Dionysus, Theater, and Festival in Ancient Athens: Tragic and Comic Perspectives
Festival: To begin at the beginning. Theater, arguably the invention of ancient Athens, probably in the 6th century CE, was performed at festivals of the god Dionysus, both rural and urban. The best known was the City Dionysia, which took place in the theater of Dionysus close to the Acropolis, the heart of the city. The festival was a public state-sponsored institution of the city, which supplied the funds, the poets, the actors, the chorus, the stage, and the majority of the audience for its theatrical productions. It was both a vehicle of important competition among the dramatic poets in the agonistic circumstances of performance and a form of popular entertainment. While the festival was timed to take place in March at the beginning of the sailing season, to allow visiting dignitaries and other outsiders to attend, the majority of the audience consisted of Athens citizens, whose participation underwrote its civic, social, and political functions in the context of these public performances. In the first part of my talk, I address the circumstances of the festival and the numerous events that surrounded it.
Dionysus: In the second part, I raise the question of why Dionysus? What is the relationship between the god and the dramatic arts (including dance and music), still a controversial issue: the god of wine, drunkenness, madness, and ecstasy; the god of masks, impersonation, estrangement, and otherness; the god who transgresses all boundaries between mortals and immortals, male and female, high and low, and thereby unsettles conventional authority and revels in freedom from the constrictions of everyday life.
Emotions: In the third part, I address the emotional valences aroused by tragedy and comedy (including the lesser known but immensely im-portant satyr play). Looking briefly at the influential theories of Plato and Aristotle in regard to such concepts as mimesis and catharsis, to say nothing of the famous “pity and fear” in the case of tragedy, I also include the significance of comic misrule and the emotional satisfactions of libidinal excess and ribald laughter, albeit not without its serious side for the body politic.
Tragedy and Comedy: If time permits, I would like to look at two instances of comedy’s view of tragedy, notably, in Aristophanes’ Frogs and his Thesmophoriazousae, which takes place in the play world while women are celebrating another festival, that of the Thesmophoria, dedicated to the goddess Demeter.
Froma Zeitlin is Ewing Professor of Greek Language and Literature and Professor (emer.) of Comparative Literature at Princeton University. She is currently a fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. Her publications include: Under the Sign of the Shield: Semiotics and Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes (1982); Playing the Other: Gender and Society in Classical Greek Literature (1995); Nothing to Do with Dionysos? Athenian Drama in Its Social Context (co-edited, 1990); Before Sexuality (co-edited, 1991); and Narrating Desire (co-edited, 2012).