Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.02.03


Anton F. Harald Bierl, Dionysos und die griechische Tragödie. Politische und "metatheatralische" Aspekte im Text. Classica Monacensia 1. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1991. Pp. xii + 298. ISBN 3-8233-4861-2.


Reviewed by Thomas Marier, The Johns Hopkins University.

B.'s purpose is to ascertain the "functions" of Dionysus in tragedy as it was experienced by the fifth-century Athenian audience (2). The influence of German reception theory is evident in his orientation, though not in his bibliography. Thus, to assess the audience's response to references to Dionysus, B. undertakes to recover the Athenians' understanding of the god, the "horizon" of their expectations with respect to him (21, 27, 147). The Athenians thought of Dionysus as the god of wine, maenadism, and the afterlife; B. argues that he was also regarded as a god of politics and the theater -- indeed, these were his foremost provinces, at least during the dramatic performances of the last third of the fifth century (220).

Yet for the Athenians, in B.'s view, Dionysus was not just a god whose domain included all these disparate phenomena; he also had an essence that inhered in all of them. According to B.'s "maxim of interpretation" (128), that essence was ambivalence. Dionysus spanned pairs of opposing qualities such as life and death, peace and war, polis and wilderness. B. arrives at this essence by an avowedly structuralist procedure: he lumps together all available data pertaining to the god, contrives oppositions from these data, and asserts that the relation of ambivalence between these oppositions was the god's quiddity. At this level of abstraction, a case could be made for the ambivalence of practically all gods and even heroes in tragedy. What, then, does ambivalence tell us about the Dionysiac? It is possible that the god was understood as essentially ambivalent by the Orphics who carved EIRENE POLEMOS and ALETHEIA PSEUDOS on bones found in Olbia on the northern coast of the Black Sea (15 n. 35), or that Heraclitus (22 B 15 Diels-Kranz) saw him as essentially ambiguous, but can we assume that the Athenian audience did?

B. finds fault with those (e.g. Girard) who have emphasized the subversive god of myth (especially of Bacch.) virtually to the exclusion of the cohesive god of cult. This emphasis on the negative side of the god has given rise to the notion that Dionysus was non-political, that he could only oppose, but not be integrated into, the polis (Vidal-Naquet). B., by contrast, sees the cult of Dionysus as vital to the polis. The Greater Dionysia, for example, promoted civic solidarity (153-54 on Plato, Leg. 653c7-d5); it "unified all the citizens into a huge, homogeneous, Dionysiac retinue" and "as it did so their worries and fears were dissolved in the joyous rapture of the religious community" (20). Tragedy, as a part of the festival and the cult of Dionysus, was also vital to the polis. B. considers the "political dimension" of Dionysus in tragedy, adopting a line of inquiry that began with J.-P. Vernant (45-110). In the theater the Athenians experienced vicariously the negation of their own values and norms. Paradoxically, this experience made the polis stronger. By exposing the citizens to alien power structures, for example, tragedy made them aware of the fragility of their own democratic institutions. It also gave them an opportunity to deal with problems to which they could not address themselves in other public fora, to scrutinize their attitudes, to play out scenarios, to experiment.

Various oppositions may be construed between the imaginary world of the plays and the real one in which the Athenians lived: present and past, inside and outside, self and other. B. argues that Dionysus is "the point at which the ambiguities that span the tragedies take definite form and from which their true meaning arises" (48). The god is mentioned most often in the plays that have Thebes, the antitype of Athens, as their setting (Septem, Ant., OT, HF, and Bacch.). In each of these plays an autocrat (Eteocles, Creon, Oedipus, Lycus, Pentheus) rushes blindly to his undoing. In every case B. attributes the autocrat's demise to his excessive rationalism. The ruler is punished by Dionysus, the god in whom the old, circular, theonomic way of thinking and the new, linear, rational one are united. For the Athenians the lesson to be drawn from the Theban tragedies was that the good ruler must not attempt to govern by reason alone but must recognize the "other" (by which B. seems to mean a source of transcendent authority; 64, 69).

