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Volume 22 1 COMPARATIVE drama Summer 1988 . Number 2 The Five Voices of The Birth of Tragedy Michael Hinden Friedrich Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy remains the most controversial modern document in the debate over the origin and nature of dramatic art. From our current vantage point, looking back over a century of scholarship, dramatic theorizing, and theatrical practice since the essay first appeared in 1872, it is clear that no other single work has proved more durable in influence. Nietzsche has been read (and misread), it seems, by nearly everyone. The impact of The Birth of Tragedy has been felt by dramatists as diverse as Ibsen, Strindberg, Wedekind, Yeats, Shaw, O'Neill, Williams, Genet, and Ionesco as well as by more recent playwrights such as David Storey and Peter Shaffer. Directors who have found The Birth of Tragedy indispensable include Antonin Artaud, Jig Cook, Robert Earl Jones, Jean Louis Barrault, Julian Beck and Judith Malina, Richard Schechner, Peter Brook. and Jerzy Growtowski. In addition, the aesthetic formulated by Nietzsche based on his famous Dionysian /Apollinian polarity became a fertile source for such modernist luminaries as D. H. Lawrence, Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, Andre Gide, Wallace Stevens, and Albert Camus.1 Nietzsche's influence also has been incalculable on those MICHAEL HINDEN, Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Madi. SOD, has published widely on modem topics. He is presently working· on a critical study of Eugene O'NeU1's Long Day's Journey Into,Nlght. 97 98 Comparative Drama interested in tracing the evidence for, and implications of, drama's ritual beginnings. The quest to discover the origins of tragedy erupted'in a scholarly feud that has simmered throughout the modem period--and it was Nietzsche who initiated the Search. In one of the most widely recognized passages of The Birth of Tragedy, he declares: The tradition is undisputed that Greek tragedy in its earliest form had for its sole theme the sufferings of Dionysus and that for a long tirhethe only stage hero was Dionysus himself. But it may be claimed with equal confidence that until Euripides, Dionysus never ceased'to be the tragic herojthat all theeelebrated figures of the Greek stage--Prometheus, Oedipus, etc-are mere masks of this original hero,Dionysus.2 Upon this contention Nietzsche builds the most compelling and controversial aspects of his theory: the evolution of tragedy out of the dithyramb celebrated by a satyr chorus, the devotees of Dionysus; the centrality of the suffering hero, who wears various "masks" of the dying god; an understanding of aesthetic form as the result of "epic" elements imposed upon a threatening intuition of .nature's cycle of fecundity 1Uld death; and the ecstatic response of participants elevated to a state of mystical .terror is transformed by means of art. Aristotle had been the first to attribute the origin of tragedy to obscure sources in the dithyramb. It is true as well that Nietzsche borrowed from an established tradition in earlier German philology that had expressed interest in the Dionysian phenomena among the Greeks.3 Yet no one before Nietzsche had suggested.that tragedy's essential meaning had to do with its connections (real or imaginary) with the Dionysian chorus out of which' the .form allegedly developed. Aristotle himself suggested that by the time of Aeschylus and Sophocles tragedy had "progressed" in regard to subject matter, magnitude, diction, and manner of presentation. Of this "progression" Nietzsche does not speak; he is not particularly interested in historical evidence. Rather, the issues that attract him are primarily psychological .even when he is discussing the question of origins: "What, then, would be ,the origin of tragedy? Perhaps joy, strength, overflowing health, overgreat fullness? And what, then, is.the,,significance, physiologically·speaking, of that madness out of,;w.hlch tragic and comic art,developed-the Dionysian madness ? • . .. where does that synthesis of god and billy goat in the satyr point?"4 'Michael Hinden 99 Other scholars, however, have attempted to provide historical answers to these questions, with uncertain results. These efforts may be traced to a brilliant group of classicists in England who came to be identified as members of the "Cambridge school" of anthropology, chief...


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