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University of Toronto St. George
Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies
Alan Ackerman

Oct 1 Drama Lecture The Bacchae The Dionysian spirit is that of a drunk, uninhibited person, when aesthetic, and intellectual boundaries come down. This play is the dismemberment (literally) of existing structures versus the maintenance of forms. At the age of 70, Euripides, left Athens for voluntary exile in mastodon. The Bacchae is his last play, bringing us back to the theatre itself. The subject is a dimly historical event -the invasion of Greece, the story of Pentheus. The play is rich and ironic. Pentheus dies as a scapegoat, which happens to be the common sacrificial offering made to Gods like Dionysus. First, Dionysus is a little bit like Oedipus. He is the child of Thebes. He is returning to his place of birth as a stranger, in order to assert his identity and to claim his patrimony. The critical difference is that Dionysus is a god. It’s his honor rather than a kingship that he acts towards. The king of the city, Pentheus, comes to find the limits of his own identity, and boundaries. Human vs divine knowledge. Dionysus aligns himself with the priest of Apollo, Tiresias, who seems all-knowing. Pentheus is also like Oedipus. He enacts an Oedipus conflict, showing an irresistible urge to have an orgy with his mother on the hill, view secrets that are forbidden for him to watch. Tiresias calls Pentheus blind. Dionysus is the god of theatre, mystery and ecstasy, of fertility. The sacrificial rights are about the blood seeping into the fields and fertilizing them. He is the god of epiphany, of revelation. Paradoxically, he’s in disguise. The central event of the city, the three day festival, was the performance of these plays, tragedies and eventually comedies as well. The rights of Dionysus involve ecstatic divine possession, the rituals often took place in wild or natural settings. Involved drinking, wild dancing, flesh eating. This is a ritual that seems to become the Christian Eucharist. It’s a meta-play, a theatre about the beginnings of theatre. Plays were a way of honoring Dionysus. It looks back to the origins of Greek theatre. Tragedy was part of religious ceremony. The three-day festival was to honor the god but also to celebrate the power of the city. It was a communal celebration and event. Celebrating the god and celebrating the city are against each other, which leads to a disaster occurring when they can’t be reconciled. The part played by Dionysus, is not the usual role taken by the gods. He takes the principal role, appearing like a director of everything that transpires. He reveals himself, but also to the spectators, by manifesting his divine presence in the action of the drama. Dionysus and the civic religion, the official cult. The god who is the master of theatrical illusion is from the start, the main role in the play, using the important role of the mask. Mixing two elements, male and female, soft. It is a “smiling mask”, not your usual tragic mask. It conceals him, hiding himself as a worshipper of Dionysus. The function of which is to make the characters recognizable as they are, visually identifiable, but for Dionysus disguises him at the same time, it prepares for his triumphant reveal. Mask shows absence and presence at the same time. Climactic moment when Dionysus escapes into invisibility. The play is viewed as a stark, schematic contrast between two of a variety of abstractions. Reason vs the irrational. Aristocratic skepticism and popular religiosity. Pentheus dies as a scapegoat, a living substitute for the god he rejects. One aspect of theatre that is very important, physical, literally, metaphorical, is limits. Euripides defies the frontier of the h
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