In the words of Lennon, “You may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not.”


I included one of my favorite poems in the Dionysos in the Northlands article – Vyacheslav Ivanovich Ivanov’s The Vineyard Of Dionysus:

Dionysus walks his vineyard, his beloved;
Two women in dark clothing – two vintagers – follow him.
Dionysus tells the two mournful guards – The vintagers:
“Take your sharp knife, my vintners, Grief and Torment;
Harvest, Grief and Torment, my beloved grapes!
Gather the blood of scarlet bunches, the tears of my golden clusters –
Take the victim of bliss to the whetstone of grief,
The purple of suffering to the whetstone of bliss;
Pour the fervent liquid of scarlet delights into my ardent Grail!”

[Note to self: I will have to explain why this is one of my favorites another time, as this is gonna be long.]

So, the other night while doing further research for the article I discovered that Vyacheslav Ivanovich Ivanov was a whole lot more interesting than I ever guessed.

My first indication came from a foot note in Fiona Macintosh’s “Dancing Maenads in Early 20th-Century Britain” from the collection The Ancient Dancer in the Modern World: Responses to Greek and Roman Dance:

In Germany and Russia there were followers of Dionysus, who shunned the modern world altogether and lived in quasi-Bacchic settings and practiced Dionysian rituals.*

* Blom (2008), 200-2. In Russia, for example, Vyacheslav Ivanov (1866-1949), classical scholar and author of The Hellenic Religion of the Suffering God (1904), lived in ‘The Tower’ believing he was Dionysus from 1905 onwards. In Germany there were numerous bearded and naturist followers of Dionysus, including the young Herman Hesse.   

He was quite the interesting fellow, according to James H. Billington:

‘Viacheslav the Magnificent’ was the crown prince and chef de salon of the new society, which met in his seventh floor apartment ‘The Tower,’ overlooking the gardens of the Tauride Palace in St. Peterburg. Walls and partitions were torn down to accommodate the increasing numbers of talented and disputatious people who flocked to the Wednesday soirees, which were rarely in full swing until after supper had been served at 2 A.M.

Future Russian Orthodox nun Maria Skobtsova was then an acclaimed poet and frequent guest at the Ivanov flat. Decades later, while living in Paris as a White emigre, she recalled the atmosphere at the Tower:

We lived in the middle of a vast country as if on an unhabited island. Russia was illiterate, whereas in our milieu was concentrated all the culture of the world: the Greeks were quoted by heart, we welcomed the French symbolists, we thought of Scandinavian literature as our own, we were familiar with the philosophy, theology, poetry and history of the whole wide world, in this sense we were citizens of the universe, the keepers of mankind’s cultural museum. This was Rome in the time of its decline… We played out the last act of the tragedy concerned with the rift between the intelligentsia and the people. Beyond us stretched out the Russian Empire’s snowy desert, a country in fetters: it was as ignorant of our delights as of our anguish, while its own delights and anguish had no effect on us.

Regarding Vyacheslav’s theories of theater, the distinguished Wikipedia (where I got the above) has this to say:

It was at this time that Ivanov wrote the first of his two plays, Tantalus (1905). Like his second, Prometheus (1919), it imitated the dramatic structure and mythological subject-matter of Aeschylean tragedy and was written in obscure and archaic language. It was his unrealised, utopian ideas about theatre, however, that proved far more influential. Ivanov regarded it as having the potential to be the most powerful of the arts and capable of taking over the function of the Church and restoring religious belief in a society that had lost its faith. 

Ivanov’s theories were part of a shift in the second phase of Russian Symbolism away from the influence of French decadence and the ideas of Valery Bryusov, with its abstract evocations of inner states, towards the German philosophical tradition, and the ideas of Richard Wagner and Friedrich Nietzsche in particular, and the promotion of an ecstatic (in both the religious and philosophical senses) theatre of mass participation. The ideas of Aleksei Remizov (who was the literary manager of Vsevolod Meyerhold’s New Drama Association at this time), Fyodor Sologub, and the Mystical Anarchism of Georgy Chulkov were all part of this second phase of the movement.

Ivanov proposed the creation of a new type of mass theatre, which he called a “collective action,” that would be modelled on ancient religious rituals, Athenian tragedy, and the medieval mystery play. Writing in an essay on the mask (“Poèt i Čern”) that was published in the magazine Vesy (Libra or The Scales) in 1904, Ivanov argued for a revival of the ancient relationship between the poet and the masses. Inspired by The Birth of Tragedy and Wagner’s theories of theatre, Ivanov sought to provide a philosophical foundation for his proposals by linking Nietzsche’s analysis with Leo Tolstoy’s Christian moralising, and ancient cultic performance with later Christian mysteries. The idea that the Dionysian could be associated with a concept of universal brotherhood would have been completely alien to Nietzsche, who had stressed the fundamental differences between the two traditions. Ivanov, however, understood Dionysus as an avatar for Christ. By means of the mask, he argued, the tragic hero appears not as an individual character but rather as the embodiment of a fundamental Dionysian reality, “the one all-human I.” By means of hero’s example, therefore, staged myth would give the people access to its sense of the “total unity of suffering.”

Rejecting theatrical illusion, Ivanov’s modern liturgical theatre would offer not the representation of action (mimesis), but action itself (praxis). This would be achieved by overcoming the separation between stage and auditorium, adopting an open space similar to the classical Greek orchêstra, and abolishing the division between actor and audience, such that all become co-creating participants in a sacred rite. Ivanov imagined staging such a performance in a hall in which furniture is distributed “by whim and inspiration.” Actors would mingle with the audience, handing out masks and costumes, before, singing and dancing as a chorus, collective improvisation would merge all participants into a communal unity.

Thus, he hoped, the theatre would facilitate a genuine revolution in culture and society. Writing in Po zvezdam in 1908, Ivanov argued:

The theatres of the chorus tragedies, the comedies and the mysteries must become the breeding-ground for the creative, or prophetic, self-determination of the people; only then will be resolved the problem of fusing actors and spectators in a single orgiastic body. […] And only, we may add, when the choral voice of such communities becomes a genuine referendum of the true will of the people will political freedom become a reality.

While some, such as the director Meyerhold, enthusiastically embraced Ivanov’s ideas (at least insofar as they proposed overcoming the division between actor and audience in a collective improvisation), others were more skeptical. The poet Andrei Bely argued that the realities of a modern, class-divided society could not be abolished by means of masks and costumes, however earnestly adopted:

Let’s suppose we go into the temple-theatre, robe ourselves in white clothes, crown ourselves with bunches of roses, perform a mystery play (its theme is always the same—God-like man wrestles with fate) and then at the appropriate moment we join hands and begin to dance. Imagine yourself, reader, if only for just one minute, in this role. We are the ones who will be spinning round the sacrificial altar—all of us: the fashionable lady, the up-and-coming stockbroker, the worker and the member of the State Council. It is too much to expect that our steps and our gestures will coincide. While the class struggle still exists, these appeals for an aesthetic democratization are strange.

Sounds a bit like Antonin Artaud’s Théâtre de la Cruauté to me – what do you think, dear readers?

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