Mimesis in Sarah Ruhl’s “Passion Play”

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:

  1. Characters
  2. Characters and their roles
  3. The author and performers
  4. 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.

Works Cited:
Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. Malcolm Heath. London: Penguin, 1996. Print.
Ruhl, Sarah. Passion Play. First ed. New York, NY: Theatre Communications Group, 2010. Print.


One comment

  1. hk1772 · November 1, 2015

    “Dear Harshini,

    Your Sarah Ruhl post had a great opening (I think you mean
    respectively rather than respectfully though..). You could do even a
    bit better. Why do you have to name harmatia and catharsis too? Will
    those tropes be engaged in this post? If yes, then keep them in the
    introduction. If not, and your aim is to distinguish and prioritize
    mimesis – then do so in a way that doesn’t suggest that you will be
    writing about the other elements too. Keep the focus on mimesis – for
    there is much to say about it, and the way that Aristotle asserted is
    utility against Plato’s fears could have been an ever stronger opening
    to being considering how acting “bleeds” into the roles one inhabits
    in one’s everyday life.

    The breakdown you offer the reader is incredibly helpful – it is
    schematic, but does not foreclose when boundaries get blurred. Good
    job. I’m interested in your identification of Pontius’ “aside” to the
    audience. Not only does that indicate the conscious indentification
    the performer has with the desires of the character (which might only
    indicate that casting in these passion plays are “typecasting” – the
    alignment of role with the disposition of the actor – but how is it
    that the allowance for the character’s speech to the audience gives
    her or him a different level of agency about the way in which they
    know they are “acting” and that they are “cast?” Few are allowed to
    acknowledge the audience – is that a moment when desires can be
    released, that there may be the potential not to be beholden to the
    way in which you are expected to perform according to someone else’s
    scripts? I say all this to you not to critique your reading, but to
    challenge you to look to dramatic and theatrical elements like the
    breaking of the fourth wall in the aside to think about how this
    places a character (in this case – not the actor) in a different time
    and space than the others, and how this can explain the power (and
    traps) of mimesis Your observation about Ruhl’s mimetic
    interpretation of the historical passion plays is really lovely and
    spot on.

    In the analysis of this epic work as a tragedy, you note a few
    elements – the inability to escape the “script” of religion, and if we
    go further, the inability to escape the “script” of gender, sexuality
    and nationality. Is this a true tragedy according to Aristotle? Or
    are you using the term in the vernacular sense. Are these characters
    elevated because of the role that they play in the Passion? What
    about their low, everyday working class status? Is that worthy of
    building a tragedy? Or is this more of a melodrama? I like that you
    pulled out the Aristotle quote about the plot and action as the
    dominant feature and that you argued for the characters they play,
    rather than the everyday characters. If you really are making this
    claim – and it is big – it would be helpful to present the
    counterarguments as well and then discredit them, so that we could
    really come to agree with your point of view.

    Your second Passion Play post was far more diaristic. What would
    happen if you don’t start a sentence with “I believe” but set up a
    series of examples you think about (you can still retain the “I” in
    the writing – to SHOW me that you come to understand how these plays
    intersect with the culture of the time and the interests of the state.
    You can do it through the framework of moving back and forth between
    the video of Oberammergau and the play, and that the work also has to
    change in order to remain relevant to its audiences. There are so
    many demands on theater, right? Not just to express one genius or a
    theater company’s collective vision – but to keep audiences
    enthralled, and to be economically sustainable so its members can earn
    a living.

    Your Hell House response could have begun at the second paragraph and
    the information that is in the first paragraph could have been
    inserted in the body of the response when you needed more explanation
    (which I don’t think you even need because you describe the scenes so
    vividly. And you note the “moral stance” of the community who puts
    the burden of self-policing on the victim rather than the perpetrator
    of a crime when it comes to sexual assault. You can express disgust
    in the response, but I also want you to name the root of that disgust
    – in this case which is a very specific function of sexism that is
    claimed as acts allowable because of a Christian value system. But
    when you write that the motivations and intentions are lost in the
    performance – you have to look carefully to see what the creators’
    goal were – they were to “scare” people into recommitting themselves
    to the church. We see spectators doing that. While the very
    primitive binary message “heaven or hell” might be reprehensible to
    you, as a scholar, you have to look to the techniques and goals of the
    work in order to break it down and find how it takes up theater as a
    technology of power – in this case the power to proselytize and align
    new “souls” with the church that produces the work. And think more
    broadly here – we do see how the father turned to his community and
    worked in the production of Hell House to see his own story
    represented and work through his crisis. The community theatrical
    endeavor gave him the opportunity to do so.

    I loved that you incorporated the object of analysis, the Ta”ziyeh
    video into your blog post. Very smart – this is why digital writing
    is progressive – one can insert the archival object into the
    analytical writing. Nice observation about the amplified sound
    leaving vibrations that can be read as an echo- a technique that
    MANIFESTS the past and present temporality embedded in the performance
    form. Nice analysis of the ways in which representation and
    manifestation work concurrently (looking at the role of the director
    who guarantees representation so that there can be no claim to an
    actor actually claiming to be Iman Hussein – your reading is spot on
    and your writing clearly conveys how you think. I’m interest in your
    last paragraph, about the traditional separation between men and
    women. While that is the “myth” of the story that is being played
    out, what does it mean that in this day and age in the 21st century,
    that status difference is still being played out through
    spatialization? How can you complicate this reading by thinking about
    the status of women now?

    And again, the heart of your Kronos post is how Toshi’s performance
    astonished and moved your while Kronos (and you demonstrate you
    understand their intent in the first two paragraphs – some of which
    could be cut and the rest should go after this initial observation to
    expand on the issue) was good, important, interesting – it didn’t
    astonish or emotionally engage you like Toshi’s did. I know that
    today we had the readings on the Apollonian and the Dionysian – I feel
    like these concepts could be really useful in this analysis and that
    the two are not in proper measure for you in this performance. Too
    much cerebral matter and the music – while beautiful – was a dream of
    an individual or individuals and did not offer an ecstatic way to bind
    you into feeling beyond yourself. Appreciation as the expression of
    an idea, as you write, on the part of the interpreters, is not the
    same as having a deep stakes in the work. And for you, that showed.

    Brava for pulling very good quotes about Orature in your other
    Ta’ziyeh response. In fact you lead with them as your topic sentence
    in several of your paragraphs and then you proceed to unpack the idea
    and use Ta’ziyeh as an example. That is excellent work.

    And finally, another excellent opening paragraph for your Couple in A
    Cage response. You summarize the concerns of the piece beautifully,
    and then you complicate N’gugi’s statement about making the structures
    of oppression visible using the anachronistic elements that tell the
    spectator this work is a hoax – except for the spectator is guilty of
    what Diana Taylor calls “percepticide” — they cannot see the clues
    right in front of the because the lingering theatricality of
    colonialism blinds them. Good reference to the museum guides – who we
    trust – but show themselves to be unreliable narrators. Narration is
    power – as you note. Think again about how the power can be taken
    back, as in the moment when we watched Veronique Doisneau.”

    -Debra Levine
    Assistant Professor of Theatre, NYU Abu Dhabi


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