“Tragedy and Dionysus” – Seaford

pages 25-38 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

Two articles into A Companion to Tragedy and both argue for a ritual basis for ancient Greek tragedy. Surprising. You’d think a reference work such as this would provide more balance. The ‘tragedy has nothing to do with Dionysus’ school of thought gets short shrift in this edition. Although Dionysus is the patron god of tragedy, so few tragedies feature Dionysus that a school of thought has arisen declaring that ‘tragedy has nothing to do with Dionysus’. In this article, Seaford argues that, although most of the stories from Athenian tragedy do not feature Dionysus, the art of tragedy is ‘Dionysiac’. Seaford frames the central question in this way: ‘Can it make sense to call a narrative or drama Dionysiac if Dionysus himself plays no part in it?’

Seaford argues that Athenian tragedy is Dionysiac, as drama originated from the cult of Dionysus. Specifically, drama came into being when the chorus leader broke apart from the chorus to address the chorus. When the chorus responded in a refrain, drama was born. In addition, even if many of the surviving plays don’t feature Dionysus, the tragedy festival itself indubitably belonged to the cult of Dionysus: at the beginning of the festival, the image of Dionysus was brought into the city and a ‘sacred marriage’ took place between the image and the wife of a magistrate called the ‘King Archon’.

Another prominent ritual in Dionysus’ cult is, of course, booze! Seaford postulates that the social elements of drinking naturally led to gatherings, festivals, and other occasions fertile for the development of drama. From the Anthesteria, a minor and ancient spring festival of Dionysus sprang the City or the Great Dionysia, the major festival where tragedy took centre-stage (this is where Oedipus rexThe Oresteia, Hippolytus, and other plays were first performed). According to Seaford, the Great Dionysia arose in the 6th century BC to serve a political end:

Suffice it here to say that whereas the ancient festival of the Anthesteria had long centered around a key moment in the agricultural year, the opening of the new wine, the new Dionysia was largely designed to serve a political end: the display of the strength and magnificence of Athens–to itself and to others. We should also note that the organization and coordination of the new urban festival was greatly facilitated at this time by the introduction into Attica of (recently invented) coined money: the universal power of money, deployed at a single center or even by a single individual, is especially good at coordinating a complex new initiative, and tends in our period to replace the less flexible power of barter and traditional observance.

Now, this is interesting: “the new urban festival was greatly facilitated at this time by the introduction into Attica of (recently invented) coined money.” Am I hearing this right–money had something to do with the birth of tragedy? In my book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy, I argued that tragedy arose as a backlash to the introduction of money in Attica (or Athens, as I call it). Money made it possible to buy, sell, and exchange human life and values like bacon bits and deer skins at the market. As such, money degraded life and human value by turning it into an object of financial exchange. A counter-monetary spirit arose. It sought form and expression and found its voice in the new art form of tragedy. In the risk theatre interpretation, tragedy rails against money by routing exchanges involving life and human value through the shadow market instead of the conventional money market. For example, one can buy a title or a degree with money in the conventional market. In tragedy, however, the use of money is strictly forbidden. To acquire a title in tragedy–such as Solness acquiring the title ‘master builder’ in Ibsen’s play–one has to pay in flesh and blood. Solness, to become master builder, pays with his happiness, and the happiness of those around him. Happiness for becoming the master builder: this is the sort of existential transaction that takes place in what I call the ‘shadow market’.

By routing exchanges through the shadow market, tragedy railed against the monetization of life and human value. In this way, tragedy shows how some things cannot be brought with money. In this way, tragedy revolts against the monetization of life and value. Now, in my book, I turned the story of how tragedy arose as a counter-monetary art into a myth. I didn’t feel that my position could be academically defended, so I mythologized the process by weaving it into existing stories about Croesus (the tragic ruler of Lydia who invented money), Solon (one of the wise men), and the tale of Diomedes and Glaucus’ meeting (out of Homer’s Iliad). But from what Seaford is saying, it seems that this strange and bold view that tragedy arose as a reaction to the invention of money could find an academic footing. This to me is most interesting. At the time I wrote The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy, I would not have, in my wildest dreams, thought this possible.

But, it is possible. I checked the bibliography to Seaford’s article, and he does have a full length book on this topic: Money and the Early Greek Mind: Homer, Philosophy, Tragedy (Cambridge University Press). It wasn’t available at my local public library (they can’t even get it interlibrary loan!). But I had to read it, and luckily there was a used copy available on Amazon. What a find! I’ll be reading and reviewing this book very soon, here’s the blurb:

How were the Greeks of the sixth century BC able to invent philosophy and tragedy? Richard Seaford argues that a large part of the answer can be found in another momentous development, the invention and rapid spread of coinage. By transforming social relations, monetization contributed to the concepts of the universe as an impersonal system (fundamental to Presocratic philosophy) and of the individual alienated from his own kin and from the gods, as found in tragedy.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

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