5. The Theater of Dionysus
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5 The Theater of Dionysus The meaning of spectatorship as a theoretical and historical practice in fifth-century Athens cannot be detached from its meaning in Greek history and culture in general. At the same time, however, it is obvious that spectatorship has a special significance in the context of the Theater of Dionysus. In this context, the spectator becomes explicitly defined as a category of analysis and is particularized within Athenian civic ideology and the history of the European theater. The development of that definition may again be understood in terms of the ritual origins of Greek drama or in terms of historical personages and events-for example, in terms of the stories told about Thespis or Solon. But as I have suggested, any explanation of the theatrical experience in ancient Greece that appeals to strictly empirical evidence (whether explicitly or implicitly) is problematic at best. We can say that as a cultural phenomenon whose meaning develops over time, theatrical performance in Athens-including the idea of the theatrical spectator-has something to do with Dionysus. But this premise is also problematic, since it is difficult to say what, if anything, is uniquely "Dionysiac" about drama as a genre or about the spectator's experience of dramatic performance.1 Still, we can proceed from the 1. Else (1965, 30) maintains that "there is no plausible reason to believe that tragedy was ever Dionysiac in any respect except that Pisistratus attached it, once and for all, to his festival of the Greater Dionysia [in 534 B.C.E.]." Zeitlin (1990a, esp. 66-67) stresses the limitations of understanding tragedy in terms of "ritual logic." In contrast, Seaford (1994, esp. chaps. 7 and 8) offers the most extended recent argument for the importance of Dionysiac cult and ritual in the origin and development of Athenian drama. Goldhill (1990) argues that many of the plays have in them what might be called Dionysiac elements, since they "subvert the city's order." Connor (1990) argues that the City Dionysia celebrates a new civic order and "civic freedom" from the Pisistratid tyranny, and he implies that there is something Dionysiac in this expression of freedom. The Theater of Dionysus 193 plausible hypothesis that the experience of the theater named after Dionysus is somehow related to the god's role in Greek culture at large. If we reject strictly historical and/or ritual explanations of that relationship , however, the question of the god's role in the political, ideological, and theatrical life of Athens may seem arbitrary. Why ask about a divinity's meaning in the context of any cultural institution if neither religious practice nor historical circumstance can provide a satisfactory answer? The question becomes less arbitrary and more productive, however, if we begin by considering Dionysus in the broader context of the ethnographic accounts of his entry into and subsequent effect within Greek and Athenian culture. Such an approach can provide a less contingent and more appropriately secular understanding of the god as a product of Athenian self-representation in general and of his role in the theater as a cultural and civic institution in particular. By reference to the general and the particular, I do not mean to suggest that there is a chronological relationship between them, that is, that the former necessarily precedes and determines the latter. Rather, they operate synchronically within a tradition that, like that of the Pisistratid legacy, finds its definitive expression in fifthcentury Athenian sources. While references to the god appear in the Linear B tablets and in Homer, and while visual images of Dionysus are numerous throughout the archaic and classical periods, the theatrical Dionysus-the Dionysus who is associated with formal theatrical production and who appears as a dramatis persona on the Athenian stage-is a fifth-century Athenian phenomenon.2 Dionysus' long-standing association with drama in Athens and its environs is well established, whether or not we credit the Pisistratids with its inception in the middle of the sixth century. To understand 2. Dionysiac ritual is not attested in historical times, although other similar cults-e.g., that of Sabazius and the Thracian Dionysus-are. See Lucas 1968, 281. On the prehistory of Dionysus, see Burkert 1985, 161-63. On his appearance on the Linear Btablets, see Chadwick 1976, 99-100. On the prevalence of images of Dionysus on Attic vases in the sixth century, see Shapiro 1989, chap. 5. Carpenter (1986, xv) contends that "the major developments in the early iconography of...


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Subject Headings

  • Nostalgia -- Greece.
  • Men -- Greece.
  • Nostalgia in literature.
  • Gender identity -- Greece.
  • Masculinity -- Greece.
  • Men in literature.
  • Greek drama -- History and criticism.
  • Literature and society -- Greece.
  • Gender identity in literature.
  • Drama -- Psychological aspects.
  • Masculinity in literature.
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