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1 COMPAKATIVE i ama Volume 29Summer 1995Number 2 Drama and Ritual Once Again: Notes toward a Revival of Tragic Theory Michael Hindert In the current wake of theoretical turbulence in criticism propelled by such movements as post-structuralism, deconstruction, feminism, new historicism, cultural studies, and related projects, little is left today of one of the grandest and most interesting syntheses of the first half of the century: the ritual approach to tragic drama. Sparked by Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy (1872) and supported by turn-of-the-century classicists and anthropologists , the theory of tragedy's origin in Greek ritual gave rise to numerous studies attempting to define the genre in relation to its ancient religious roots.1 Today, however, it is impossible to claim—as Nietzsche did—an undisputed tradition that Greek tragedy originated in Dionysian ritual and that understanding Dionysian myth was the key to unlocking tragedy's secrets.2 A remark made by Brian Vickers is characteristic of the sharp disagreements in the area: "This whole complex of false ideas, so widely disseminated, must finally be abandoned not merely be183 184Comparative Drama cause there is no actual evidence for any of its assumptions . . . but because it would make the plays appallingly repetitive, as identical as matchboxes."3 The latter part of Vickers7 charge undervalues the ability of adherents of the ritual approach to produce interesting and varied readings of particular plays. But his critique of the historical evidence is trenchant. My own view is that it is worth revisiting this debate in order to gain new ground: this essay purports to undertake that task. Earlier Approaches. It is fair to ask why earlier adherents of the ritual approach found it so difficult to gather adequate evidence to substantiate their case. One answer is that the evidence at best was never more than fragmentary. Aristotle's testimony could be brought to bear (but then the extent of the corruption of his text remained an issue).4 Several remarks by Plutarch could be adduced, as well as gnomic descriptions of the Eleusinian mysteries gathered from ancient sources. In addition, scattered depictions could be cited from friezes and vase paintings suggesting Dionysian poses during dramatic performances. But actual knowledge of fifth-century tragedy remains so scanty that these studies perforce were speculative. The major impetus for the dissemination of the ritual theory can be traced to Jane Ellen Harrison and Gilbert Murray's work at Cambridge. Harrison was a colleague of Sir James George Frazer and developed her ideas in the years during which Frazer was compiling his massive synthesis of dying god mythology, The Golden Bough, which he began to publish in installments in 1890. Harrison's Prologemena to the Study of Greek Religion (Cambridge, 1903) drew from these sources and offered a persuasive argument that ritual held priority over myth as the key to Greek religious practice. In Themis (Cambridge, 1912), she further explored the hypothesis that the Year-Daimon rite was central to Greek religion as well as to Greek festivals and drama. Significantly, in a preface to that work, she described herself as a disciple of Nietzsche.5 As Stanley Edgar Hyman has observed, Harrison's Themis may be taken as the manifesto of the "Cambridge group."6 In addition to Harrison's own work, it contained a chapter by F. M. Cornford on the ritual origin of the Olympic games and the now famous "Excursus" by Gilbert Murray on the forms preserved in Greek tragedy. There Murray proposed that "historically the tragic hero is derived both from the Life Spirit—call him Dionysus or what you will—who comes to save the community with the Michael Hinden1 85 fruits of the New Year, and from the polluted Old Year, the Pharmakos or Scapegoat, who is cast out to die or wander in the wilderness, bearing with him the sins of the community."7 Murray accounted for the variety of tragic characters by arguing that tragedy grew out of a ritual that had adapted itself to the reception of heroic myths. Thus he adopted Nietzsche's contention that all the celebrated heroes of the Greek stage were essentially masks of the original hero, Dionysus, and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 183-202
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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