This essay attempts to offer a thick history of the turn-of-the-century ritual idea while identifying its relationship to a nexus of formations crucial to ideas about drama and to a variety of performance practices in the twentieth century. In the 1890s works on myth and ritual in comparative religion posed a challenge to the dominant linear and evolutionary historiography of the human, at the same time placing the global primitive at the center of the idea of culture. Advocating a utilitarian theory of art (challenging the Kantian autotelic definition), the period's numerous studies of primitive aesthetics identified drama as the primal art form. The definition of drama, in its newly primitivist guise, expanded to include dance, narration with gesture, and indeed ritual itself. The new attention to ritual coincided with larger shifts in anthropological methodology, captured in the turn to fieldwork (local, presentist, firsthand, thickly descriptive). By reading ritual in these terms, anthropologists could recognize in it a distillation of culture. Early ethnographic film, preoccupied with native dance and ceremony, similarly treated performance as a text for the reading of culture. At the same time, primitive dance and ceremony served in such films as metonymies for the living yet evanescent primitive, whose culture film was to capture before it might disappear forever. Like ethnographic film, the ethnographic exhibit (in the World's Fair and elsewhere) gave primitive performance a central place: in its competing historiographical narratives and in its overarching representation of the performance of culture. For all of these phenomena, primitive performance stood for a set of countermodern and anti-aesthetic attitudes, signifying the modern as the premodern, the global as the local, the mediatized as the live, and the hyperreal as the real. These formations had profound ramifications for modernist aesthetics, for conceptions of world theater and performance in the twentieth-century academy, and for what ultimately became the global mass-culture entertainment industry.

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