Performing Emotion: Freemasons and the Theater of Ritual


Hundreds of years ago in France, a group of men set up dramatic lighting, put on costumes, read scripts, and acted out a dramatic story. Despite all these elements of the theater, the men were not performing for an audience or acting on a stage. This group of Masons, one of many in 18th-century France, met in secret and created elaborate performances to initiate and promote their members. Pannill Camp, associate professor of drama and co-host of On TAP: A Theater and Performing Arts Podcast, explores the purpose and significance of these secret rituals and their relationship to the wider world of 18th century drama. 



Claire Navarro (host): Thanks for listening to Hold that Thought – I’m Claire Navarro. In this week’s episode, we’re joined by Pannill Camp, a scholar of drama and performance studies here at Washington University in St. Louis. In an ongoing book project, Camp is lifting the curtain on the rituals of perhaps the world’s most well known secret fraternity: the Freemasons. You’ve probably heard that Mozart, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Gerald Ford, and many other historic figures were all Masons. Maybe you’ve even heard a conspiracy theory or two about the group. Well, it turns out that suspicion and curiosity about the Masons and their secret activities go back centuries.

Pannill Camp (guest): You know, I study the 18th century, and in the middle of the 18th century in France after Freemasonry became popular there were a series of exposures.

CN: Long before the days of cable documentaries or exposes, non-Masons managed to get access to what was going on during secret Masonic rituals – using tactics that could have come straight out of a modern-day spy movie.

PC: The story is that a dancer at the opera who was involved romantically with a Mason managed to get some of this information from this guy, and then it became published.

CN: The goal at the time was to discredit the Masons. And the orders came straight from the top.

PC: This was actually the result of state espionage. The head of the Parisian police had orders to try to see what was going on with these Masons.

CN: Fast forward a few hundred years, and despite the best efforts of the French police back in the 1700s, the Masons are still around. But luckily for scholars like Camp, so are the centuries-old descriptions of their rituals, along with documents that Masons themselves keep about their history. Camp studies theater in the 18th century – his most recent book is The First Frame: Theatre Space in Enlightenment France. When doing research for that book, he kept on running into references to Freemasonry. His curiosity sparked, while on leave he visited some archives to scope things out.

PC: So not having any idea how protected the ritual information would be - the manuscript dialogues, the descriptions of the ritual processes that I was interested in looking at - I just made an appointment to go up and spend some time in their library and look at the things that were on the shelves. In my mind I was thinking, 'Well let me spend some time here, see what they have, and then maybe next week or the next time I come back and visit, I will ask if there are ritual documents that I can look at and see what that process is of getting access to them.' I didn't want to be too forward.

CN: But it ended up that there wasn’t really a need to be so cautious.

PC: The archivist there basically suggested that I should go ahead and apply to see the secret stuff.

CN: In Camp’s experience, the Masons aren’t as secretive as you might expect – they’re actually happy to help when a serious academic want to to learn about their history. So, sorry if this disappoints some listeners, but this research story is not like some Dan Brown novel where the professor runs around avoiding danger and gathering secret clues. For Camp, the exciting part of the story is what is in those documents. Because Masonic rituals in the 18th century have a lot in common with Camp’s area of expertise – theater.

PC: The rituals themselves had a lot of elements that we think of as theatrical. There were scripts of spoken dialogue that were called catechisms. And when you look at these in the archives now you have this sort of question and answer structure, so that the participant is asked something and responds a certain way. So you have basically a play script with dialogue.

CN: There was also what we might think of stage directions and set design.

PC: You have really careful attention to the way that space is managed, so that you have curtains that hide certain things and doors and passageways that are carefully maintained. You have stagey lighting; you have candelabra and a sort of darkened area so that light and shadow are very carefully controlled.

CN: And of course we can’t leave out the costumes and props.

PC: The Masonic rituals famously involve aprons and gloves and special props, symbolic objects. So there's a lot about the rituals that are theatrical, and even from the 18th century when they were first exposed, people writing about these things would refer to them in theatrical language.

CN: At this point you might be wondering, why were these rituals even happening? Just a little context: according to Camp, in this historical moment, there were three degrees in Freemasonry: apprentice, companion, and master. When you were first initiated and then again each time you went up the ladder, you went through one of these secret rituals. Camp is especially interested in the third and final ritual, when you became a Master mason. In that ceremony, on top of the set and props and costumes, the Masons actually became actors.

PC: There in that third degree you act out the murder of Hiram Abiff.

CN: Hiram Abiff. According to the story, Hiram Abiff was the chief architect of King Solomon’s Temple back in the days of the Old Testament. He created secret handshakes and codes so that he could tell which stoneworkers were apprentices and which were masters – and so how much any worker should be paid for his work. Then one day, he was confronted by a group of lower-level workers.

PC: Those guys tried to get Hiram to divulge those secrets, and then when he wouldn't they killed him.

CN: In the secret ceremony to initiate a Master Mason, the group would act out this story – the confrontation, the murder, the aftermath, all of it. And according to Camp, this exercise was likely not simply reciting some words or going through the motions. It was an emotional experience.

PC: I've seen a Masonic ritual text that has a little sort of stage direction, which is that when it's discovered that Hiram has been murdered that other Brother Masons pull out their handkerchiefs and they sob into them.

CN: Again, you may be wondering, why? Why go through all this? With other organizations you can sign a contract to join, or maybe just enter with a handshake and a smile. Why all this theatricality and emotion? Camp has a theory about that.

