Theatre: Tradition & Ritual II

The City of Dionysia festival, the first annual annual, was held each year in March, beginning with an announcement by the three selected playwrights and the subjects of their tragedy trilogies, respectively. A great procession was held, a procession in which citizens – men, women, children, colonial representatives – marched through Athens carrying the wooden statue of Dionysia, from outside the theatre of Dioynsus to the southern slope of the acropolis. The procession ended with parties and celebrations.

Dionysus wasn’t a one-note deity, the God of wine, but also of fertility, humanity, and of land, and as such, the phallus was a popular symbol of fertility. As such, a giant statue, of bronze or wood, of a phallus would be carried in procession, while a cart pulled a much larger phallus. This is a custom that survives to this day in Japan, in traditional kabuki theatres, as there is a large cart carrying an even larger phallus. To be clear, phallus is just an archaic word for penis. Large penises were pulled into crowds full of drunks celebrating the most brutal of tragedies performed in the Dioynsia contest.

Dionysus was not only the god of wine, but of fertility, human beings and of land. The phallus was a popular symbol of fertility in those days. Therefore, a wooden or bronze phalloi was carried in procession and a cart pulled a much larger phallus. A similar custom is still continued to this day in Japan, where there is the carrying of a giant phallus to proceed kabuki ceremonies and performances.

In 500 BC a new contest was introduced to draw loyalty from the newly formed Athenian tribes. To parlay favor, a dithyramb contest was held, separate for men and for young boys. Mesomedes is a popular melody writer from the 2nd century whose work is still known. The singing performances were accompanied by lyres, sitars, as aulos and other types of pipe instruments.

In 501 BC, the Dionysia was again extended: it would include a Satyr play. In Greek mythology, a satyr was half-beast, half-human companion to Dionysis. These characters would make up the chorus in a traditional satyr play. So in the 5th century, not only the the playwright be expected to produce a trilogy, a trilogy of a single, larger tragedy, but also a satyr play – this was the comic relief, alleviating some of the misery that had preceded it. These would be more or less burlesque versions of familiar subjects, gods and heroes, but set in a rural area, full of boisterous scenes and drinking, and the absolute indecency of colloquial language, introducing a tradition of slang. While dick jokes have fallen out of favor, keep in mind, the very first performed jokes known to history are dick jokes.

Only one known completed satyr play from this period is known to historians, Cyclops by the playwright Euripides, based on the episode in the episode when Odysseus encounters the cyclops Polyphemus. You can still see paintings of satyr plays depicted on vases and pottery, where chorus members wore scant-dressings of goat skins with a linen-sewn phallus for comedic effect. The structure of the satyr play was similar to that of a tragedy, and the English word satire derives from this tradition of the Satyr play introduced into the tragedy contests in the City of Dionysia.

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