The Playwright As Shaman

I’ve been sharing a lot of my thoughts on the Internet lately but none of it has made it to my blog. So I think it is time to share some of my insights on my own platform instead of contributing anonymously to other public forums.

I have been reading a lot of books on shamanism and Jungian psychology. This has served as a sort of master class on writing. It has occurred to me that the playwright is a lot like a shaman. Ideally a playwright is able to explore the depths of his psyche where he will discover the unknown within himself. This knowledge is then shared with the tribe, the community in the form of the audience. Bringing knowledge of humanity, the soul, to a public which does not have the time or inclination for self-reflection can be very healing. This is precisely the role the shaman plays in his culture. The shaman makes a vision quest to the spirit world where he learns things that may have value for the tribe. The shaman goes into a trance and acts out various rituals to symbolize his insights. He may pretend to assume the form of an animal or give voice to the gods while in a state of possession. In this heightened state of consciousness he will dispense wisdom that could not be acquired or expressed while in a rational state of mind. The shaman is also considered to be the earliest form of the actor in human culture because he assumes the persona of a god or an animal, something other than himself.

Probably the earliest example of shamanism in Western theater is the play The Bacchae by Euripides. I have read various translations of this play. There are obvious elements of shamanism in the play. Dionysus represents the irrational in the form of a god who arrives in Thebes to challenge the rule of its King, Pentheus. Pentheus is too strictly rational and forbids the worship of Dionysus. The Dionysian rites are a form of divine madness induced by wine and consist of frenzied dancing and other festivities. Pentheus is punished for not allowing the irrational to find any expression in his rational city state. He is punished  by being torn apart by the Maenads. Dismemberment is a frequent symbol encountered in shamanism because it represents how the mind heals itself in extreme cases. The mind breaks down and is forced to reconstitute itself in such a way that it incorporates what has been left out.  For example, if the Self favors intellect over spirituality and refuses to give the spirit any breathing room, then the intellect must be humiliated and forced into an encounter with spirituality. When the individual has recovered from this harrowing experience he will have gained a new respect for the importance of spirituality and he will pay more attention to his inner needs, the psyche. You ignore your psyche at your own peril. Pentheus is put back together by the people of Thebes once they have realized what they have done in their madness, but this is only a dead integration and the community is severely punished. The shamanic elements in The Bacchae has been noted in the books The Greeks and the Irrational by Eric R. Dodds and A Jungian Approach to Literature by Bettina L. Knapp. I have adopted the basic story for my own work by imagining a mysterious stranger making an appearance in someone’s life, challenging them to abandon their mundane life in the pursuit of some greater glory. For example, a very comfortable office worker could be accosted by a shaman and lured into increasing irrational behavior until he loses his job. This might seem like a disaster but it can serve as the impetus to fulfill his true potential. The trick is to show how it was his own inclinations towards the irrational which had to be given expression and allowed some influence over the course of his stagnating life.

Dionysus is always in a struggle with Apollo. Read this Wikipedia article on the concept Apollonian and Dionysian. This dichotomy was explored in Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, which I was shocked to realize is something I have never read. The Birth of Tragedy is an important work of dramatic theory so I plan to read it soon.

I have expanded my study of depth psychology to cover various other aspects of the psyche. For example, there is the concept of the numinous. This word comes from the field of comparative religion and is used to describe the sense of something glorious, transcendent, awe-inspiring, and terrifying in the divine or the wholly other. The concept of the numinous was introduced in the book The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto, which I have not read yet. But I have recently read Nature and the Numinous in Mythopoeic Fantasy Literature by Chris Brawley. This book considers how fantasy writers strive to restore our sense of enchantment with the world by forcing us to envision the world in novel ways, thereby restoring novelty and bringing about a re-enchantment of the world. This can be accomplished through imaginative encounters with the supernatural, the wholly other, and other elements of fantasy. Fantasy fiction is a vision quest which results in an encounter with the unknown, an encounter with beings of the spirit world, which restores something lost to us. This is an example of healing fiction which brings me to my next avenue of exploration, James Hillman.

