Classical Drama and Society
SECTION 1: THE ORIGINS OF WESTERN THEATRE
Reading 1: Greek Dithyramb
TEXT: Bacchylides, The Theseus Dithyramb
Questions to Ponder Concerning This Text:
• Is this a fully theatrical "drama"? Does it contain all the elements essential to theatre?
• Since by nature scripts leave out so much of theatre, is it possible to reconstruct the "theatre" underlying this bare text?
• The text begins and ends abruptly in the midst of both plot and myth. Can this be considered a coherent piece of drama?
• If this is not theatre, what is it? To what can this dithyramb be compared, if anything, in our repertoire of rituals or spectacles?
• After you read Euripides' The Bacchae in the next reading assignment, see if you can see the similarities between dithyramb and tragedy which led Aristotle to posit an evolutionary connection between these genres. Was he right? If not, what misled Aristotle?
Introduction: This dithyramb was discovered with five others on an Egyptian papyrus at about the turn of the last century (ca. 1896). We know for certain several things about this poem. It is written in a lyric mode and intended for performance. Its text is complete—there are other poems by the same author before and after it—and it was titled in antiquity Theseus. But the form and nature of these dithyrambs were not at all what scholars expected to see, given Aristotle's discussion of dithyrambs in The Poetics. They expected something more patently similar to tragedy. Although every one of the surviving dithyrambs employs choruses, they involve no real character development, no plot to speak of, and they are quite short. The one below resembles tragedy the closest of the six: it has a chorus, a character who serves as a messenger, and the song is cast as a series of responsive exchanges between them.
We also know the author of these dithyrambs, Bacchylides, but unfortunately we know little more about him. He lived and wrote in the early Classical Age and is said to have composed poems for Hieron of Syracuse in 476 BCE. The last datable reference to him comes fairly late, around 452 BCE, so his career as a poet could have begun only around 500 BCE at the earliest. But, since we know tragedy was in existence by 530 BCE and probably somewhat before then, Bacchylides cannot have composed the early type of dithyramb to which Aristotle refers when he says that tragedy arose from dithyramb. Aristotle may, in fact, be referring to an earlier kind of dithyramb that was altogether different from its later namesake, which renders Bacchylides' works useless to those investigating Aristotle's thesis about the origins of tragedy. But that would entail a major change in dithyramb within one generation and it seems unlikely that it could have done so and still retained its name.
The story of this particular dithyramb concerns the Athenian mythological hero Theseus (whose exploits we will follow more fully in a later reading). In his youth Theseus performed labors much like Hercules'. He slew a strongman named Sinis, killed a marauding sow, threw a brigand named Sciron off a cliff, out-wrestled a wrestler named Cercyon, and, perhaps his most famous labor, killed a madman named Procrustes (or Procoptes) who tied people to a bed and, if they were too long for it, cut off their feet, and if too short, hammered them out. This last task gives us the adjective "Procrustean" which means "drastic, designed to obtain strict conformity by violent measures." All these exploits were carried out as the young Theseus walked from his birthplace to Athens where he would eventually be recognized as the long-lost son of the reigning king Aegeus. Ultimately, however, Theseus would accidentally bring about his own father's death and inherit his father's kingdom.
In this dithyramb Aegeus, referred to only as "King," confronts a frenzied chorus who has heard of Theseus' exploits and imminent arrival.
O King of holy Athens,
Lord of rich-living Ionians,
Why now does the bronze bell ring,
The trumpet sound the song of war?
Has someone evil overleaped
The boundaries of our land,
A general, a man?
Or bandits planning harm
Against our shepherds' will to steal
Their herds of cattle forcibly?
Why then do you tear your heart?
Tell us! For I think that if to any mortal
The aid of able men there was,
Of young men, it is to you,
O son of Pandion and Creusa!
Just now there came the windy way
A messenger on foot, up the path from Corinth.
Unutterable deeds he tells of a mighty
Man: he slew that arch-criminal
Sinis who was greatest of mortals
In strength, offspring of Kronos
And son of the Lytaean earthshaker.
And that sow, the man-eater, in the meadows
Of Cremmyon and that reckless man
Sciron he slaughtered.
The wrestling-school of Cercyon
He closed, and Polypemus' mighty
Hammer Procoptes now has
Dropped, meeting a better
Man. It is this I fear, how it will end!
Who is this man? From where? What does
He say? What company does he keep?
Is he with hostile forces,
Leading an army immense?
Or alone with his servants
He comes, like a merchant, a wanderer
To other people's land,
Strong and mighty as well,
And so bold that he has a strength
Greater than men like
These? Or perhaps a god rouses him,
To bring suit on unsuitable men?
You know, it's not easy always to
Act and not to run into injustice.
Everything in the long run will end.
To him two men alone accompany,
He says, and about his gleaming shoulders
Hangs a sword . . . <the end of the line is missing>,
And in his hands two polished spears,
A well-made dog-skin cap from
Sparta on his head and tawny mane,
A shirt of purple
Around his chest, and a sheep-skin
Thessalian jacket. His eyes
Reflect volcanic Etna,
Blood-red flame. He's said a boy
Of tender years; the toys of Ares
Own his thoughts, and War and
Crashing brass and battle.
He's said to seek the love of splendor, Athens!
Epilogue: Consider the comments of A.P. Burnett, a modern commentator on Bacchylides' poetry (note):
How did the performance end? When singers were allowed to make their farewells to patron and audience, and so to get their feet back on the ground of actuality, they simply march out of the dancing space. These performers, however, were different from those of every other song that survives from . . . Bacchylides, because when their song finished they were still caught in their fictional situation, still on the razor's edge. If they simply turned and took themselves off, the effect must have been curiously anticlimactic, and it may be that their exit was covered by another more urgent trumpet call, or a warning roll of drums. Some have even supposed that just as the music stopped a group of actual ephebes (i.e. young men from Athens) burst in, ready to perform the exercises of their annual review. . . .
The Bacchylidean scene . . . shows neither motion nor decision. Its dialogue suggests a play, but the stunning effect of this piece comes from the fact that in a situation that calls for action, no one makes a move. What is more, though the nameless messenger who would naturally bring this news has been replaced by a particular king, there is no characterization here. . . . The king repeats his information as if he were telling a nightmare that still has hold of him; he makes no gesture, he only says, "I am afraid" . . . . The song does not imitate action, and so it is not tragic in the Aristotelian sense, but it does imitate mortal blindness and the innate ambiguity of all worldly events, and to this extent it treats the stuff that tragic action is made of.
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