The Theatre City-State: The Ritual Practice of Time as a Powerful Political Drama

The dramaturgy and choreographic setting of the temporal ritual practices, documented on the various public stone monuments, were in most cases under the authority of the k’uhul ajaw. The fact that the ceremonies were displayed on visible stone monument implies that they were public rituals. I argue that the media of the ritual, i.e. the monuments presented in public space, made it a social theatre or social drama not only when the actual ceremony was conducted but also for a future audience. The media constitute the message where there is a “poetics of power” and “decor theatral” (Geertz 1980: 123).

I have borrowed the term “Theatre State” from Clifford Geertz’s influential analysis of the state system (Negara) of nineteenth-century Bali (Geertz 1980), as a useful categorisation for the public display of rituals, history and power on monuments from the classic Maya culture. The expressive nature of the ceremony creates a spectacle or theatre. A political-religious statement is materialised in the theatre state: “... in which the kings and princes were the impresarios, the priests the directors, and the peasants the supporting cast, stage crew and audience” (Geertz 1980: 13). Geertz maintains that political rituals not only gives form but also constructs power. The monarch is created by the ritual cult that represents “an argument” for his power (Geertz 1980: 13; 102; 123-124; 131; 136). Public display constitutes a strategy of political rituals or, in this context the religious-political ritual, where power is symbolically perceived as coming from a metaphysical reality. The theatre state of Java in the nineteenth-century of Bali was the “micro cosmos of the supernatural order”—“an image of ... the universe on smaller scale”—and the material embodiment of political order’ (Geertz 1980: 13). A “dramaturgy of power” is set in a supernatural mode through symbolic rituals (Cohen 1981). These dramaturgical and symbolic techniques may be conscious strategies staged by the elite to serve a political goal. But Geertz stress that the public rituals in Bali

... were not means to political ends: they were the ends themselves, they were what the state was for. Court ceremonialism was the driving force of court politics; and mass ritual was not a device to shore up the state, but rather the state, even in its final gasp, was a device for the enactment of mass ritual. Power served pomp, not pomp power (Geertz 1980: 13).

The ceremonies only stated “social inequality and status pride” and cannot be explained in terms of their social and political functions. Ritual is not a mask or a form for power—the imposition of the will of one person or a group according to Geertz (Geertz 1980: 13, 122-123).

I do not entirely share this view. Political rituals, rather, “construct, display and promote the power of political institutions” (Bell 1997: 128-129). Religious-political rituals can signify and function as a justifier of power and as an instrument of social control where it reflects the belief and values of the dominant social group. Ritual creates a cultural construction of reality. It can be a strategic practice of the elite where it exhibits the ideology of the world-view of the aristocracy. The ritual system, where there is a cosmological ordering in a theatre style is also applied to invest the performer with charisma. It can therefore legitimate power as part of the cosmic and social order. The classic Maya did this when they, in their “theatre” city-states, erected public stone monuments and sculptures choreographing their conquests, life histories and dynastic histories but conceivably most importantly: exercising publically temporal ritual practices of their exclusive Long Count calendar. We remember that the final extant recorded Long Count calendar dates symbolise the end of the classic Maya civilisation under the hegemony of the k’uhul ajaw and his/her aristocratic dynasty.[1]

  • [1] The last surviving date of the Long Count recorded on a stela is found at Tzibanche,Mexico on (889 ad) (Martin and Grube 2000: 13; Montgomery 2002: 70).
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