Bacchic revels and Autographing Jesuses

I have been absent for a while, I know.  In the time since I have last been with you, I have been to California to give a paper at a conference, graded up a storm in preparation for the end of the semester on Tuesday (with miles to go before I sleep), taught endlessly, sat in a state of exquisite tension watching my Tar Heels' progress through the NIT tournament, and tried to ignore the odious Blue Devils' (our archnemeses) progress through (sigh) the NCAA tournament.  It has been quite the psychodrama.

Oh, and I have fallen back into infatuation with Dancing with the Stars (which I continue to dream will one day feature a Tar Heel basketball "Star"), watched the ingeniously low-key and oddly Darwinian Fantastic Mister Fox, failed to hate New Moon on the scale that I was sure I would (is it possible that it is the rare film that is actually at its best on a tiny airplane screen? It gave all the teen melodrama the perfect minute frame.), and thoroughly loved one of the rare Judith Ivory novels I hadn't yet read (Bliss).

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But back to the conference, which, as it turns out, was fascinating.  Quite the trigger of new ideas.

I saw a paper given by a fight director/historian of stage combat about the Rumble in West Side Story, whose forms he traced back to a variety of Spanish switch-blade fighting called navaja that is (as it turns out) very closely related to flamenco.

The day before, I attended a presentation on a small town in Brazil (Nova Jerusalém) that stages a mammoth quasi-medieval processional drama every year.  It began on quite a humble scale. Eventually, its founders created a "stage" around which the audience could process, with the actor-Christ, through the stations of the cross.  This stage is a third of the size of the original walled city of Old Jerusalem.  Nowadays thousands attend each performance (which has a cast of hundreds), and the starring roles are played by telenovela actors, prompting the New York Times to ask: "Should Jesus sign autographs?".

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The keynote was a very interesting talk on metatheatre (theatre about theatre), which is my field, so I was filled with delight.  We got into a rollicking debate about the nature of metatheatre in Euripides' The Bacchae, which is often cited as the non-comic origin of metatheatre as a genre (theatrical self-consciousness suffusing every part of the play) rather than a device used every now and then.  Old Comedies, you see, had been flinging their theatricality at their audiences like the embittered stand-up comics they were for years before The Bacchae.

In this, Euripides' last play, the king of Thebes, Pentheus, is disturbed to find that a new religious cult from the East has come to his city and possessed its citizens.  The women of the town, in particular, have been moved to abandon their homes and take to the forest, where they spend their days in a state of ecstatic glee, frolicking amidst the flowers, striking rocks to make streams of wine spring forth from them, and ripping animals into pieces with their bare hands.

Pentheus is particularly annoyed to find that this is the cult of Dionysus, a cousin of his.  Dionysus' mother, Semele, miraculously conceived before she was married.  She claimed that she had lain with Zeus, the king of the gods, in disguise.  The women around her, including her sisters and a woman who is actually Zeus' wife in disguise (those gods like nothing better than a good game of dress-up), mocked her for the feebleness of this lie - clearly she had slept with a mortal man and was attempting to hide it in the most sacrilegious possible way. Or perhaps her lover is only pretending to be a god, and she is just the most gullible woman ever to walk the earth.

Semele begins to feel a bit doubtful.  So she begs her lover to reveal himself in his true form. Reluctantly, he gives in, and when she gazes on him in all his divine glory, she is struck by a lightning bolt and consumed by flame.  Zeus snatches the fetal Dionysus from her burning body.

See?, her sisters (including Pentheus' mother) say, the god struck her down because of the infamy of her claims to divine impregnation.  And that is when the newly-divine god of wine and theatre decides to come to town and teach his female relatives a vengeful lesson about doubting divinity.  He drives them wild with Bacchic ecstasy, taking over their senses almost against their will.  When Pentheus tries to drive the cult out, he lures him back in by saying this: Aren't you at all curious about what the revels of the Bacchae look like?  After all, who knows what those ecstatic women are up to, partying alone up on that mountain?  Don't you just want to take a look?  Well, then, you had better dress up as one of them, so as to avoid attracting attention.