PC: Well, I think that what went on in those lodge spaces was, and what continues to go on, has a lot to do with the feelings that Masons develop for each other.

CN: Feelings – not something most people think of in relation to the Masons. But maybe, just maybe, one of the reasons that Freemasonery has been so long-lasting and influential has something to do with feelings - the attachment and sense of brotherhood that members feel. And maybe those emotions can be traced back to theater, to the rituals that cause such strong emotions. The idea fascinates Camp – and it’s not something that many historians have looked at before.

PC: Historians of 18th century Freemasonry largely agree that the meaning or the importance of Freemasonry was that it cultivated certain kinds of sociability - certain kinds of ways of relating to each other in a friendly or egalitarian way among men of different social classes. But the concept of sociability and the notion that that's what's significant about Freemasonry has become so ubiquitous that I think historians have stopped asking themselves what really went on in those rooms, and why were the behaviors and the rituals and the performances so structured, so detailed. And I think one of the answers to those questions has to do with theater and has to do with the way that theatrical performance, especially in 18th century France, was self-consciously oriented towards the cultivation of sentiment.

CN: Self-consciously oriented towards the cultivation of sentiment. Basically this means that in the 18thcentury, people were really into writing plays, and also going to see plays, that would make you feel, well feelings. Strong feelings.

PC: In the same decades when Freemasonry went from being a very small and secretive phenomenon in France to being kind of a major social trend - something like, by the way, fifty thousand Frenchmen became Freemasons between 1715 and the revolution - but in those decades when the participation is growing, in French drama what you have is fascination with sentiment and pathetic feelings, tearful feelings.

CN: Just to be clear, the word pathetic in this context doesn’t mean what it usually does today.

PC: The pathetic is - that's the cognate for the French word pathetique. But this was a aesthetic concept that was very popular in the early 18th century, and actually all of 18th century French drama. The French dramatists and critics who wrote about it always identified it with tears. A pathetic feeling that you get from a play or you know a scenario that's painted, is one that moves you to want to cry.

CN: So we’re talking about the original tear-jerkers. This was a new thing at the time.

PC: The idea that you should go to the theater partly for a pleasurable feeling of wanting to cry was largely an 18th century creation; it's what we think of as sentimentalism.

PC: Very frequently in the dramatic scenarios that were thought of as pathetic you had certain types of familial relationships.

CN: Especially, familial relationships between men - fathers, sons, brothers, and importantly - friends who were so attached they felt like brothers. One example Camp has studied is called the London Merchant, an English play that was translated into French by a Mason.

PC: The dramatic engine of that story is a relationship between two different apprentices, one of whom is seduced by an immoral woman and convinced to steal and ends up committing a murder when he's under the spell of this woman. He ends up going to the gallows. The real dramatic payoff in this story is a sort of tearful goodbye scene between this apprentice and his fellow apprentice because they were such good friends, and now one of them is going to be hanged.

CN: You likely won’t see the London Merchant on a stage these days – for one, Camp thinks that audiences today would think that that final goodbye scene is way too sappy. But in 18th century France, audiences loved these themes of brotherhood and passionate friendship.

CN: You likely won’t see the London Merchant on a stage these days – for one, Camp thinks that audiences today would think that that final goodbye scene is way too sappy. But in 18th century France, audiences loved these themes of brotherhood and passionate friendship.

PC: Men who aren't actually brothers or aren't actually related by fatherhood but who learned to relate to each other in those ways.

CN: Sound familiar? Let’s go back to the secret Masonic lodge, where a group of Masons are acting out the story of Hiram Abiff.

PC: What I think the legend of Hiram partly does in that context is it creates a kind of closet drama or a kind of private theatrical scenario in which the participants can indulge in feelings of mourning and loss and sadness and fraternal and paternal and filial attachment with each other.

CN: So what’s really going on here? Why was there so much overlap between plays on stage and rituals in private? And why the obsession with brotherhood and strong emotion? Camp is exploring these types of questions in his book, but so far he sees patterns of influence that go in both directions.

PC: When those rituals are staged in the 18th century, it's easy to see that the men might have been informed by what they were seeing at the theater or thought about performing their roles in decidedly theatrical ways. On the other side of that relationship, though, when you look at mid and late 18th century French drama, you can see themes that seem to be Masonic and possibly were informed by the kinds of relationships that men in Masonic lodges were developing with each other.

CN: To understand the history and significance of these Masonic performances, in the months ahead, Camp will be diving deeper into this secret and surprisingly theatrical world. 

PC: Thanks to support from WashU and the Humanities Center, I was able to go and get copies of hundreds of different ritual texts encompassing not just the first three degrees of Masonic status but dozens of other rituals that pertain to things like the Scottish Rite, which goes up to 33 degrees, or these other rites that had sometimes 12, 14 different degrees. You can find these in the French National Library, and they're fascinating, and there's often a lot of similarity between different versions of the same degree. But figuring out how to make sense of hundreds or thousands of different descriptions and dialogues from these rituals and closely reading what the content of that communication and the content of those performances are - I think that's going to be the heart of this project.

CN: Thank you to Panill Camp for joining Hold that Thought. Pannill also has a podcast! He cohosts– On Tap: A Theater and Performance Studies Podcast, so please go give it a listen! As for this podcast, if you haven’t already subscribed – please do! You can find links on our website: Thanks for listening!