Martyrdom as a performance tradition

Derek Samuel Davidson. "Martyrdom as a performance tradition." Diss. U of Washington, 2008.

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This dissertation, taking its cue from exciting new interdisciplinary approaches in scholarship, combines methodologies from cultural anthropology, Religious studies and Performance studies in its examination of phenomena it calls "performances of martyrdom," asserting that any such performance will feature the following three elements: (i) mimesis --in this case the imitation of Jesus Christ in his last hours of suffering (passion) and death; (ii) spectacle , since the gesture must be seen in order to be effective; (iii) the performer's body , which serves as the spectacle's focus. Martyrdom, this study demonstrates, depends on spectacle, in this particular case, the spectacle imitating and often including human, bodily suffering.
This dissertation ties together several apparently disparate performative phenomena--an actual martyrdom from the third century, the Medieval Flagellant Processions, the writings of Christian Mystics, and the performances of certain 20th century artists--to show that they all indeed share mimesis (here, the imitation of the action of martyrdom, which itself is an imitation of Christ's crucifixion); spectacle; and the performer's body-as-site of meaning.
By examining such different phenomena spanning so great a stretch of time, the dissertation would suggest that there is indeed at work a kind of performance tradition. In its reexamination of familiar personages and events from Antiquity and the Middle Ages, it converses with much recent new scholarship on Medieval Drama, especially the work of Jody Enders and her "Medieval theatre of cruelty." Violence, feigned or actual, represented or real, bodily or literary, is central in all the performances. That the performer's body functions as the main tool in the performance casts martyrdom as a kind of Foucauldian technology, one that can be utilized in acts of dissent, of self-empowerment, of spiritual transcendence, even of healing.
This dissertation, which closely examines a specific Christian martyrdom event from Antiquity, medieval flagellant processions and mystics, and contemporary performance artists, would be useful for anyone researching the history of early Christianity, the Middle Ages, or 20 th century Performance Art. It also demonstrates continued exploration of how to apply Turner's and Van Gennep's anthropological "rite of passage" models to new cultural phenomena.

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Status of Research or Work: 
Completed/published