Remembering the distinction which Antonin Artaud drew between ‘the Eastern theatre with its metaphysical tendencies’ and ‘the Western theatre with its psychological tendencies’, we see that this is, in fact, a distinction drawn between a theatre which, as is recognized in India, remains conscious of its sacred origin and of its peculiar function as a symbol, and a ‘profane’ theatre. The shastra teach us that theatre-art is the fifth Veda, the Natyaveda created by Brahma as a means of universal edification, since the first four could not be understood by those of lowly birth. This provides an epitome of symbols, through which such people may apprehend the path of virtue. It is a representation of the endless strife between the deva and the asura.
However, the bare liturgical bones to be found on most of the stages of Asia may also be discerned, in part at least, in Classical Greek drama. It evolved more exuberantly and lavishly in the medieval mystery plays and in the Spanish autos down to Calderon. Furthermore, it is impossible to overlook the relationship between such plays and those of the other ‘mysteries’ of Ancient Greece, as well as with the legends of initiation in both Eastern and Western secret societies. Physically the Athenian theatre is a religious monument deriving its sacred character from temples, while the performances staged in it derive from ceremonies performed in honour of the gods.
Medieval mysteries depicted three worlds - Heaven, Earth and Hell, angels, men and devils - symbolizing three states of being and what Guenon calls ‘their fundamental simultaneity’. In more general terms, the theatre stands for the world, what the audience sees as the ‘manifested’. ‘What it arouses,’ Artaud adds, ‘is the manifested.’ And because this is what it represents, the theatre can make apparent its illusory and ephemeral nature. In the parts which he plays, the actor is also the Being made manifest in a series of modalities which, in order to be real, assume a wavering and changeable appearance. Calderon called one of his autos The World’s Great Stage, and this, in fact, is just what it is.
On the other hand, the individual stands upon this great stage of the world, just as he or she becomes part of the world of the theatre when becoming a member of the audience. As such, he or she, in fact, is projected into the actor, identifying with the characters played and the feelings expressed, or is at the very least drawn into the dialogue and movement. However, simply giving expression to emotions and unravelling situations, frees the audience from what had remained locked within it, producing the well-known phenomenon of catharsis. The spectator is cleansed and purged of what he or she was incapable of casting off by their own efforts and thus the theatre helps to dissolve complexes. Its effectiveness is increased in proportion to the spectator’s playing an actor’s part and involving him- or herself in an imaginary situation. Moreno fully understood this phenomenon and employed it by making psychodrama a therapeutic technique, even trying to extend it to such collective psychoses as race riots. The value of the technique, like catharsis itself, resides in the symbolic transference of a situation which the subject has actually experienced, but which remains unexpressed and frequently in the unconscious, to the level of an imaginary situation in which restraint no longer has the same reason for operating. Spontaneity is given free rein and consequently what is in the unconscious is gradually exposed and the complex resolved. When symbols play a fully inductive role, a kind of liberation (catharsis) occurs and a modicum emerges from the depths of the unconscious to the light of retrieval. In Greek, catharsis also carried the meaning of pruning or cutting the dead wood from trees, as well as of assuaging the soul by the real or imagined satisfaction of a moral need and the ceremonies of purification to which candidates for initiation submitted. Theatre symbolism operates at all these levels.