Friday, August 21, 2009

Dionysus in 2009

In recent years my concern with ancient Greece, once lively, has diminished, as other interests have elbowed their way to the fore. Regrettably perhaps, I am not alone in this indifference. Far from it. Most people, I suspect, read translations of ancient Greek works--there are some excellent ones--only in college, never to open the books again.

With depressing regularity, classical allusions miss their mark with modern readers and audiences. Efforts to gin up the classical machine are usually futile. Many find Roberto Calasso’s lightweight postmodern retelling of certain myths in “The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony” too difficult. Of course, they will turn out for a chiton-flick if it stars Brad Pitt--but that hardly counts.

Last night I attended a spectacular production of Euripides “Bacchae” at the Delacorte in New York’s Central Park. Despite the appalling heat wave, the outdoor theater was packed. So am I wrong about the fading of ancient Greece? I don’t think so, as the popularity of this particular shocker is the exception that tests the rule--without breaking it.

Traceable in the last instance to Friedrich Nietzsche, in our own day the fascination with explorating the dark side of Greek culture stems mainly from the work of the English classicist E. R. Dodds, especially his fascinating 1951 book, “The Greeks and the Irrational.”

In the world of American theater, the turning point was Richard Schechner’s groundbreaking production called “Dionysus in 69” in a now defunct off-Broadway performance space. I was lucky enough to see it. Theater historians rank this event of forty years ago as the breakthrough that opened the way to a radical new approach to Greek drama. In its wake, imaginative directors revitalized the tradition by choosing suitable plays, and then subjecting them to a wrenching reinterpretation in a contemporary vein.

I do not have statistics attesting relative popularity of Greek tragedies in recent decades. However, one can get a general idea from the list in the weighty essay collection “Dionysus Since 69: Greek Tragedy at the Dawn of the Third Millennium” (Oxford, 2004), pp. 369-418. I heartily commend this book: it is an eye opener.

Quite possibly, the most commonly produced Greek tragedy fifty years ago was Antigone, honored since Hegel's time as an exemplary presentation of the conflict between two types of duty: to one's family vs. to the state. (See George Steiner's little book on the changing fortunes of Sophocles' play.)

Duty, duty, duty--that is a stuffy refrain that since the sixties many have not care to hear. And The Bacchae seems to meet the demands of that aversion, since the hopeless prig Pentheus, the enforcer of morality according to his lights, must needs meet a gory end. I don't know if the Marquis de Sade ever read this particular play, but I feel certain that he would have approved.

At all events in a little over a year I have seen two modern versions of The Bacchae. The first was in July of 2008 at the Rose Theater at Columbus Circle, as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. This was an import of the National Theatre of Scotland production, using an adaptation of Euripides' text by the Scottish playwright David Greig. Featuring ten soul-singing followers in place of the traditional Greek chorus, this event starred the noted actor Alan Cumming as Dionysus. Having cultivated an image as “pansexual”--reputedly he dates men and women--Cumming is also a gay activist, and contributor to AIDS causes. In the play the actor chose to play Dionysus as a flaming queen--certainly one plausible modern take on the role (and the play).

The Central Park production also had a singing chorus, with fine music by the noted minimalist Philip Glass. There the resemblence ends. Jonathan Groff, the newcomer who played the lead, elected another model, quite different from the one chosen by Cumming. Following on the heels, perhaps, of his appearance in last year’s sensational revival of “Hair!” (now continuing on Broadway with a different cast), the charismatic Groff played Dionysus as a sixties-style hippie, complete with swagger, long hair, jeans, and a leather jacket. Nothing gay about him.

In fact if this were not New York City, and the West Side of Manhattan at that, I would say that this production bordered on the homophobic, or at any rate transphobic. Poor Pentheus underwent a demasculinization ritual by being forcibly decked out in drag. This humiliation was the prelude to his death by dismemberment at the hands of the Bacchantes.

Question: now what’s humiliating about assuming drag? Don’t give the wrong answer, or I’ll send RuPaul to get you.

Since the actor cast as the doomed Pentheus was black, I suppose that one could go further and say that this production was racist as well.

Of course, this is Manhattan, so we don’t ever have to worry about such accusations. They couldn’t possibly be so. : - )



Blogger Stephen said...

When I pulled up your blog, I was listening to the finale of Gluck's "Iphigenie in Aulis," having seen "Alceste" earlier this month and listened to "Orfeo ed Euridice"—three baroque adaptations of Greek tragedies supplied happy endings.

The favorite here is "Medea[: The Musical"], going against the grain of "saving our children."

12:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I may be mistaken, but I think Oedipus Rex (which Freud truly misunderstood or deliberately distorted) is among the most popular plays on most college campuses.

The Greeks, as the First Enlightenment, demonstrate their influence in not so subtle ways. Ever seen federal buildings? The concept of tragedy and comedy, which modern audiences occasionally confuse, persist through the centuries.

No culture better understood the human drama better than the Greeks. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then the Hebrews that imitated Greek Mythology in the Torah (inferiorly, perhaps) flatter the Greeks. Romans simply used Latin names for the same pantheon.

The Iliad remains a classical work that all liberal arts students must read, and now Aristotle's Ethics enjoys the same necessity in many humanistic departments. The most beautiful oration on male-male love is given by Phaedrus in Plato's dialogue of the same name. This extraordinary speech provides the groundwork for Shakespeare's sonnets. Leonardo da Vinci and the entire Renaissance (Second Enlightenment) "went back to the Greeks and Romans." Since the Romans took most of their culture from the Greeks, guess who they flattered?

Oh, and perhaps "constitution" and "democracy" are old hat, but they originated in Athens, as did medicine, geometry, philosophy, history, drama, natural sciences, the practical arts, and the "Golden Ratio." Pythagoras, of the theorem fame, constituted this highest principles along with Euclid in mathematics and geometry.

Aristotle's pupil and androphile, Alexander the Great, established by largest empire in human history before age 33. The Third Enlightenment would have been impossible without the First and Second. For Leo Strauss, plagerizing Matthew Arnold and Nietzsche asks: Whither "Jerusalem" or "Athens?" The modern mind (save Dixie) has chosen its Hellenistic roots, not the slavish and brutal tribalism of Hebraism. For both Arnold and Nietzsche, Hebraism is for "slavish brutes," Hellenism is for the enlightened.

Perhaps, post-modernism (in Franco theory) is wrong because "all things are relative" is an absurdity, to quote Aristotle, the founder of logic. And the next time you see your physician, I assure you s/he has sworn allegiance to the Hippocratic Oath, the first annunciation of the Universal Moral Imperative: Do No Harm or Injury.

Maybe you don't see Greek influence, but I cannot miss it.

9:59 AM  
Blogger Burk said...

Hi, Dr. Dynes-

Thanks so much for recommending the Dodds book. I am enjoying it tremendously- both his wit and his substance on the spiritual traditions of the Greeks. How little things change when it comes to religion!

5:22 PM  

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