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Dionysos and the theatre

  Dionysos
and theatrical performance
  Dionysos
and the origin of theatre
  Nietzsche,
The Birth of tragedy
 

Anyone who has been to Athens will know the theatre of Dionysos at the foot of the Acropolis ; any Hellenist knows that the dramatics competitions took place during the festivals of Dionysos, the Dionysies. The link between the god and theatrical performances is thus clearly established.
Although it is easy to bring together the satirical drama, the dithyramb and the comedy of the cult - the dionysian cortège, the connection between this very cult and the origin of Greek tragedy gives the opportunity for the emergence of diverging and even contradictory interpretations. Nietzsche's essay, The birth of Tragedy, is not the least famous entity of this controversy.

Dionysos and theatrical performance

The Dionysies

Not only did the Dionysies festival require numerous arrangements concerning the preparation of the competition, but it also entailed making arrangements to ensure the presence of the god, Dionysos Eleuthereus. The cult of the god travelled to Athens from Eleuther, North-East of Attica. The statue of the god, usually located in the theatre of Dionysos in Athens, was carried to Eleuther for the occasion before being returned to Athens under the glow of torches, to symbolize the god's arrival.
Dès le premier jour du festival, toute la ville était en liesse. Une grande procession accompagnée de danses et de chants satyriques ouvrait la cérémonie. From the first day of the festival, the whole town was jubilant. A huge procession accompanied with dances and satiric songs opened the ceremony. Enormous phalluses were carried - symbols of the god's gift of fertility, a bull and other animals were prepared for the sacrifice which took place once the procession reached the theatre. According to H.C. Baldry, we overlook the exact arrangement of the competition: dithyramb competitions, dramatic competitions, the main attraction of the festival. This was preceded by the sacrifice of a suckling pig and purifying libations. H.Jeanmaire provides the greatest details: the cyclic choruses competed on the 9th Elapheborion, the comic choruses on the 10th, the tragic competitions took place on the 11th and 12th.
Pour comprendre quelle signification pouvaient avoir ces fêtes pour les citoyens athéniens, H.C. Baldry propose de les comparer d'une part à " une cTo understand what meaning these festivals could have held for Athenian citizens, H.C. Baldry suggests comparing them on one hand to "a medieval religious ceremony celebrated in an overcrowded cathedral" and, on the other hand, concerning its popular side, to a "big football match in a modern city". If the theatre really held 30,000 viewers, the cost of such events has no equivalent to modern times.
To know more about the Dionysies and theatrical competitions, we suggest reading the text of Pierre Chuvins' conference (Paris X) on Sophocles.

Origin and evolution of the theatre according to the Ancients

According to the ancients, such as Aristotle, the dramatic genre, which appeared in Attic at the end of the Vth century, was previously developed elsewhere, notably in the Peloponnese.
Furthermore, they interconnected these genres : the phallic processions would have provided the comedy. As for tragedy, according to Aristotle (Poetic, 4), it was derived from those who gave substance to the dithyramb and to satirical drama.

Dionysos and the origin of the theatre

The comedy

For this genre, the association with Dionysos, although badly defined, seems evident. Mask scenarios, at the origin of comedy, took place amongst the rustic festivities which were placed under the patronage of Dionysos and therefore associated or identified with a phallic divinity. Nevertheless, the masks and characters of the comedy are distinct from Dionysos, monsters from his cortège and from episodes of his legend.

The dithyramb

This genre, veritable incantation to the god, creates dance and music accompanied by the characteristic dionysian sacrifice and is associated with the cult of Dionysos. It conveys the passage of cultual action to the literary and above all musical genre.
A number of theories, including Aristotle's, maintain that the other theatrical genres are derived from the dithyramb.
However according to H. Jeanmaire the three pure theatrical genres are those which comprise masks and disguises, investing the actors and choruses with personalities. In that, they differ from the dithyramb for which there is no allusion to mask wearing.

The satirical drama

The actors and singers are dressed in such a way as to represent these fantasy beings which are satyrs and silenus figures. The acrobatic dances of the satyrs are furthermore one of the attractions of the show, directly linked to Dionysos and his cortège. This little known genre was introduced in Attic by Pratinas, undoubtedly at the beginning of Eschylus' career. It was quickly incorporated as a fourth element to the grouping of tragic plays to form a tetrology (cf. Euripides' Cyclops or Sophocles' The Bloodhounds). Of a form quite close to that of tragedy, this proved a successful genre. Satiric drama contributed to "taming" the original wild god, into a less disturbing god, funny even, as we shall see in the comedy.
Dionysos' natural place in these three theatrical forms explains his godly personality within theatre. Naturally, the question of tragedy should be explored.

