All theatre is sacramental. A theatrical event establishes itself as theatre by setting aside a measured space as inviolable for a measured time. This framing effect of theatre is sacramental. Within the frame of theatre, other sacraments can be represented or performed. Part I of this paper develops conceptual distinctions necessary to understanding the sacramental in theatre, using an ethics-based theory of sacrament. Part II sets out to use the theory, applying it to open up new questions for the interpretation of ancient Greek tragedy, and using the theory to explain certain plot elements in Sophocles' Philoctetes and other plays.
Any act of theatre has a sacramental effect. The art of theatre makes ceremonies possible, and by ceremonies we are able to make things sacred. In saying that theatre is sacramental, I am not saying that it is religious. Religious ceremonies employ the art of theatre and depend on that art, but theatre does not depend on religion. I understand sacrament as an ethical concept. A sacrament sets up an ethical hedge around something—makes it wrong to touch, to tread on, or to alter the thing in question.
By ‘theatre’ I mean the art that makes action worth watching for a measured time in a measured space. This art must of necessity draw a line between watching and being watched. Drawing that line is a minor, though fundamental, sacrament. Other sacraments may take place within the frame of theatre. My theory of the sacramental in theatre stands on its usefulness for understanding and interpreting the elements of theatre—the experiences of both the watchers and the watched in actual productions, on the one hand, and, on the other, the texts that survive to represent productions of the past. If the theory is coherent and useful, then we should use it. Otherwise, not.