Fool's Mass

from The Encyclopedia of Religion

The notion of theatre as religious ritual has become more explicit for many of Jerzy Grotowski's successors. Most notably, Peter Brook has acknowledged the inspiration of G.I. Gurdjieff (1888-1949), a major influence for Grotowski, and whose spiritual quest in turn was inspired by yogins and dervishes and employed physical movement and music. Brook, with his inter-cultural troupe of performers, has turned increasingly to an exploration of religious themes, including performance adaptations of Sufi poetry and a spectacular dramatization of the Hindu epic The Mahabharata (1985) His 1998 production, Je suis un Phènoméne, about a Russian mnemonist, implied (according to the London Times) "that the brain remains unknowable and exists in relation to yet more imponderable issues to do with friendship, God and death."

Indeed, the intensity of such work necessitates the formation of quasi or actual religious communities of performers who often abandon the role of "entertainer" in favour, not merely of improving of technical skills, but also finding an absolute immediacy of the performing gesture in a quest for a transcendent awareness.

One such troupe, Dzieci (Polish for 'children'), founded by Grotowski disciple Matt Mitler in 1997, is "dedicated to a search for the 'sacred' through the medium of theatre." Carrying this idea to pastoral lengths, it regularly visits patients in hospitals where moments of non-verbal interaction result in therapy for the patient, learning for the performer, and transcendent awareness for both. In the course of developing a theater project inspired by Aldous Huxley's The Devils of Loudun the Dzieci troupe more or less stumbled upon the idea of creating a Fool's Mass which has become its signature piece, performed repeatedly in various church settings, including New York City's Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, and also at the off-Broadway theatre, La Mama ETC. The performers wear the vestments, not of priests but of medieval bedlam idiots who are called upon by circumstance to celebrate a Mass even though they do not know how. Moving easily between the sublime and the ridiculous, drawing its audience through laughter toward participation and contemplation, the work resists being categorized as either theater or religion, becoming both at once in an event experienced by many as transformative. As they stand beside these grotesque characters in prayer, worshipers begin to participate in the liturgy with new understanding.

written by Rex Deverell

Fools Mass, December 2007