B. locates Dionysus on the map of tragedy, establishing a scale with which to measure the "degree of otherness" (222) of places where Dionysus appears, i.e. the extent to which they differ from Athenian norms. He puts positive Athens at one end of this scale, negative Thebes at the other end. Argos, in Euripides' Or., is close to Thebes on the scale because it is the scene of madness and attempted murder described in Dionysiac terms (91). Delphi occupies the "middle space" (92) between Athens and Thebes. In IT, where Euripides emphasizes the chthonic side of Dionysus (Orestes and Iphigeneia are rendered inactive by chthonic forces in the course of the play), Delphi tends towards the "negative" pole, while in Phoen. Delphi is portrayed as positive by the chorus of Tyrian maidens. Phoen. 226-38 evokes Delphi as the panhellenic cult of Dionysus. For the Athenian audience this passage was felt to be "a part of the worship of Dionysus" because Athens sent women to Delphi every two years to take part in Bacchic rites as thuiades on Parnassus (99; cf. 93).

Finally, B. looks at the two plays in which Dionysus appears in connection with Athens: OC, where he is situated in a locus amoenus on the periphery of the city (by granting asylum to Oedipus, Theseus shows his "openness to the other," 103), and Ion, where Euripides dared to represent an Athenian mother plotting to kill her own son. In Ion the chorus of Athenian women, calling on Dionysus, suggests that Ion is a theomakhos deserving to die as Pentheus did, for Athens should not be ruled by a foreigner (714-717). In denying that Athenians participate in the revels on Parnassus, the chorus "projects the wild side of Dionysus onto Delphi" (108). Athens is on the verge of turning into Thebes. Ultimately, however, Athena intervenes ex machina to set things straight. Thus, the "lesson" of this play is that the polis must integrate "the other, that is, the wild half of the god Dionysus" (108). As for Creusa's attempt on Ion's life, Euripides seems to be warning his contemporaries that "the democracy must uph old its values" if it is not to sink into the vortex of violent attack and counterattack (109).

The evidence adduced by B. for the Athenian understanding of Dionysus as a preeminently political god is unfortunately far from compelling. He appeals to F. Kolb's "revolutionary thesis" (Agora und Theater, Volks- und Festversammlung [Berlin, 1981]) that in the sixth-century agora the orchestra was located within the sacred precinct of Dionysus Lenaeus and served not only as the site of early dramatic performances but also as a political and juridical center, and concludes that politics and the cult of Dionysus, of which early drama was a part, therefore formed "an indivisible unity" at that time, and political decisions were made under the tutelage of "the god of the polis par excellence" and carried divine authority (51-52). But as R. Seaford (CR 33 [1983] 288-89) has pointed out, this thesis depends on dubious arguments from proximity (e.g. if the orchestra was near a political statue [the tyrannicides], then it must have served a political purpose [as a place of assembly]. Moreover, even if tragedy did have such ties to political activity in the sixth century, it is hazardous to build an argument for a fifth-century attitude on the basis of sixth-century evidence. During the decades that separated the the earliest extant play from the Peisistratid period tragedy probably changed no less extensively than did other Athenian institutions. The notion, also Kolb's, that the tragedians of the fifth century saw themselves as the successors of the priests of Dionysus Lenaeus, who once advised the Athenians in political matters, is just a guess (45). Nor can I see how Ion 1074-86 and a fragment from Hermippus's Phormophoroi (PCG 5 fr. 63 Kassel-Austin) show that Dionysus was the "divine personification of Athens" (106). In the end, B. is left with the allegory of Frogs, in which Dionysus is the embodiment of the theater as an institution of the polis (the primary purpose of which is to improve the citizens rather than to indulge their passion for verbal and musical exhibitions). In this sense he is also, I suppose, a "god of the polis."

