In continuation of Part I, we will look at some things I think are issues with the usual manner of conducting the Hiramic Drama and how they may be remedied.
If the cast of the Third Degree did their job right, no candidate should be asleep, literally and metaphorically. Sadly, I have seen candidates actually fall asleep, and I have seen it during bad degree work. And that is a factor in Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty. Really, good theatrics and acting should be essential to all dramas, but I think that is something Masons all too often forget: they are conducting a drama, not ritual, and there is a difference. There is something ritualistic about the Hiramic Drama, but it is a drama first, then it is ritual second. The Hiramic Drama is a work of art. Seriously, it might be one of the most unique, brilliant, and powerful theatrical performances since… I don’t know when. Then Masons get wrapped up in getting the script letter perfect like they were doing the first section of the degree. Maybe get the oath down letter-perfect, because it is a quasi-legal agreement actionable under the Constitution of a jurisdiction, but the Hiramic Drama deserves better than a bunch of guys stammering through their lines trying to get every word stated perfectly in the exact order the ritual book says.
Stop that! We need to stop conducting ritual workshops for the Third Degree and bring in some high school theater nerds to give Masons a lesson or two in how to just roll with it, go with the flow, play off each other, improvise, how to intone and play with the cadence of speech, et cetera. Someone messes up the line? Role with it. Someone missed a word? There better not be a single sideliner shouting out what they were supposed to say. Mixed up the wording? Whatever. It makes this particular degree unique.
I will never forget the time I was doing a Master Mason Degree and acting as King Solomon. The brother who was supposed to act as King Hiram was running very late, but I’m punctual, so I appointed someone else who was capable to take their spot. Then halfway through the degree the original cast member shows up, and tries to swap places, but it is at a key interaction with King Hiram, and they are fiddling with swapping officer jewels and not saying their lines. I improvised and added a new line to keep things moving and make it seem like this is part of the work (the candidate doesn’t know that). Then the late brother says, “That’s not what you’re supposed to say.” So I improvised further: “I’m King Solomon and I say what I want, and I’m about to have King Hiram put to death if he doesn’t stop fiddling with his stuff and start doing his job. Now, where is Hiram Abif?!”
That may have been out of line, and I did get a finger wag afterward. However, such improvisation and going with the flow, not getting bogged down in getting the script perfectly verbatim is essential. Artaud advocates for theatrical productions to be open to doing it differently every time. He uses the example of Balinese theater to illustrate his point, with actors executing variations and nuanced differences that flow with the overall action. Theater is an art; not something to be regurgitated letter-perfect.
Maybe when a ruffian forgets his line, then another ruffian says it instead. And instead of the first ruffian saying, “Hey that was my line!” he should say, “You know, I was going to say the same thing! Let’s steal a boat!” Totally improvise it. Who cares? The candidate doesn’t know what the book says. Are we conducting this for the candidate or for the old guy sitting on the sidelines judging every word spoken?
Perhaps if King Solomon totally blanks on what he says next, the Secretary may say, “King Solomon, as your Court Advisor, perhaps we ought to do a roll call of the workmen to see if any are missing.” Give him a prompt, but work it into the drama, that way it sounds to the candidate like it’s a part of the Degree and not just hearing someone loudly whispering lines (and King Solomon loudly whispering back, “What?!”)
Artaud takes this a step further with his essay “No More Masterpieces.” Life is ever-changing. It doesn’t follow a script. Nothing happens the same way twice. Nor should the tragedy of Hiram Abif.
