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Students: Chapter 3. Ritual

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Rituals are used to manage potential conflicts regarding status, power, space, resources, and sex. Performing rituals helps people get through difficult periods of transition and move from one life status to another. Ritual is also a way for people to connect to a collective, to remember or construct a mythic past, to build social solidarity, and to form or maintain a community. Some rituals exist between or outside daily social life; other rituals are knitted into ordinary living.

Artists of many cultures have long made art used in rituals – church music, altar pieces and devotional paintings, temple icons, masks, religious dances and dramas, and so on. Not only artists, but also governments, sports teams, schools, and other entities invent rituals. Although many rituals are long-lasting and protective of the status quo, many others evolve and change – and promote change. Sometimes rituals change formally through the work of councils, assemblies of ritual specialists, or state authorities. But often, in many cultures and in widely variant situations, rituals evolve by means of changes introduced by individuals at a local level.

Classroom Activities


  1. Go to a synagogue, mosque, or church not of your own faith. Insofar as you can without feeling dishonest, participate in the rituals. What effect does this participation have on you? Did you feel you were “playing a role” as in the theatre? Or did you experience something else?
  2. Invent a ritual. Then perform it. Then teach it to others and perform it with them. Is what you did “really” a ritual? If so, why? If not, why not?
  3. Choose a ritual that you are familiar with and adapt it for a formal performance for an audience. Does the ritual have to change to accommodate your audience? How does the meaning of the ritual change?
  4. Working with at least one other person, create a performance piece around two or more rituals. Try to choose rituals that are different from one another either in a formal way or in function or meaning.
  5. Because rituals often take place in special, sometimes sequestered places, the very act of entering the “sacred space” has an impact on participants. Create a unique performance or ritual space. How does it feel to enter that space? In what ways do you act differently once in that space? Why?


  1. Go to a zoo or watch your pet. What rituals do the animals perform? How are these related to human rituals, both sacred and secular?
  2. Rituals are often at the core of complex events such as Mardi Gras in New Orleans or St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin. Research one or both of these and identify their ritual core. What is the relationship between their ritual and the non-ritual components? (You may have to read the next chapter on Play to successfully write your response.)
  3. Have you ever experienced spontaneous communitas? Write about the event.
  4. Take a secular ritual that you regularly perform. Describe your chosen ritual in detail and compare it to a sacred ritual that you know of or perform.
  5. Rituals have often been taken out of their original non-artistic contexts  and reconfigured in or as art. Research one of the more well-known examples of this (there are several mentioned in Chapter 3, such as Antonin Artaud seeing Balinese dancers at the Colonial Exposition of Paris in 1931). What happens to a ritual when it is recontextualized?

Sample Discussion Questions


  1. Consider your day. Describe some ordinary rituals you do. Do you also take part in, or witness, any sacred or official rituals? What are the similarities/differences between these two kinds of rituals? Do you consider both kinds to be performances ? Why or why not?
  2. Have you experienced communitas during an event that was not a ritual – for example, a concert, sports event, or party? Would analyzing the event that led to your experiencing communitas “as” a ritual add to your understanding of what you experienced?
  3. Victor Turner defined the term “liminoid” to account for symbolic actions or leisure activities in modern or postmodern societies that compared to, but were very different from, the concept of the “liminal,” which he reserved for traditional or pre modern societies. Find examples of liminoid actions. Distinguish these from liminal actions.
  4. Have you used or experienced rituals in theatre, dance, and/or music? What kinds of rituals? How were they used? How did the rituals change, add to, or create meaning in the performances?
  5. Rituals change, and new rituals are invented. Why do rituals change? Can you think of an invented ritual?



Antonin Artaud (1896–1948)

French actor, director, theorist, and poet. Author of The Theatre and Its Double (1938; Eng. 1958).


Samuel Beckett (1906–89)

Irish-born playwright and novelist who spent most of his adult life residing in France. His works for the stage include Waiting for Godot (1953), Endgame (1957), and Happy Days (1961). Beckett won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969.


