In Poetics, Aristotle discusses the elements of tragedy. He introduces the concepts of mimesis, harmatia and katharsis, which respectfully mean imitation, error and purification. Mimesis is a central concept in Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play. Her play is not only a representation of the process behind constructing the Passion Play, but she focuses on the dangers of mimesis when theatre bleeds into daily life.
Focusing on the opening act of Ruhl’s play, the act creates the sense that the townsfolk are distinguished by the characters they embody. The identities of the actors and the ones they play on stage are written as being synonymous. In fact, some of the townsfolk may presume an exact likeness to their role within the Passion Play. In Scene 2: Pontius and a Traveling Friar, mimesis is presented in various ways. To break it down, the scene presents imitation as existing between:
- Characters and their roles
- The author and performers
- The author and the play
Note that Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play follows the narrative structure of a play within a play. For the purposes of this post where I focus on Act I, ‘performers’ will be a reference to the individuals as townsfolk in Ruhl’s play, and ‘characters’ will concern the roles played out by the performers.
Between the performers, there is an acknowledgement of the characters they imitate on stage. Ruhl uses mimesis as a technique to blur the distinction between reality and pretend. Pontius for instance, says he always wanted to play Christ, which is in fact the role given to his cousin. He proclaims to the audience that he wants to kill his cousin. This aside to the audience Pontius seeks to make a connection between the performer and the audience. However imitation is also seen through the character Pontius plays: Satan. Rather than Satan being a character that exists solely in a religious txt, Pontius has the duty of imitating him for the Passion Play.
Mimesis does not solely exist within the play, but also around its framework. Looking at who authored the text, ultimately the performers are being imitated – played out – by actors who are translating Ruhl’s script into a physical, visual representation. There also then exists a mimetic relationship between the author and the Passion Play itself as Ruhl is writing her own representation of the play. Aristotle asserts that imitation does not have to be about the exact whole. Instead of presenting the Passion Play directly in the three different contexts, she is turning the historical narrative into one that unifies time and place.
I believe one of the root causes of tragedy in Ruhl’s play lies in the inability for the performers to separate themselves from the character roles they play in their respective Passion Plays. Mary 1 for instance really was a virgin, till Pontius impregnated her. However she tries to convince those around her that it is a miracle of God and she is now “God’s bride” as she is concerned about being deemed a “whore”. Overcome with the idea of failing to be a true imitation of the Virgin Mary, she commits suicide. There is a Romeo-and-Juliet-like tragic ending as Pontius kills himself as well.
Ultimately however, it should be remembered that “tragedy is not an imitation of persons, but of actions and of life” (Aristotle 11). Ruhl embeds mimesis into her play through the relationship the performers have with their own characters. However it is not about who the characters are but rather who and what they represent. For instance Pontius, and Satan, embody the idea that everyone has their own dark side. The characterization of Mary 1 conveys the idea that everyone makes mistakes. Mimesis goes beyond simple imitation, and becomes a concept that centers on the representation of the real.
Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. Malcolm Heath. London: Penguin, 1996. Print.
Ruhl, Sarah. Passion Play. First ed. New York, NY: Theatre Communications Group, 2010. Print.