The reason that I’m running this poll is that I’d like your help in coming up with the theme for a play that I’ll present to the god during the Wild Dionysia in midwinter. (The word can be translated either rural or wild – guess which connotations I prefer?) Wikipedia’s description is only marginally problematic:
The Dionysia was originally a rural festival in Eleutherae, Attica (Greek: Dionysia ta kat’ agrous – Διονύσια τὰ κατ’ ἀγρούς), probably celebrating the cultivation of vines. It was probably a very ancient festival, perhaps not originally associated with Dionysus. This “rural Dionysia” was held during the winter, in the month of Poseideon (the month straddling the winter solstice, i.e., Dec.-Jan.). The central event was the pompe (πομπή), the procession, in which phalloi (φαλλοί) were carried by phallophoroi (φαλλοφόροι). Also participating in the pompe were kanephoroi (κανηφόροι – young girls carrying baskets), obeliaphoroi (ὀβελιαφόροι – who carried long loaves of bread), skaphephoroi (σκαφηφόροι – who carried other offerings), hydriaphoroi (ὑδριαφόροι – who carried jars of water), and askophoroi (ἀσκοφόροι – who carried jars of wine). After the pompe procession was completed, there were contests of dancing and singing, and choruses (led by a choregos) would perform dithyrambs. Some festivals may have included dramatic performances, possibly of the tragedies and comedies that had been produced at the City Dionysia the previous year. This was more common in the larger towns, such as Piraeus and Eleusis. Because the various towns in Attica held their festivals on different days, it was possible for spectators to visit more than one festival per season. It was also an opportunity for Athenian citizens to travel outside the city if they did not have the opportunity to do so during the rest of the year. This also allowed travelling companies of actors to perform in more than one town during the period of the festival. The comic playwright Aristophanes parodied the Rural Dionysia in his play The Acharnians.
Ain’t nobody harvesting grapes in Greece during December and January.
Go ahead and tell ‘em what winter means in Greece, Hesiod:
wretched days, all of them fit to skin an ox, and the frosts which are cruel when Boreas blows over the earth. He blows across horse-breeding Thrace upon the wide sea and stirs it up, while earth and the forest howl. On many a high-leafed oak and thick pine he falls and brings them to the bounteous earth in mountain glens: then all the immense wood roars and the beasts shudder and put their tails between their legs, even those whose hide is covered with fur; for with his bitter blast he blows even through them although they are shaggy-breasted. He goes even through an ox’s hide; it does not stop him. Also he blows through the goat’s fine hair. But through the fleeces of sheep, because their wool is abundant, the keen wind Boreas pierces not at all; but it makes the old man curved as a wheel. And it does not blow through the tender maiden who stays indoors with her dear mother, unlearned as yet in the works of golden Aphrodite, and who washes her soft body and anoints herself with oil and lies down in an inner room within the house, on a winter’s day when the Boneless One gnaws his foot in his fireless house and wretched home; for the sun shows him no pastures to make for, but goes to and fro over the land and city of dusky men, and shines more sluggishly upon the whole race of the Hellenes. Then the horned and unhorned denizens of the wood, with teeth chattering pitifully, flee through the copses and glades, and all, as they seek shelter, have this one care, to gain thick coverts or some hollow rock. Then, like the Three-legged One whose back is broken and whose head looks down upon the ground, like him, I say, they wander to escape the white snow. (Works and Days 504-535)
In other words winter’s cold and windy in Greece.
Not generally grape-picking time.
That’s done now, around Oschophoria – which is how we have the new wine ready to be tasted by the community during Anthesteria. It all forms a cohesive cycle – which is why I’ve been feeling like I should start doing something for the Wild Dionysia. Though I’m far from an Athenian reconstructionist a lot of the festivals on my calendar are derived from Attic originals, and I don’t really have anything specifically honoring the theatrical aspect of my god, even though the theater is a huge component of my spiritual life.
So I thought, “Why not pick one of the lesser known stories of Dionysos and turn it into a play for his festival?”
Then, a little later, as I was mulling over which story it should be and what dramatic form I should use, it struck me.
So what if we completed the trilogy of sacred Dionysian arts and wrote a play.
“You’re insane! How the fuck would that even be possible?” I shouted at my ceiling before it hit me how crazy that probably looked. Glancing away, I happened to notice the crucified clown near my shrine for Mark Antony and burst out laughing.
“Of course! Commedia dell’arte!“
For those who may be confused, commedia dell’arte was a form of theater that flourished in Italy during the early Renaissance. Drawing inspiration from the popular carnevale and ancient Roman comedy, especially the Atellan farce, (which had been rediscovered during the late Middle Ages) as other forms of Italian theater of the time did as well, what truly distinguished commedia dell’arte from, say, commedia erudita was it’s use of all’improvviso. Basically instead of a script the actors would come up with a scenario which was a brief outline of a story, a set of stock characters and a list of lazzi (skits or jokes, basically) that could be inserted at various points in the play. Everything else they came up with on the spot, playing off of each other in a dazzling, dizzying display of wit and humor. (Not to mention physicality as there was a lot of acrobatic leaping and pratfalls, especially when Arlecchino was involved – and he always found a way to involve himself in the plot.) Within the broad confines of the mask (physical appearance, personality traits, expected behavior in certain circumstances, etc.) the actor was free to do whatever they wanted with the character, resulting in some truly inspired and enthusiastic performances if the written records that have come down to us are any indication. What unleashed the creative genius was the tension of keeping one’s performance within the confines of the stereotyped role, to breathe new life into it while remaining faithful to its spirit.
So let’s do that!
Once voting is finished I’ll come up with a list of characters and post them along with the winning story. Then you guys have at it in the comments. You can play whatever part you like, switch between characters and participate as much as you feel moved to. You can respond to what others have said or rush on stage and recite your own random soliloquy. The only rule is that you MUST STAY IN CHARACTER. Any comments that do not start by identifying who’s speaking IN BOLD LETTERS or that are clearly not intended as part of the play will be deleted. To help propel the plot along (since we do, eventually, have to get around to telling the story) I will periodically step in as the deus ex machina but otherwise leave it up to you guys.
This is going to be completely fucking nuts and a ton of fun!
If you’d like to learn more about commedia dell’arte you can start by reading the posts in my harlequin tag.