Peter Brook (1925– )

British director who, after heading the Royal Shakespeare Company, moved to Paris in 1970 where he founded the International Centre for Theatre Research. Among Brook’s many productions are Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade (1964), A Midsummer’s Night Dream (1970), The Mahabharata (1985), Don Giovanni (1998), and Tierno Bokar (2004). His books include The Empty Space (1968), The Shifting Point (1987), The Open Door (1995), and The Threads of Time (1998).


Martin Buber (1878–1965)

Jewish philosopher and Zionist. Buber was born in Austria, raised in the Ukraine, and was teaching in Frankfurt, Germany, when Nazism forced him in 1938 to emigrate to Israel where he became the first president of the Israeli Academy of Science and Humanities. Author of many books, including: I and Thou (1922, Eng. 1937), Eclipse of God (1952), and The Origin and Meaning of Hasidism (1960).


Martin Luther and John Calvin (1483–1546)(1509–64)

the two most important leaders of the Protestant Reformation. Luther, a German, challenged the authority of the pope and the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church. Calvin, a Frenchman, put forward his ideas on reform in The Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536). Luther’s famous “95 Theses” of 1517 protested the selling of indulgences: “when the penny jingles into the money-box, gain and avarice can be increased” (Thesis 28); and “The assurance of salvation by letters of pardon is vain, even though the commissary, nay, even though the pope himself, were to stake his soul upon it” (Thesis 52).


Paula Murray Cole (1964– )

American actor, co-head of East Coast Artists education program. Cole is a master teacher of the rasaboxes technique of emotional training. With ECA, Cole has worked with Schechner on several productions, including Chekhov’s Three Sisters (1997) and Hamlet (1999).


Jane Ellen Harrison , Gilbert Murray , and Francis Cornford (1850–1928)(1866–1957)(1874–1943)

British classicists based at Cambridge and Oxford Universities in the early part of the twentieth century who proposed several influential theories on the relationship of ritual to theatre. Their works included Harrison’s Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion (1912), Cornford’s The Origins of Attic Comedy (1914), and Murray’s Five Stages of Greek Religion (1925).


Charles Darwin (1809–82)

English naturalist who developed the theory of evolution by natural selection. In addition to his landmark The Origin of Species (1859), Darwin also wrote the increasingly influential The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872).


Émile Durkheim (1858–1917)

French social scientist. One of the founding theorists of anthropology, sociology, and psychology. Author of The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1911, Eng. 1915).


Arnold van Gennep (1873–1957)

French ethnographer and folklorist who analyzed rituals that change a person’s status in society. Gennep’s notion of the liminal has been very influential. Author of The Rites of Passage (1908, Eng. 1960).


Philip Glass (1937– )

American composer whose innovative compositions include collaborations with Robert Wilson, Einstein on the Beach (1976) and White Raven (1991) and David Henry Hwang, 1000 Airplanes on the Roof (1988) and The Voyage (1992), as well as an opera trilogy based on the works of Jean Cocteau – Orphée (1993), La Belle et la Bête (1994), and Les Enfants Terribles (1996). Glass has composed the scores for many films including: The Truman Show (1992), The Hours (2002), The Fog of War (2003), and Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry (2004).


Jane Goodall (1934– )

British ethologist, known for her research among the chimpanzees in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park. Her books include In the Shadow of Man (1971) and The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior (1986).


Martha Graham (1894–1991)

American modern dancer and choreographer. Graham choreographed more than 170 group and solo productions including Primitive Mysteries (1931), Appalachian Spring (1944), and Seraphic Dialogue (1955).


Spalding Gray (1941–2004)

American monologist, author, and actor. A member of The Performance Group (1970–80) and then The Wooster Group (1980–2004). His autobiographical performances began with the ensemble works, Three Places in Rhode Island (1975–80). In his monologues, Gray wryly told the story of his life – from his childhood through his acting career to his experiences as family man. Many of his monologues are published, including: Swimming to Cambodia (1985), Sex and Death to the Age of 14 (1986), Morning, Noon, and Night (1999), Life Interrupted (2005), and The Journals of Spalding Gray (2011).