Tragedy : a few aspects of the polemic

As we have already established, according to Aristotle tragedy is derived from the dithyramb and from satirical drama. But here it is appropriate to draw attention to the fact that, aside The Bacchae and The Madness of Heracles, Dionysos is never represented in Greek tragedy. Here lies one of the paradoxes of the relationship between the god and the dramatic genre.

Fernand Robert, quoted and analysed by H. Jeanmaire in a study into the origins of the word "tragedy", takes his position without ambiguity : "What we can be certain of, concerning the origins of tragedy, is that it definitely does not come from the cult of Dionysos. What we call "tragedy" is a literary genre which was born in Athens and evolved from an originally one-person chorus to which was added one actor, then two, then three ; and nobody would contest that this evolution came about at the theatre of Dionysos, at least in Attic sanctuaries, on the occasion of these festivals. But the chorus was only appended to the cult of Dionysos."
Indeed, if one were to believe the text of Herodotus (V, 67), it would be Cleisthenes (tyrant of Sicyon and leader of the people's party) who, in an anti-aristocratic reform, would have linked to Dionysos (the god of the masses) the tragic choruses until then consecrated to the hero Adraste.

Amongst the theories which link the origin of tragedy to Dionysos, this is the one founded on the etymology of the word "tragedy". "Tragôdia" comes from "tragos", the goat and "ôdè", the song. This would therefore be the song performed by the tragôdoi, the half-men half-goats, the satyrs of the dionysiac cortège, unless it concerns a song for a competition for which the prize would be a goat, or even on the occasion of the sacrifice of a goat.
The other school of thought, questioned by H. Jeanmaire, leans on the role of masks which some consider hark back to the funerary origins of the dionysian cult and tragedy. There is no evidence that the cult of Dionysos is entirely mimetic, that the death of the god was represented, thus explaining the emergence of the dramatic play.
The theory developed by Walter F. Otto in Dionysos, le mythe et le culte (Dionysos, the myth and the cult) is more convincing. It underlines the importance of the mask which tells us of the apparition of Dionysos, in all the enigma of his ambiguity, of his duality. This duality, which is consistent throughout the god's actions, is at the origin of the fascination which he exerts ; it is the expression of his savagery and source of his mania. This role of the mask is obviously recurrent in tragedy. But let's leave the last word to the author who expresses it as follows in the conclusion of his book :
" The grandeur of the dionysian spirit survives in tragedy. […] To conclude we must ask the fundamental question : what is the meaning of the fact that tragedy saw a universal growth during the cult of Dionysos ?
What we are accustomed to calling tragic is not specific to tragedy. Its substance, the heroic myth, is in itself tragic. Nevertheless, in its recreation through the immediacy of the representation, the tragic removes itself and springs back with such powerful emotion that this could rightfully pass for its defining feature. The dionysian spirit and the splendour of his fire has been proclaimed through this dramatic immediacy, through which the life of the myth - having appeared in the epos and chorus singing - has been elevated to an awe-inspiring rebirth. Neither suffering nor nostalgia of the human soul is conveyed by this excitement, but the full truth of the world of Dionysos, the original phenomenon of duality, of the bodily presence of the remote, of the thrilling meeting with the irreversible, of the brotherhood of life with death.
This duality is symbolized by the mask. […]
Mania touched him [the wearer of the mask], element of the mystery of a crazed god, of the spirit of the double-self, who lives in the mask, and for whom the theatre actor is the latest offspring. "

Nietzsche, The Birth of tragedy

The birth of tragedy presents itself as a reflection of the genesis of this art-form, observed in the mirror of Hellenic civilisation. The essay therefore transcends the single subject of tragedy to which the following lines are limited.

