William Beeman- The Anthropology of Theater and Spectacle

Beeman, W. (1993). The Anthropology of Theater and Spectacle. Annual Review of Anthropology, 22, 369-393.

At the time of his writing, theater and spectacle had been conceptualized as separate and thus had different means of evaluation. However, Beeman argues that the distinction is quite blurry. He historicizes the moment saying, “Anthropologists have studied performance largely for what it can show about other human institutions such as religion, political life, gender relations, and ethnic identity. Less study has been devoted to performance per se: its structure, its cultural meaning apart from other institutions, the conditions under which it occurs, and its place within broad patterns of community life. This neglect is particularly noticeable with respect to performative activities designed specifically to “entertain”: theater and spectacle. This is surprising because theater and spectacle are universal human institutions, to which most societies devote much time and energy.” (370).

Performance analysis has been done on ritual, but not on actual performances like theater. To distinguish theater from other kinds of performance is highly problematic because as Schechner writes, “Whether one calls a specific performance ‘ritual’ or ‘theater’ depends mostly on context and function. A performance is called theater or ritual because of where it is performed, by whom and under what circumstances”.  (378).

Traditional differences between theater and spectacle have included efficacy versus entertainment (378-379) and symbolic reality (framed and separated versus real-life). Also, the role of audience separates them (380).
“Spectacle is a public display of society’s central meaningful elements. Parades, festivals, and other such events occur at regular intervals and are frequently deeply meaningful for a society. The meaningfulness of a spectacle is usually proportionate to the degree to which the elements displayed to the public seem to represent key elements in the public’s cultural and emotional life.” (380).

Theater genres vary according to media, nature of performances, nature of content, and role of audience.

Regardless, the meaning of theater vs. spectacle in human society is unknown. Turner suggests theaters origins lie in ritual behavior.

Social Drama is overt drama with an implicit rhetorical structure. Stage Drama is a manifest performance with implicit social process. (385).


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