And the next thing Pentheus knows, he is dressed in the slightly feminine robes of Dionysus.  He is an exact double of the god. When he goes up to spy on the Bacchae, his own mother leads the women in ripping him limb from limb.  Metatheatre is a perilous thing.

Much is often made of the idea that acting is represented here as a sacrificial act: the root of the word "tragedy" is a Greek word meaning "goat-song," which seems to speak to the ritual qualities of the Festival of Dionysus where the plays were performed.  Chant a choric ode, sacrifice a goat, perform a tragedy: they are all gifts to the gods.  But the tragedy in particular asks the tragic hero, and the actor who plays him (less often her), to sacrifice himself for the community.  They suffer (and, as characters, often die) as the scapegoat for our common guilt.  So Pentheus becomes the first human actor, the first person to dress up and take the place of the god in the sacrifice, and tragic metatheatre is born.

But equally interesting to me (as I said in the conference discussion) is the way that this is a metatheatre of spectatorship; an exploration of the perils of watching, and a warning to the audience of what they are getting themselves into.  Spectatorship is a kind of gateway drug: "Don't you want to see...", Dionysus says to Pentheus.  And he does, he really really does.  When we hear about something alien or unthinkable or extreme, we can't help but want to see it - why else are we watching The Bacchae?  But look what happens to Pentheus next: he is drawn into the spectacle, not as separate as he would like to think a spectator should be, and the next thing he knows he is a Bacchante, he is Dionysus, he is an actor, he is the sacrifice itself.  Never forget that Dionysus was born out of an act of forbidden spectatorship: please, god, show me your true face, so that I can be sure.

There are consequences to looking on the divinity, and on truth.  Acting is the gods' way of protecting us from the pure extremity of the real, the truth.  Revelation is a variety of punishment.

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Anyhoo.  A bit bleak, that.

Adaptation was really the topic of the day. During a panel on film and theatre (one of my favorite subjects), we got to talking about the nature of adapting material between the two forms.  Is responsible, thoughtful adaptation (I found myself asking the panel) always a meta-act, because it has to justify the creation of a new artistic artifact in a different genre or form?  Does it always have to say "Here is what film, or the graphic novel, or live performance brings to The Producers / Hamlet / Buffy that the original couldn't offer in its form"?

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During a talk on reinterpreting Shakespeare, I began to contemplate a new course structure.  Normally I try to cram as much material into the semester as I think my students can handle.  I am a syllabus glutton.  But suddenly I began to consider the opposite strategy - a course in which we covered a single canonical play in extreme, microscopic depth.  It would be called something like "Dissecting and Adapting the Canon."

In the first half of the term, we would work our way through the text (something like Measure for Measure or Oedipus) scene by scene, doing close readings and reading secondary sources on historical questions, different theoretical approaches to the text, etc.  At midterm, instead of an exam, we would have a semi-staged reading of the text with "explanatory notes" on various issues of interest interjected by the students.  It would be open to the university community as a whole, with the intention of making this a regular feature of the department's yearly schedule - something friends could attend, teachers could assign as extra credit, etc.  Performance-as-research. 

The second half of the term would be an extended adaptation project.  We would read theories of adaptation, read and view works influenced by our key text, and, finally, theorize and compose a new work of art that rewrites our original text, but lends it a new form based on the concerns of our particular culture moment.  Not a modernization, but a complete rethinking of the text.  What elements in it speak to us most urgently now, and why?  In place of a final exam, students would hold another staged reading, this time of their own creation.

We will see what happens to this idea after a few years of percolation.

One Response so far.

  1. Jill says:

    And of course, there ARE many juicy discussions to be had of "modernizations" of Shakespeare on stage and screen, including the challenge of making acceptable regular present-day folks speaking iambic pentameter, and waving guns instead of swords/daggers in spite of the text. Why (and how) do some productions work and others come across as painful contortions?

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