I’ve recently ordered James Hillman’s book, Healing Fiction, which attempts to answer the basic question, “What does the soul want?” His conclusion is that the soul wants fictions that heal. James Hillman was a prominent Post-Jungian who developed his own theories to form imaginal psychology. To argue that the soul wants fictions that heal is an interesting proposition because it has been argued that we like stories because they give meaning to life. Life is a series of seemingly random events which have to be made sense of in order to orient ourselves, to give us a sense of direction and purpose. We make sense out of these random events by stringing them together into a story. Therefore all the meaning we could possibly find in life consists of the story we tell about ourselves or the stories we tell about others. Think about it. You would never relate the actions of someone you know in a completely dispassionate manner such that you merely provide an objective observation of what actions they performed. No. You would most certainly describe their actions in context of our shared cultural framework so their actions would seem meaningful and purposeful. But since you can’t fully know another human being and their thoughts and motivations, you would be creating a story, a fiction. We simply cannot relate to each other on a strictly objective basis. Our understanding of the world is always imperfect and consists of a subjective narrative. We enjoy stories and works of fiction because they relate a series of events and provide some form of meaning for these events. If a story presents us with events and actions which don’t seem to have any connection, we just consider the story to be very complicated and praise the writer for being really sophisticated. Because no matter how hard a writer tries to present life in all its confusion, we will still discern some meaning in the fiction and congratulate ourselves for our cleverness when we discover what the writer was trying to say. Often the writer was just presenting a slice of life without actually commenting on it or coming to a moral conclusion. But we still read too much into it and it will seem meaningful.

So we should take fiction very seriously since it is literally the meaning of life. And in truth, we often take fiction more seriously than reality itself. For example, why is it such a thrill to meet a Hollywood actor in real life? Why is this person considered to be a star, a person so special they can only be compared to a star in the heavens? It is because this person has played the hero in the stories our culture has chosen to tell itself. The movie star has undertaken the hero’s journey in our myths so he appears to be larger than life, a legend. In other words, stories hold profound significance for us and the hero of the story must appear to be a very special person.

Stories can heal the person who feels that life is meaningless. We create our own personal myths to comfort us when we don’t feel very important. You should never try to tear down somebody’s personal myth. We are often very concerned when somebody appears to be living a lie, a life trapped in their own delusions. So for the sake of the truth, the absolute truth, we will tear apart their delusions and expose them to the truth about themselves and the world. This is almost always a misguided course of action. It is cruel and does not help the person. Many dramatists feel that the purpose of a play should be to break down our illusions and show us the harsh realities, but these sorts of plays are never very popular. The audience prefers plays which lead to catharsis and I would argue that this only occurs when a story is told which heals. Healing fiction is very important in the theater. This is why I’m interested in the work of James Hillman and shamanism. I recently read the book The Soul Of Shamanism by Daniel C. Noel and I’m currently reading Art as Medicine: Creating a Therapy of the Imagination by Shaun McNiff. Both of these authors were influenced by the work of  James Hillman.

I am on a quest to understand my fascination with dramatic stories and in pursuit of this knowledge the pile of books I plan to read keeps growing and growing. I will list some of the more promising books here.

The Symbolic Quest by Edward C. Whitmont which explores the significance of symbolism since the language of the psyche is symbols. Many great plays employ symbolism so it is very important to understand their significance.

The Archetype Of Initiation: Sacred Space, Ritual Process, and Personal Transformation by Robert L. Moore. It has been argued that the theater is a sacred space where the community comes together to witness a ritual enactment for the sake of personal transformation, to be initiated into one of the mysteries of life. As you can see, we keep coming back to shamanism as the essential nature of theater.

Liberating Rites: Understanding The Transformative Power Of Ritual by Tom F. Driver examines the role that ritual plays in creativity and performance. It is very difficult to grasp the significance of rituals and I’m not sure what qualifies as a ritual. But the characters in a play can be made richer by giving them little rituals, actions the actor might perform. However, the ritual would need to have some profound significance in the story. I plan to learn about rituals so I can get some ideas on how to incorporate them in my work.

The Secret Life of Puppets by Victoria Nelson concerns how the supernatural has been pushed underground by our materialistic, scientific age. But instead of disappearing the supernatural reappears in our art and entertainment which suggests that religious notions still have power over our imagination and cannot be dispelled. This is an important realization because no matter how rational we imagine we have become, the irrational still entices us and represents an ever present danger. Instead of trying to deny the irrational altogether, we should try to remain aware of how it is always influencing our decisions. This point is being made repeatedly in the books I am reading.

