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Chapter 13: Dionysus, Pan, Echo, and Narcissus

Dionysus versus Apollo. Dionysus as the uninhibited god of wine and excess is often pitted against Apollo, represented as a disciplined god of self-control and restraint. This antithesis between the rational, Apollonian, and the irrational, Dionysian, in human nature and society, is one of the most potent religious and philosophical motifs in literature, art, and music.

Dionysus and Elvis Presley. In his music-drama, Revelation in the Courthouse Park, Harry Partch presents a dramatic modern version of Euripides’ Bacchae, which is much more theatrical than it is operatic.

The plot alternates between scenes from the Bacchae set in ancient Thebes and parallel scenes in an American drama enacted in the courthouse park of a small mid-western town in the nineteen-fifties. Each major singer plays dual roles: Dionysus, god of the frenzied Bacchae, is also Dion, rockstar (a pop idol archetype for Elvis Presley) with his fanatic female followers; Pentheus, the youthful king, is also Sonny, a young, disturbed American; and Agave, his mother, plays her alter ego Agave. The action is that of worldwide ritual theater; lines are spoken or declaimed with or without music, amidst the more purely musical episodes; and it is not the music itself that matters as much as the impact of this powerful and original work. Partch explains his Americanization of Euripides: “Dion, the Hollywood idol, is a symbol of dominant mediocrity, Mom is a symbol of blind matriarchal power, and Sonny is a symbol of nothing so much as a lost soul, one who does not or cannot conform to the world he was born to.”

This is how Partch (very much an American original) explains the motivation for his highly controversial re-interpretation of the Bacchae. See Partch, Harry, Bitter Music, Collected Journals, Essays, Introductions, and Librettos, Edited with an Introduction by Thomas McGeary, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991, 244-246. Reprinted from his Genesis of Music.

I first decided that I would bodily transfer Euripides’ The Bacchae to an American setting. But in the end the better solution seemed to be to alternate scenes between an American courthouse park and the area before the palace of the city of Thebes . . . I was determined to make this an American here-and-now drama, which, tragically, it truly is . . . Many years ago I was struck by a strong and strange similarity between the basic situation in the Euripides play and at least two phenomena of present-day America. Religious rituals with a strong sexual element are not unknown to our culture, nor are sex rituals with a strong religious element. (I assume that the mobbing of young male singers by semi-hysterical women is recognizable as a sex ritual for a godhead.) And these separate phenomena. After years of observing them, have become synthesized as a single kind of ritual with religion and sex in equal parts, and with deep roots in an earlier period of evolution . . .

The equation of the idolization of Elvis Presley with the worship of Dionysus has turned out to be more apt than Partch might even suspect. For the devout, Elvis has never really died or has been resurrected, and is still very much with us. Pilgrimages to his temple in Graceland are legion.

The Dionysiac experience in relation to singers of popular music and rock has spanned more than one generation. It can be recognized in the bobby-soxers who swooned at the feet of Frank Sinatra, in the androgynous cults of Michael Jackson and Boy George, and it afflicts both sexes with equal passion. The furor aroused by the female singer Madonna or the rock group, the Beatles, devastates both men and women equally, sometimes enhanced by the Dionysiac use of intoxicating drugs.

The fanatical attachment of some opera buffs to certain divas or divas is but another manifestation of Bacchic madness.

Narcissus. This tragic story of madness and death has cast a particularly potent spell, not least of all because of Ovid’s perceptive and moving poetry. We do not expect Ovid to be so profound. The ominous words of Tiresias predict the tragedy in a fascinating variation of the most Greek of themes: “know thyself,” preached by Apollo and learned by Oedipus and Socrates. “When his mother inquired if Narcissus would live to a ripe old age, the seer Tiresias answered, ‘Yes, if he will not have come to know himself.’”

The fact that a male lover’s prayer for just retribution is answered defines the homoerotic nature of Narcissus’ self-love and self-destruction. Narcissism and narcissistic have both become technical psychological terms and part of our everyday vocabulary.

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