To clone objects, events, and even living beings is neither natural nor conducive to life. Martin Heidegger was certainly cognizant of this when he critiques the scientist’s true purposes in testing nature: “Modern science’s way of representing pursues and entraps nature as a calculable coherence of forces… Physics, indeed already as pure theory, sets nature up to exhibit itself as a coherence of forces calculable in advance, it orders its experiments precisely for the purpose of asking whether and how nature reports itself when set up in this way.” In other words, when we shove nature into a box and inquire how a natural phenomenon will manifest itself, we will get results that are capable of being duplicated. In fact, this is one aspect of the scientific method: that results may be duplicated by others in similar conditions. Yet nature does not exist in a confined box, nor does nature ever truly duplicate its results. Nature manifests in a multitude of ways under various uncontrollable conditions. And while it is nice to know how nature behaves in a box, it is simply not natural for nature to live in a box. The same goes for life, and the same also goes for art. Art that lives in a box is dead. It is a mummy in a coffin: perfectly preserved and ugly.
Art that is fixed and replicable is dead. Masterpieces are such that live in boxes, curated and preserved as-is in museums, photographed and duplicated in the gift shop, and have no life other “than as an object on call for inspection by a tour group ordered there by the vacation industry” (to crib Heidegger again). These are dead relics and do not call us to the life we live now, but rather ask us to be amazed at a bygone era. As Artaud expresses it:
“Recognize that what has been said is not still to be said; that an expression does not have the same value twice, does not live two lives; that all words, once spoken are dead and function only at the moment when they are uttered, that a form once it has served, cannot be used again and asks only to be replaced by another, and that the theater is the only place in the world where a gesture, once made, can never be made the same way twice. If the public does not frequent our literary masterpieces, it is because those masterpieces are literary, that is to say, fixed; and fixed in forms that no longer respond to the needs of the time. Far from blaming the public, we ought to blame the formal screen we interpose between ourselves and the public, and this new form of idolatry, the idolatry of fixed masterpieces which is one of the aspects of bourgeois conformism.”
I would say that the very idolatry Artaud warns of is the written ritual, or even worse, the letter-perfect ritual. The relentless need to perfectly replicate each and every single Degree by adhering strictly to the written ritual is a detriment to, not just the drama itself, but also the Craft as an institution; and to stray from the written ritual in any conceivable way is met with utter contempt and ridicule. Don’t believe me? Switch up a word in your ritual work and see who shouts out the exact word that was written down; or who will approach you after the degree to correct you.
There are still other problems that arise from this over-emphasized worship of the written ritual. One is an issue we have all seen: that brother who is so focused on being letter-perfect that he then begins to stutter and stumble, and constantly needs to look over at the Secretary to make sure he got it right. How awful is this? It does not just ruin the experience for the candidate, it murders Hiram a second time… how boring it must be in that grave over there listening to a guy stammer through lines. Yes, the brother successfully regurgitated the written ritual word for word but absolutely butchered the ritual itself.
Now, if someone can do the degree letter perfectly and keep it fluid and fluent, then great. Do it. Nothing wrong with striving for perfection. However, for those in which conducting letter-perfect ritual is a hindrance to them doing good work, then let them switch it up, and let them improvise a bit. Since when did we start applying the charge that “no man may innovate upon the body of Masonry” to mean everything has to be perfectly executed exactly the same way each and every time? Is switching it up an innovation? Or is it just a circumstance of good dramatic degree work? Heck, most of this stuff was not even written down, much less memorized for the first decades of modern-day Freemasonry. It used to be ad hoc, it used to be interpretive, and then when it started to get written down in illicit Masonic exposures, it was then later that we took those clandestine documents to be gospel.
This need to be letter-perfect in our ritual is a symptom of decay: the fraternity is rotting like poor Hiram in his lonely grave. This is not evidence of a living tradition. Rather, Freemasons have become curators of a dead tradition. Freemasonry has become a museum, a cold box for masterpieces to live in, and no one is allowed to touch anything.
I would seriously advocate for emphasizing dramatic production over letter-perfect ritual. I’ll say it again, don’t do ritual workshops for the Third Degree, bring in stage actors to help your lodge with its dramatic performance. Such will ensure the enactment of the Hiramic Drama remains fresh and alive, not molding in a box. It will keep your candidate awake, and engaged, and hopefully, wake him up spiritually. Who knows, it may even wake up the Craft as a whole.