27 April 2014

Art as Madness

My column for The Sunday Guardian.

I stood, a few weeks ago, utterly entranced, at the theatre of Dionysius in Athens, crowned gorgeously by the Parthenon, sitting regally in a natural hollow on the southern slopes of the Acropolis complex: a majestic amphitheatre and the birthplace of the European theatrical tradition. Believed to have perfect acoustical properties and capable of seating seventeen thousand people, one first glimpses its semi-circular orchestra as one clambers up towards the Parthenon from the temple of Athena Nike. It is easy to visualise the spectacle from here, the Dionysian festivals, the plays, the theatrical competitions, the great early playwrights – Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Menander. It is like breathing into history.

Dionysius’s connection to the theatre seems fragmentary at first. He is the only Olympian god to be born to a mortal. Ovid records the story in Metamorphosis (a brilliant adaptation of this myth is in Tales from Ovid by Ted Hughes): Semele, the princess of Thebes, had an affair with Zeus (Hughes describes it as a rape), the king of the gods, and when Zeus’s jealous queen Hera heard of this, she appeared as an old crone to befriend Semele and plant seeds of doubt in her mind about her lover’s identity. Foolish Semele then demanded that Zeus appear in front of her in all his glory – and when he did, clothed in thunder and lightning and fire, she was so awed by his magnificent presence that her mortal body was set ablaze, consumed and burnt. From her womb, though, an embryo survived and Zeus lodged it in his thigh until a boy was born – Dionysius, the child of fire, the twice-born. Hughes writes: ‘Her eyes opened wide, saw him / And burst into flame. / Her whole body lit up / With the glare / That explodes the lamp – / In that splinter of a second, / Before her blazing shape / Became a silhouette of sooty ashes / The foetus was snatched from her womb.’

Known also as Dithyrambos (‘born of two doors’) – and Bacchus to the Romans – Dionysius was taken by fleet-footed Hermes and left in the care of his aunt Ino, who brought him up as a girl-child according to some versions to hide him from Hera’s fury. Known always for his foreign otherness, Dionysius wandered for many years and was never accepted among the Olympians when he eventually returned. He gave himself, therefore, to wine and other intoxicants, often organising wild revelries and orgiastic debaucheries. Cloaked in mysticism and frenzy, bouts of drug-induced hysteria and self-destructive passion, he was the original hedonist, a fervent lover, a fierce friend, a dancer, a merry-maker, not very much unlike the Hindu god of destruction, Shiva. A cult was formed around him and his beliefs, and a chorus, known as the Dithyrambic Chorus, provided entertainment at Dionysian festivals.

And, dramatically, at one of these, in 534 BC, a young man named Thespis stepped out of the chorus and began to enact the story that the chorus recited. The first thespian came into being. Theatre evolved quickly from Thespis’s early performance, and the first Greek plays were in honour of Dionysius. The dithyramb then gained popularity as the ancient hymn, usually of an ecstatic nature, to Dionysius that was to be sung before every play; and the tragedy, which in ancient Greek means ‘lamentation to a goat’, was originated from Dionysius’s sacrificial goat. The satyrs, meanwhile, a group of performers who had aligned themselves to Dionysius, frolicked and danced and made merry with obscene pranks, lewd jokes, phallic processions, drunken ribaldry and sheer devilry, giving rise to the earliest comedies and satires.

And very soon, in Athens, in the fourth century BCE, the theatre of Dionysius was built at the foot of the Acropolis to host the City Dionysia Festival, where some of the greatest plays of ancient Greek theatre were performed. To win the playwriting competition at the festival was to know immediate critical acclaim. The very first prize was won by Aeschylus – and the prize was a goat.

It serves us well to remember the spirit of the licentious god: it was art that gave him solace when he was not accepted into his Olympian family; his passion, when driven into performance, created beauty and joy; he willingly gave himself to tragedy as easily as to comedy, to poetry as well to prose. According to Dionysian rite, madness is healthy, pleasure and sensuality are vital and art is, above all, sacred. And, if nothing else, his theatre in Athens is breathtaking.

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