Thoughts on Theatre: Dionysus

Dionysus was the Greek god of theatre, and his tale tells a lot about theatre. According to the myth, Dionysus was child to Zeus and a mortal mother, Semele. Known as Bacchus to the Romans, besides theatre he was also charged with many varied areas including wine and winemaking, fertility, and the changing of the seasons. Topics like these seem disparate at first, but they are linked by a common metaphysical feature.

Theatre, drunkenness, fertility, and the changing of the seasons all represent gradual processes that create ambiguous states. For example, does 1 drink make a person drunk? Typically, no. How about 20? Almost certainly, yes. When between 1 and 20 drinks does a person become drunk? There is not really a specific answer, it is rather a gradual and ambiguous process. This observation also applies to pregnancy and the seasons. And to the question of what is real in the theatre. Is the actor playing Hamlet himself or Hamlet? Both, or neither? The state of the actor in character, or of a play world in performance, is gradual and ambiguous.

Dionysus appears in the play The Bacchae by Euripedes(405 BCE). This play depicts the return of Dionysus to his birthplace, the city of Thebes. He plans to establish his cult as well as exact revenge on his mortal cousins who rejected his mother and continue to reject him. There is an interesting scene where Dionysus is in disguise as a priest of his cult and while in shackles is questioned by King Pentheus. Pentheus does not know it is the real god. In this guise, Dionysus directly questions Pentheus’s authority and wisdom. The scene is ironic, witty, and foreboding. And this is another thing the patron god of theatre represents, the power of art to confront political and social issues, and to literally speak truth to power.