Jerzy Grotowski (1933–99)

Polish theatre director, performer trainer, and theorist. Founding director of the Polish Laboratory Theatre (1959–84), with which he explored environmental theatre staging, scenic and textual montage, and connections between ritual and theatre. After 1965, Grotowski investigated the links between ancient and modern rituals and the interior life of what he called the “doer,” the performer. His theatre works include Stanislaw Wyspianski’s Akropolis (1962), Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1963), Calderón de la Barca’s The Constant Prince (1965) and a work based on the New Testament, Apocalypsis cum Figurus (1969). Grotowski is the author of Towards a Poor Theatre (1968) and author/subject of The Grotowski Sourcebook (1997), edited by Lisa Wolford and Richard Schechner.


Anna Halprin (1920– )

American dancer and choreographer. A pioneer in the use of expressive arts for healing and ritual-making. Her work in the 1960s had a profound influence on postmodern dance. Halprin continues to explore the uses of the arts in/as therapy – see her Returning to Health with Dance, Movement, and Imagery (2002, with Seigmar Gerken).


Doris Humphrey (1895–1958)

American dancer and choreographer. Humphrey’s major works include Life of the Bee (1929), The Shakers (1930), and Song of the West (1940–42).


Julian Huxley (1887–1975)

English biologist, author of Evolution: The Modern Synthesis (1942) and Essays of a Humanist (1964) among many other works.


Ralph Lemon (1952– )

American dancer and choreographer, known for highly emotional dances, often involving mixed media. Dance works include Joy (1989), Persephone (1991), and The Geography Trilogy (1997–2004).


Lin Hwai-Min (1949– )

Taiwanese choreographer and dancer. In 1973, he founded Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, Taiwan’s foremost modern dance company. His works include: Dream of the Red Chamber (1983), Nine Songs (1995), Moonwater (1998), Bamboo Dream (2001), and the Cursive trilogy (2001, 2003, 2005).


Konrad Lorenz (1903–89)

Austrian ethologist, winner (with Karl von Frisch and Nikolaas Tinbergen) of the 1973 Nobel Prize in medicine. His books include On Aggression (1963, Eng. 1966) and The Foundations of Ethology (1978, Eng. 1981).


Roy A. Rappaport (1926–97)

American anthropologist who analyzed the ritual performances of the Tsembaga of Papua New Guinea. He also developed a general theory of ritual. His books include Pigs for the Ancestors (1968), Ecology, Meaning, and Religion (1979), and Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (1999).


Kenneth E. Read (1917–95)

Australian anthropologist specializing in Papuan New Guinea cultures. His books include The High Valley (1965) and Return to the High Valley (1986).


Thomas Richards (1962– )

American actor whom Grotowski designated his “artistic heir.” At present, Richards heads the Grotowski Workcenter in Pontedera, Italy, where he works closely with Mario Biagini. The artistic output of the Workcenter includes: One Breath Left (1998), Dies Iræ: My Preposterous Theatrum Interioris Show (2005), and the Tracing Roads Across project (2003–06). Richards is the author of At Work with Grotowski on Physical Actions (1995).


George B. Schaller (1933– )

American ethologist, author of The Mountain Gorilla (1963) and The Serengeti Lion (1972).


Ruth St. Denis (1879–1968)

American dancer and choreographer who along with Ted Shawn (1891–1972) founded the Denishawn Dance Company in 1915. Among Denishawn’s students and dancers were Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Louis Horst. St. Denis specialized in “oriental” dances, including the Indian Radha (1906), the Japanese O-Mika (1913), and the Chinese Kuan Yin (1916).


Ratan Thiyam (1948– )

Manipuri-Indian founder-director of the Chorus Repertory Theatre. Major productions include Thiyam’s play Chakravyuha (1986) and Uttar Priyadarshi (1996), concerning the life of the Indian Buddhist King Ashoka (second century, BCE).


E. O. (Edward Osborne) Wilson (1929– )

American entomologist and pioneer of sociobiology. His works include Sociobiology (1975), On Human Nature (1978), and Consilience (1998).




Liminal and Liminoid


Victor Turner's Social Drama