The Cry For Myth by Rollo May provides many examples of how durable myths in our culture come up during therapy to reveal something to the patient so he can heal. Although the power of myth to heal is often mentioned, you are rarely given any examples so this book should give me some ideas on how to craft a story that heals.

Shamanism And The Psychology of C.G. Jung: the Great Circle by Robert E. Ryan is another book on the connections that can be made between shamanism and Jungian psychology. I’ve had this book for a long time but I only recently realized that I have not read it yet.

Tools and Techniques for Character Interpretation: A Handbook of Psychology for Actors, Writers, and Directors by Robert Blumenfeld would seem to be the only book  a playwright would really need, but I don’t think this book gets into the fundamental psychology of narrative, fiction, myth, or the story and that is more essential than the psychology of characters.

Shakespeare’s Royal Self by James Kirsch is a rare book which applies Jungian analysis to some of the greatest plays ever written for the theater. Unfortunately it only analyzes the plays; Hamlet, King Lear, and MacBeth. But this book has helped me to realize that Shakespeare’s real goal was to become “well known”, to fully reveal his true worth in a society that did not give much social status to a genius. Given this goal, it is ironic that Shakespeare remains such an enigma to us that many scholars even doubt his identity. But in  a way, this just proves that you can never really know another person in a profound sense. All writing is ultimately an attempt to reveal all the additional information we have about ourselves which we feel that other people don’t have. This additional information has to be given in the form of a very difficult story that is full of symbolic meaning. That is literature!

Hamlet is essentially a murderer. The purpose of the play is to allow us to get inside the mind of a murderer. Perhaps one of the reasons why this play has endured is because it is vitally important to understand the murderous intent of powerful people! Madness in great ones must not unwatched go. Hamlet fascinates us because he promises to give us some vital insights. But ultimately Hamlet remains an enigma to us and scholars have never been able to figure out his irrational actions. The entire play concerns Hamlets efforts to conceal his true intentions and his true nature yet this seems to cause him the greatest anguish.

Sacred Play: Soul-Journeys In Contemporary Irish Theatre by Anne F. O’Reilly is the book I’m most interesting in reading at the moment. Unfortunately, I’m not very familiar with contemporary Irish drama so I’ve had to order still more books. Learning the mysteries of great playwriting is a very expensive proposition! But this book uses many plays to illustrate how drama is a journey in search of the soul, of self, of sacred meaning, of healing.

I have one final insight to offer about the relationship between playwriting and the discoveries of Jungian psychology. Playwriting can function as a form of active imagination since you imagine some aspect of your inner self as an autonomous entity and enter into dialogue with these aspects of your self. “Active imagination is a method for visualizing unconscious issues by letting them act themselves out. Active imagination can be done by visualization (which is how Jung himself did it), which can be considered similar in technique at least to shamanic journeying.” from the Wikipedia article on Active imagination.

In conclusion, you might wonder why I am putting so much effort into playwriting and the psychology of dramatic stories. Playwriting itself is not very rewarding. Playwrights don’t make a lot of money and they only enjoy a very slight amount of literary fame. In spite of that there is a fierce competition for the honor of presenting an original play on a national stage. We should wonder about that since a play only reaches a very small audience. A play only has the potential to influence a small number of people. But dramatic stories actually have enormous power in our culture. The dramatist is literally creating the stories that our culture wants to tell about itself. The dramatist literally has the power to define the meaning of our entire civilization. This may seem like hyperbole but think about the power that major motion pictures have over the collective imagination. These movies show us who we think we are as a nation. Major films become our collective self image. This power is not given lightly which is why writing for the stage or the screen is such a challenge. It is actually a very big deal and people will fight for the right to tell their story even when there is just a handful of people in the audience. You might notice that I switched from plays to motion pictures but the fact is that any dramatic story with real emotional power will reach the biggest stage or screen available. However, to answer the question as to why I feel that I, in particular, must put a lot of effort into playwriting requires a consideration of how much access a person has to his psyche and how much pressure he is under to reveal all the additional information he has about the human soul. This is a question of how one is called to become a shaman. The playwright’s job is to do the soul searching for his tribe. What nominates him for this position is the ability to do that soul searching.

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