Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Art of Paradox

I would like to respond to Issac Butler's recent tribute to your favorite deity and mine, Dionysus. Bulter, while speculating on the unknowable reasons our art form originated as praise to this elusive god, made an excellent connection with the mythology of Dionysus's death and resurrection to the nature of death and rebirth in the theatre each time we close a show or begin a new production.

Butler's view of Dionysus's evident mortality is incredibly intriguing to me because I've always considered Dionysus as the Bohemian cry for an attempt at immortality. Despite the fair amount of research I've done on Dionysus both for leisure and as a theatre student, I have never found a description of him that surpassed my freshman year History professor's proclamation that "Dionysus was the god of sex, drugs, and rock and roll." This may be why I've always kind of imagined him as a cross between Jim Morrison and Tim Curry's Dr. Frankenfurter, but it's also why I've come to see him as a god of the people. Mythology shows us that the Greeks were fascinated by the concept of immortality. Deities had faults just as humans do; the only difference between them and us was their immortality. Dionysus, although he was always resurrected, had the ability to be killed. He was the only god who shared mortality with men . Still, he is often described as having everlasting youth. Historically, in Dionysus's orgiastic rituals, his maenads, whom, as Bulter pointed out were not priestesses, worked their way into a drunken undulating ecstasy in the hope to copulate with the god and conceive his child. A child fathered by Dionysus would be a demigod, and therefore one step closer to achieving immortality.

Accepting the perpetual awareness of the certain metaphorical death we must eventually experience each time we begin working on a play, I also think we're striving for a sort of immortality. A revival is not the only way to resurrect a dead play- if it was good it will live on kinesthetically and be expressed in the form of actions, ideas, memories and emotions. As Butler mentions that the rehearsal hall is a sacred place, I remember an extremely old director explaining to a student that she dressed up to attend performances because the theatre was her equivalent to church. In the sense that it provides us with emotional and intellectual enlightenment, I completely agree. Idealistically speaking, creating theatre should be an endeavor to make a memorable impact and to connect with something divine, much like the rituals of Dionysus's women.

Butler also sites Dionysus's eventual maturation as another reason he was entitled to his own festival. It is true that by the time the festival was established, he had developed and so had the Greeks. They had just established their alphabet and began recording their dramas. Perhaps not coincidentally, Dionysus was the only Olympian who could read and write. Yet as militarily and politically driven as these festivals were (they took the opportunity of the massive gathering to collect taxes), there was also a ritualistic aspect. The festival began with a reenactment of the Dionysian myth and there is evidence that over 200 animals were sacrificed in the five day stretch. Male actors dressed as women, and large phalluses were donned. We have accounts that the audience was audibly responsive, and were allowed to eat and drink during the festival.

It seems as though Dionysus was a Freudian. His world revolved around intoxication and pleasure. He would not tolerate anyone who did not believe in him and what he represented. Those who protested his divinity often went insane and met horrible deaths. Among the many examples, the most famous is portrayed in Euripides' The Bacchae, when Pentheus's head was ripped off by his own mother for doubting Dionysus. The myth of Dionysus explains that we can not afford to deny the sexual, ritualistic impulses we have. We must recognize and embrace them or else they will destroy us. Perhaps the City Dionysia was about embracing these feelings in a responsible manner. If so, the Greeks proved their civility in finding a religious place for this part of human nature, instead of degrading it as separate and non-holy.

In my discussion, I chose avenues that were unparallel to Butler’s for a purpose. The paradox of Dionysus's evident mortality versus his celebrated immortality as well as that of his inspirational intellect and uncivilized nature are just more examples of the way he represented duality. I think theatre is the art form that most readily accepts conflict and duality because these concepts are our muses and our mediums. We are simultaneously presentational and representational, metaphorical and literal, two dimensional and three dimensional, artist and spectator, teacher and student. In many ways, our art only exists within a dirty, dizzying Dionysian ritual.

**Of course, these are just some connections I've made between Dionysus and my thoughts on theatre. I am not an expert in history or mythology and even the experts are not exactly sure how Greeks viewed their art form. I do not have enough knowledge to assert that these are actually possible reasons for the festival of plays to have been a tribute to Dionysus.

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