It is, however, one thing to say that Dionysus' theater instructed, quite another to say that its instruction was Dionysiac. Frogs gives no indication of the Dionysiac knowledge that, according to B., a polis needs to save itself. Here B. does not just mean that tragedy was political because for the Athenians it served as a medium whereby certain problems of the polis were publicly expressed. He means that tragedy conveyed a peculiarly Dionysiac "message" (e.g. 73), which seems to have been that "government founded on reason alone is extremely precarious, unless it succeeds in integrating the other." In the course of the transition from "the traditional outlook, which was marked by religious ideas" to "the new polis thinking that was based on pure rationality" the Athenians ran the risk of forgetting that they were dependent on the gods (64). Tragedy was a part of a counter-enlightenment, and served to remind the Athenians of this dependence. The political wisdom of Dionysus lay in the recognition of the limitations of a form of rule that recognized no authority beyond itself (autocracy in the tragic fiction, democracy in fifth-century Athens). Thus, Pentheus could have "saved the city" by accepting Dionysus, as Athens preserved itself by celebrating the god's festival every year (74). It is difficult to see how this Dionysiac wisdom would have saved Thebes from the pestilence in OT or Heracles from the wrath of Hera in HF. Even more difficult, though, is the connection between this wisdom and Dionysus. B. often makes the connection at the expense of the text. Is Antigone the "agent" of Dionysus despite Ant. 955-65, where she is likened to Lycurgus (67)? Is the condition of those affected by the war in Septem best described as Dionysiac mania, even th ough Dionysus is absent from that play?

Turning to Dionysus in his theatrical dimension, B. asserts that every reference to Dionysus might have "metatragic" implications: by "metatragedy" B. means a species of "metatheater," which he defines as "the totality of mechanisms whereby the poet reveals that he is aware of himself as the creator of drama and whereby the theater refers to itself" (116). B. develops a model of communication to explain how evocations of the god of the theater, including music, musical instruments, choral dancing, the Muses, Graces, Mnemosyne (Dionysus assumed the entourage of Apollo Mousegetes [99]), and the vocabulary of early dramatic theory (e.g. mechane, Helen 813, 1034), were deployed by the poets to guide the audience's response to dramatic events. B. is responding to O. Taplin, who objects to the notion of metatragedy on the ground that reflexivity always involves a rupture of dramatic illusion (as it regularly did in comedy). Thus, B. attempts to bridge the gap between the illusion or "spell" of the dramatic action and reflexivity; the spell, he says, was momentarily transcended, but never broken as it was in, say, the parabaseis of comedy. The audience's religious feeling (Ergriffenheit) would oscillate between the "fictive space" of the drama and "the real space" of the theater within the sacred precinct of Dionysus. The audience was perhaps conscious of the metatragic signal, but only "to a very small degree" (118).

The use of Dionysiac references for this purpose presupposes a "metatragic consciousness" that made such communication possible. B. imagines that with the slackening of the ties between tragedy and the cult of Dionysus, the tragic poets grew increasingly aware of Dionysus as a theater god, at least during the festival, and they began to employ terms from his cult to call attention to the operations of the theater. The language of cult became a tragic "metalanguage" (120-21). Aeschylus, for example, employed the cult term bakkheia at Cho. 698 to prepare the audience for the murder of Clytemnestra (the word would have suggested a sudden reversal from joy to suffering).

B. notes that in the extant works of Sophocles (124-137) Dionysus is mentioned explicitly only in choral songs. Here Dionysus appears as the cohesive god of cult. B. examines three passages from precatastrophic songs of joy (Ant. 1140-54; OT 1105-9; Trach. 216-220) in which Dionysus is evoked as the god of festivity, music, and wine to show how the resulting momentary illusion of happiness intensifies the shock of disillusionment. "The audience," B. says in connection with the passage from Ant., "when confronted with its own cultic experience, is swept into the whirl of the chorus's naive expectation of a happy outcome" (132).

