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On the Origins of Theater


Mirosław Kocur

This book presents an interdisciplinary investigation into the emergence of the actor and theater. Scholarship helps us to realize how we have evolved to who we are today and to understand the transformative power of performance. The author proposes to boost and advance theater studies by reviewing new research in anthropology, archaeology, paleoanthropology, classics, ethnography, physics, cognitive science, neuroscience, theater anthropology and performance studies. Referring to his fieldwork in Bali and Tibet, and to his professional experience in theater, the author explains the role of bipedality, toolmaking and trance in the evolution of the performer, examines the performativity of space and writing, and argues that ancient culture emerged from dance.
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In the summer of 1931 – probably in early August – at the Paris Colonial Exhibition (Exposition coloniale internationale), Antonin Artaud observed a performance given by dancers and musicians from Bali. He had a revelation. In the dances of the Balinese he saw the sources of theater, a pure and autonomous art, not appropriated by literature or psychology. Very quickly, on October 1, Artaud published an enthusiastic review of the performances in the columns of Nouvelle revue française (Artaud 1931). This review, expanded and much revised, was the earliest text that Artaud included in his book Le théâtre et son double (The Theatre and Its Double) (Artaud 1938). Perhaps it was those artists from Bali who inspired one of the most important theater manifestos in the history of Western culture, a summons to a performative revolution and a call to give the theater back to the performers.

Almost a century later, I experienced an equally powerful jolt watching Balinese performances on Bali itself in the summer of 2009. After eight decades the art was still alive and fresh, and its effect in its true context of tropical nature seemed to me amazingly powerful. My experience, just like Artaud’s, was connected with a source, a point of origin; I was enraptured, though I did not understand much. My rapture was aroused by the pure performativity or the theatricality of the shows. I was dazzled by the wealth of performative practices cultivated and continually re-discovered by the Balinese....

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