of life’s Turner relates this to time, place and “all levels if socio-cultural organization” (Turner 1982: 11). The third stage of this process is the “mode of redress”, providing a way in which to deal with the issue, or could also be viewed as a form of escapism from the issue. Theatre is placed within this third stage of ‘social drama’ and it is within this third stage that Venice and the Carnival has much relevance, as a form in which as Mikhail Bakhtin has highlighted provided a way in which to escape from the social normalities and hierarchal structures. Turner (1982:12) stated that “Theatre is, indeed, a hypertrophy, an exaggeration, of jural and ritual processes; it is not a simple replication of the “natural” total procession pattern of the social drama.”

Bakhtin (1984) has highlighted how the carnival acts as a social function providing escapism from hierarchal infrastructures. Whilst in Venice it was clear that although the original uses and gratifications of the Carnival was fragmented and impacted by capitalism there were still some of the original factors that are present within the celebration which are still honoured and respected.  Aside from the hundreds of people that were aimlessly wondering around St Marks square in Venezian face masks, those individuals that had gone to a lot of effort to hide their whole identity, from the clothes that they were wearing from the ways in which they conducted themselves. Those individuals did not mind the attention of the many tourists that fluttered around them in amazements, it almost felt as though they had a point to prove. This point may have been to highlight that it was not simply a meaningless celebration. The carnival acted more as an occasion in which to celebrate a lack of social ties to hierarchal structure and a form of escapism from the norms of current society.

Turner’s (1982) work was directly influenced by Dilthey (1833-1911), collectively both academics highlighted that an essential factor within art forms such as ritual, theatre and carnival was the depiction of actual reality through performance. These art forms provide a way in which to deal with issues, and if we consider this notion to be correct, then the place of arts forms as a way of dealing with major issues may still be apparent in modern society.

If we consider the art form of theatre which is by Dilhthey (1927) described as way in which to portray real life experience. Whilst breaking the boundaries and being more experimental, venezian carnival followed the generic conventions of a theatre, by using a stage in which to showcase participiants and individuals dressed in elabourate garments. Yet as Turner(1982: 21) has highlighted social practices of ritual and art forms should be considers within the time and space of productions: “I came to see perfromances of ritual as distinct phases in the social processes whereby groups became adjusted to internal changes” (1982: 21). To truly understand the meaning of the carnival and the values that are historically attached to it, it is essential that we study the work of academics such as Bakhtin (1984) and Eco (1984) as they have much influence on this field of study.

Turners (1982) cites the work of Geppep (1909) and his 3 phase process of ‘rites of pasage’. The 3 phases are: separation, transition and incorporation. All phasesa are very much applicable to the venezian carnival:

Separation is achieved when the carnival begins, the carnival is a social celebrations in which everybody can become involved whether locals or visitors/tourists. Essentially within this stage there is a sense of peace and community. It is within the second phase of transition that Turner coins as ‘liminal phase’ describing transition as “a sort of limbo which has few of the attributes of either the preceding or subsequent profane social statuses or cultural states” (1982: 24). The third phase of incorporation would be when the individuals within society take it upon themselves to take part within the festivities and conceal their identities. Although Turners analyse is based upon ‘life cycle rituals’ it is applicable to the structure of the carnival and the way in which the carnival allows freedom from the social norm. Turner moves on to underline that although within ‘seasonal rites’ such as festivals and carnivals “elavate those of low status transiently before returning them to their permanent humbleness” (1984: 25). Whilst the carnival is taking place those that involves themsleves can be seen as in a liminal stage of neither belonging or recogniably belonging to a social structure through class or in some cases gender. After the carnival, individuals go back to their normal routine, until the next year in which they may take part again, and the notion of ‘social drama’ and its purpose is most relevant here. The carnival acts as a way in which as Turner has highlighted to deal with problems, air the major factors which in this case would be the impact that varied social classes have upon society as a whole. Presented through the liminal stage of peace and escapism.

This is once way that I feel that limality is relevant to the project and can influence our understanding and experience. We can also see ourselves to be within the ‘liminal stage’, in which we do not belong to the culture that we have entered, yet again through the social drama we can escape and take part.


Turner, V (1982) From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. London: PAJ Pubications

Gennep, Arnold van. The Rites of Passage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960 First published 1909

Dilthey, Wilhelm. Gesammeelte Schriften. Stuttgart: Teuber; Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprechet. Vol. VI, 1924; vol. VII, 1927.




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