Euripides (137-218) "considered the manifest connection between tragedy and the cult of Dionysus and accordingly made him into the supreme principle of drama" (138). The Euripidean chorus frequently evokes this principle to aid the audience in its int erpretation of the action. This is metatragedy in its true sense (137). If Sophocles threw light on the friendly god of Athenian experience, Euripides reveals him in all his ambivalence: the god as experienced in cult clashes openly with the imaginary god of myth. In his exposition of the metatragic in HF (140-46), for example, B. argues that Euripides intensified the effect of the reversals in this play by connecting Heracles with Dionysus. For "no god, to Euripides' mind, better expressed the change from one extreme to another than the god of tragedy himself" (140). Thus, the first reversal (HF 514) B. calls a metabole (141), and the second is so labelled in the text itself (735; cf. 765-66, 884). The word metabole is employed by Aristotle in his definition of peripety (Poet. 1452a 22-23), which B. regards as somehow connected with Dionysus (119, 143); he is tempted by the thought that Aristotle borrowed it from the poets, or at least that it belonged to a dramaturgical vocabulary that had already sprung up by the time of HF (143 n. 88, 225). This word, B. thinks, signals metatragically the critical moment when the action is about to take a sudden turn (it does just that at the conclusion of the third stasimon, 815ff.). The mad Heracles is characterized in Dionysiac imagery (esp. 889-98, just before he kills his children). According to B., Heracles unites the two sides of Dionysus: he reflects the positive, cultic side of the god in the first half of the play, where he is the embodiment of Bacchic hope in the eyes of his loved ones, and the negative, mythical side in the second half, where he becomes their murderer.

In sum, an evocation of the Dionysus in his theatrical dimension might (a) serve as a dramaturgical signal, a device to prepare the audience for a subsequent turn of events. It might (b) induce the audience to experience vicariously the optimism of the dramatis personae (e.g. of the chorus in Sophocles' plays) by calling forth the "positive" cultic context. It might (c) call attention to the operation of tragedy, especially the sudden reversal, which Aristotle called peripety; theatrical metalanguage (e.g. metabole [HF 735], eleos and phrike [Phoen. 1284-87], phroimion [HF 753]) can suggest the tragic principle of sudden reversal. Finally, it might (d) cause the audience to reflect on the theatrical illusion (Hel., cf. Cho., IT) or on the value of the theater for the polis (Bacch. does this by dramatizing, through the monitory example of Pentheus, the breakdown of theatrical communication).

In answering Taplin's objection that metatragedy involves the rupture of dramatic illusion, B. proposes a highly unlikely model according to which an evocation of Dionysus is a signal received momentarily just above the threshold of consciousness. However, B.'s quasi-Nietzschean notion of tragedy as a religious experience in which the individual was fused with the collective (20, 112; "such an experience may have been had by maenads in a thiasos" [cf. Bacch. 75 with Dodd's note], but was it had by the audience of tragedy?) precludes metatragedy of any kind: one cannot undergo loss of self and be self-conscious at the same time. Furthermore, B. admits that the audience would not have been able to receive most of the signals that he has detected (117-18 , 147, 159, 223). If the metatragic is largely a readerly construct, how can he appeal to the festival as the cultic context of the performance, as he does, for example, in his discussion of the Dionysiac reference as an emotional trigger in Sophocles' choral songs?

Having developed a model that purports to explain the maintenance of the dramatic spell, B. points to references that presuppose the rupture of that spell. Does the chorus "partly transcend its fictional role" in the third stasimon of HF, where it summons the daughters of the river Asopus to "Heracles' glorious victory contest (787-88), referring metatragically to the contest from which Euripides wishes, on the strength of HF, to emerge victorious" (144)? Is Helen being told to take "the cult of Dionysus as a pattern for her subsequent conduct" in Helen 1358-68, where fawnskins, ivy, fennel wands, and flowing hair are mentioned (163)? Does this recommendation to a woman who has conceived, and is staging, an intrigue that requires her to cast aside her "self" suggest a connection between maenadism and role-playing as forms of Dionysiac ecstasy? Would this passage have been understood by the audience as a reflection of the nature of the theater (169)?

Only by straining the texts does B. find in Dionysus the key to the political in tragedy, to tragic geography, to dramatic irony, to the triggering of the audience's emotions, or to peripety. He is looking for a previously unseen nexus between Dionysus and tragedy. He accuses others (Nietzsche, Vernant, Brelich, Goldhill) of "superimposing onto the plays criteria of interpretation that are external to them" (220). Oddly, he makes use of the ideas of these scholars (cf. especially S. Goldhill, JHS [1987] 75-76), and in assuming that Dionysus was a god whose essence was ambivalence, he is not immune to this charge himself.