Carnival and the Poetics of Reversal

  • Anthony Gash
Part of the New Directions in Theatre book series (NDT)


‘Reversal’ is a complex word. It may simply name a logical relation of symmetrical opposition, but shades into more evaluative words which share the Latin root -vertere (to turn): subversion, which undermines, uproots and destroys; conversion, with its Platonic and Christian history of lasting spiritual reorientation; and perversion, which, now usually used of sexual behaviour, still retains some of its original connotations of diabolic rebellion against a divinely ordained natural order — ‘women to govern men, sons the fathers, slaves freemen being total violations and perversions of nature and nations’.1 It is perhaps because they share the complexity of the word that rituals which reverse roles and suspend normal rules of conduct have attracted the attention of anthropologists, historians and semiological theorists. The purpose of this essay is to introduce some of the major issues which have been raised in these disciplines, and to suggest that it is in theatrical performance, which mediates between elite (written, prescribed) and popular (audio-visual, improvised) culture, that the paradoxes which originate in popular festivity have found their most conscious and sustained expression.


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© Anthony Gash 1993

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  • Anthony Gash

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