Beyond the sensory world there is a world which contains mythologies, memories of self and genesis, archetypes, aliens, the holy and the profane (Bulkeley, 2009; Jung, 1974; Van de Castle, 1994). This mélange which is referred to as the unconscious holds within it the fears, stories, images, history and non-ordinary phenomena shown to us through visions, meditations, trances and shamanic journeys (Campbell, 1959; Hillman, 1979; Moustakas, 1994). Many indigenous and ancient cultures, including the Greeks, regarded dreams as sacred since they were likely to contain messages from the gods and as such required expression for the benefit of the entire tribe or village (Beeman, 1993; Hultkrantz, 1992; Kilborne, 1990). The re-enactment of dreams was important as a means of connection to the numinous for healing, wisdom, warning and understanding and as such became the point from which both theater and religion emerged (McClenon, 1997). Comprehending the wisdom of dreams and the appeasement of the spirit world were essential to survival, and thus spiritually themed theatrical rituals developed around the messages expressed through dream images. Krippner (1990) stated that the ability of ritual theater to express and reveal the meaning of dreams, then it was also a likely avenue for the petitioning of the spirits for wisdom and healing through the facilitation of the tribal shaman. The connection between dreams, theater, the sacred and healing occurred long before the advent of Western civilization (Jung, 1974; Van de Castle, 1994), and its emergence as a therapeutic technique is only another manifestation of an archaic theme.
The separation of the theater from the realm of healing and the sacred parallels the separation of dreams from sensory reality during the modern era (Artaud, 1958; Campbell, 1959; Fantz, 1998). This separation resulted in part from the positivist emphasis of science which influenced the European worldview following the Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries (DeWitt, 2010; Thomas, 1971). Shamanic societies understood the interconnection between the world of dreams and visions and the material world, particularly in the arenas of healing and the survival of the tribe (Beeman, 1993; Eliade, 1964, Hultkrantz, 1992; Kilborne, 1990; McClenon, 1997). Archaic and indigenous societies frequently perceived divinity as being imminent and therefore divine power could be harnessed for tribal benefit through ritual often with the assistance of the spirit world, including nature and the ancestors (York, 2002). Conversely the Abrahamic religions perceived divinity as separate, transcendent Creator-God whose intercession on behalf of humans required the intercession of a priest and frequently a state of grace. The Protestant Reformation in Europe emphasized the creator-creation divide (Thomas, 1971), and negated the presence of the sacred in earthly things (York, 2002). The creator-creation schism was accelerated by the scientific progress of the 18th and 19th centuries, after which science filled the void between the sacred and material realms. The theater was relegated to the status of profane entertainment (Fantz, 1998). Healing became the sole domain of scientifically trained physicians, while religion was designated as the realm of the priesthood. Any mystical manifestations of the numinous including dreams and visions were classified as imaginary, unreal, of no consequence and potentially pathological in origin (Thomas, 1971; York, 2002).
The advent of the science of psychology in the 20th century embraced a re-appraisal of the separation between the phenomenologies of the sensory consciousness and those of the unconscious (Moustakas, 1994; Shafton, 1995; Van de Castle, 1994). Pioneers in psychology, notably William James, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung re-discovered what ancient societies had incorporated as an integral part of the worldview, namely that the content of dreams provided important clues to the inner workings of the mind of any given individual (DeWitt, 2010; Jung, 1994). Throughout the 20th century the psychology of dreams became an increasingly important aspect of psychotherapy (Van de Castle, 1994), and the relationship between the unconscious and the spiritual realms began to be revealed. The significance of dreams was particularly relevant to those psychologists who explored Jung’s model of the collective unconscious with its contents of myths and archetypes (Singer, 1990). Hillman was convinced of the necessity for the dream to be integrated into the context of the sensory world in order for its healing and revelatory properties to be released (1979). He wrote that “…the dream is a compensation. To be comprehended, it calls for the other member of the pair: the day world context, the ego position, the collective situation, the preceding dream series” (p. 77).
The importance of dream work as an integral part of the process of psychotherapeutic healing was established in the decade before Fritz Perls burst upon the scene with his theory of Gestalt psychology, which was destined to bring theater back to its ancient place as a vehicle for healing and interpreting the wisdom from the unseen realms of the sacred that dreams revealed (Beeman, 1993; Fantz, 1998; Shafton, 1995; Wagner-Moore, 2004). Arthur Roberts’s essay on “Theater and Therapy” described the manner in which “…theater and psychotherapy form a fold of that continuum of human endeavor which seeks to explore our place in the universe – and they do so in a highly ritualized fashion (Fantz, 1998, p. 18). He went on to explain that “modern psychotherapy is the ritual evocation of a transformational space in which a living story is enacted and experienced. It was psychotherapy’s intrinsic similarity to the ritual space of theater which Freud, Perls and others recognized (p. 19). Roberts fails to mention that there is a phenomenological similarity between the spirit world represented in invoked in the ritual theater of indigenous and ancient peoples (including the Greeks), and in the dream theater of Gestalt psychology. He does however allude to the means by which dream therapy and re-enactment reifies Hillman’s concept of compensation and Heidegger’s concept of Dasein (1977) in a manner that transforms the individual’s worldview and manner of being in the world.
Artaud, A. (1958). The theater and its double. New York, NY: Grove Press.
Beeman, W. (1993). The anthropology of theater and spectacle. Annual Review of Anthropology. 22. 369-393.
Bulkeley, K. (2009). The religious content of dreams: A new scientific foundation. Pastoral Psychology. 58 93-106.
Campbell, J. (1959). Primitive mythology: The masks of God. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
DeWitt, R. (2010). Worldviews: An introduction to the history and philosophy of science. (2nd ed.). Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
Eliade, M. (1964). Shamanism: Archaic techniques of ecstasy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Fantz, R. (1998). The dreamer and the dream: Essays and reflections on Gestalt therapy. Cleveland, OH: The Gestalt Institute of Cleveland Press.
Heidegger, M. (1977). Basic writings. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins.
Hillman, J. (1979). The dream and the underworld. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.
Hultkrantz, A. (1992). Shamanic healing and ritual drama: Health and medicine in native North American religious traditions. New York, NY: Crossroads.
Jung, C. (1994). Dreams. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Kilborne, B. (1990). Ancient and native peoples’ dreams. In Krippner, S. (Ed.). Dreamtime and dreamwork: Decoding the language of the night. pp. 194-203. New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Perigree.
Krippner, S. (1990). Tribal shamans and their travels into dreamtime. In Krippner, S. (Ed.). Dreamtime and dreamwork: Decoding the language of the night. pp. 185-193. New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Perigree.
Moustakas, C. (1994). Existential psychotherapy and the interpretation of dreams. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc.
McClenon, J. (1997). Shamanic healing, human evolution and the origin of religion. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religions.36 (3). 345-354.
Roberts, A. (1998). Theater and therapy. In Fantz, R. The dreamer and the dream: Essays and reflections on Gestalt therapy. Cleveland, OH: The Gestalt Institute of Cleveland Press.
Shafton, A. (1995). Dream reader: Contemporary approaches to the understanding of dreams. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Singer, J. (1990). The Jungian approach to dreamwork. In Krippner, S. (Ed.). Dreamtime and dreamwork: Decoding the language of the night. pp.59-68. New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Perigree.
Thomas, K. (1971). Religion and the decline of magic. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Van de Castle, R. (1994). Our dreaming mind. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
Wagner-Moore, L. (2004). Gestalt therapy: Past, present, theory and research. Psychotherapy Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 41(2). 180-189.
York, M. (2002). Pagan theology: Paganism as a world religion. New York, NY: New York University Press.