With each passing year since I hit eighteen, my mental faculties have declined. As a child I enjoyed doing things like arguing in favor of debunked revisionist theories of history, like that the munitions manufacturers had been responsible for World War One (“Look! It’s all right there in the Nye Commission report!”). Nowadays I read books with titles like Pawn of Prophecy or Enchanter’s Endgame, and if I comprehend the headlines on the front page of the paper on my way to cheerleading practice it’s a good day. Simultaneously, my brotherwho was always the unintellectual, athletic oneis getting a Ph.D. in American history; our apartment is slowly but surely filling up with books with titles like Waterfront Workers of New Orleans: Race, Class, and Politics, 1863-1923.
However, the undergraduate musical theater writing class I co-teach at NYU is about to start again, and my co-teacher and I are substantially revising the syllabus, out of a desire to take a broader perspective. We’re considering starting out with a class about the oldest origins of musical theater; that is to say, Dionysian ecstasies.
So earlier tonight I went out and bought Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music and am slowly but surely making my way through it.
And my God, I’d forgotten how wonderful it feels to think.
I’ve never bought into the tracing of musical theater back to ancient Greece. Always seemed too much of a stretch. I mean, if you’re going to go that far back, why not include the Osiris plays that the Egyptians produced at Abydos. Ritual with music and dance predating the worship of Dionysius.
But then I’ve always thought that tracing American musical theater back to The Black Crook (as some people do) was a bit naive too. Totally ignores the influences of operetta.
I would take the origins of musical theater back to commedia dell’arte, but that’s about it.
But then, that’s just me.
Ah, but it was the Greeks who first put a man onstage who was pretending to be another man. It was that act of pretending that was the birth of theater. (Though of course that’s very much Apollinian, as Nietzsche would have it, and therefore in diametric opposition to the Dionysian ecstasies. So perhaps I am hoist by my own petard here.)
I’m not arguing that the birth of drama (Western drama, that is) is with the Greeks, just musical theater.
Apollonian v. Dionysian – God, that brings back memories of my comprehensive exams.
Now just ask me to compare and contrast the use of actors by Artaud and Meyerhold and I’ll curl up in a fetal position under my desk and rock back and forth.