The oppositions

The whole book is based on a series of opposition. Right from the introduction, Nietzsche outlines the major points by opposing Dionysos and Socrates in terms which may be summarized as follows :

Dionysos
Socrates
Pessimism Optimism
Art Science
Instinct Rational knowledge
Plenitude Decadence
Fecondity Sterility

According to him, the evolution of civilisation presents itself as modern civilisation returning to dionysian values after a long period inspired by Socrates.
Nevertheless, the most famous opposition is the one which falls between the apollonian and dionysian minds. To start with Nietzsche associates sculpture, dream, prophecy, all that is light ; then music, narcotic beverage, inebriation, the coming of spring, the reconciliation of man with nature. Through the "songs and dances, man shows himself to be a member of a community which surpasses him."
It would also be appropriate to distinguish the dionysian Barbarian characterised by sexual liberty and bestial tendencies, from the Dionysian Greek who is differentiated through the reconciliation of Apollo with Dionysos.
Music holds a primary place in the Apollo / Dionysos opposition. Apollonian music is, according to Nietzsche, a "Doric architecture in sonic mode". To dionysian music, the emotional power of sound, the flow of the melody, dance which imprints its rhythmic movement on all the limbs of the body, which implies that one has reached supreme transcendence. The lyric poet, primitive artist, identified with primitive reality, his suffering the source of the music which comes to him as in a symbolic dream under the effect of the apollonian dream.

The origin of tragedy

According to the tradition, Greek tragedy is derived from an antique chorus which was the original play. Nietzsche examines the theory of Schiller, according to which the chorus is a living wall with which the tragedy surrounds itself to be isolated from the real world and preserve its poetic freedom as a reaction to all naturalism. "The satyr, dionysian chorus, lives in a reality seen as religious, under the authority of myth and cult."
Consequently, the dionysian tragedy creates an omnipotent feeling of unity which returns the being to the heart of nature far from all human pitfalls. The satyr is the symbol of sexual omnipotence of nature. The tragedy chorus imitates this natural phenomenon through artistic means. The original dramatic phenomenon is the metamorphosis of man, an entire crowd is captivated. The dithyrambic chorus is a chorus of metamorphosed beings who have forgotten their civic past and their position in society. This sort of captivation is the condition of all dramatic art.
Originally, the scene and the action were simply designed like visions, the only reality was the chorus. This is the symbol of the crowd as prey to Dionysos. In his vision, this chorus sees Dionysos, its lord and master, and that is why the chorus still consists of servants. Sympathising with the god, it too acquires wisdom, and from it gush forth the truth and the prophecies.
Tragedy is primarily a chorus, not a play. We are witness to the duality between the dionysian lyricism of the chorus and the Apollonian dream of the scene. The tragic dialogue, Apollonian, simple, transparent and beautiful, reflects Hellenic man whom nature reveals through dance.
According to Nietzsche, and indisputably so, the subject of Greek tragedy in its most ancient form was nothing else but the Passion of Dionysos. And so up to the time of Euripides, Dionysos never ceased to be the tragic hero ; he was conveyed through a number of figures, under the mask of a "hero who fights and imprisons himself as such in the snare set by his own exceptional will."

The evolution of tragedy

From Euripide to Socrates
According to Nietzsche, Euripide broke with the original myth and put everyday man on stage, as demonstrated by Aristophanes' comedy The Frogs, and he initiated a new genre, the new Attic comedy. Euripide had eliminated this original and omnipotent element from tragedy to build it exclusively on the principals of art. But in The Bacchae, the ageing Euripide thinks that he must compose with this possessing god.
The philosopher underlines the link between Euripide and Socrates. Then the Socratic and Platonic dialogue, optimist because it makes virtuous man a happy man, rings the knell of the tragedy.

Music in tragedy
Tragedy is jeopardised when abandoned by music, for from the spirit of the music we understand the joy which accompanies the annihilation of the self, eternal effect of dionysian art. Tragic art enlightens us on the notion that all that which is born must die in pain. The genesis of Greek tragedy is truly born from music, where the role of the chorus comes into play. But only eruditely may we reassemble the omnipotence of musical effect.

The portrayal of characters
The withdrawing of the dionysian spirit is also evident in the emergence of the painting of characters who stray from the myth. The same goes for the dénouement of later dramas which no longer accommodate the mythical solace felt by the viewer at the end of the tragedies ; in fact, the reconciliation from another world is inseparable from tragic pleasure.

As a conclusion, for Nietzsche, Dionysos has the effect of detaching men from their chains of individuation, to thwart their political instincts. As for the tragic myth, it can only be understood as a concrete representation of dionysian wisdom through the process of Apollonian art.