I begin my critique of The Performance Group’s Dionysus in 69 with a short description of my ignorance. First, I have never read the play. The text and the liberties Schechner took with the text are unknown to me. I have a vague notion of the narrative structure, but little knowledge of specific events within the ‘play.’ This problem is confounded by the poor audio recording of the videotape. However, I fought the urge to read The Bacchea. I fought the urge to look up synopses and reviews. My reading of the performance, stripped of dramatic, linear organization, describes the flow of intensities in Schechner’s rendering of ecstatic trance and ritual.
Artaud criticizes Western theater for its psychological drama and “grotesque imitation of reality,” celebrating Balinese theater for its orchestrated gesture and intuitive meanings that “render useless any translation into logical or discursive language” (216). Artaud disapproved of narrative and western notions of rising action, climax, and resolution. Dionysus in 69 undercuts, if not disintegrates, this linear approach to classical storytelling.
First, warm-ups are performed in front of the arriving audience. Spectators step over people busy stretching, vocalizing, warming their muscles, and preparing for the performance. Like an orchestra turning their instruments, the bodies of performers stretch, vibrate, and contort. The effect achieved by these warm-ups is extraordinary. The scattered bodies of performers are neither representing themselves, nor representing a character or idea. Like athletes trying to complete a race, they perform specific tasks without intentionally communicating any meanings to the audience. I say intentionally, because meanings are still communicated to audience members, but those meanings are closer to what Artaud calls “states of mind, which are themselves ossified and reduced to gestures” (215). There are simply flows of bodies, sounds, and images that paint and repaint themselves across the stage. The actors appear as “mechanized beings, whose joys and sorrows do not really seem to belong to them but rather to obey established rites that were dictated by high intelligences” (219).
Dionysus in 69’s poor sound quality, double screens, and editing techniques isolate the “chaotic turbulence” that “belong(s) to a kind of studied mathematics which governs everything and through which everything happens ” (219). Some might say that post-production ruined the performance. After all, we as spectators, could not dance with the actors, understand the story, touch their bodies, or feel their breath on the backs of our necks. However, the film technology was skillfully used to engender many of Artaud’s more complicated meanings. The post-production of the film—from the splitting screens to the careful editing—creates doubles of the performers. Often the video will show two different perspectives of the same person. This psuedo-cubist rendering of performing bodies focuses intently on the visible gestures of the performers. Actors become hieroglyphs, symbols of bodies, taking on surrealist shapes when framed by the video. The poor sound quality changed actor’s distinct voices into noise and sound, making only the emotional tones of those sounds audible. My arguments may seem problematic because the poor sound quality of the video does not speak towards the ‘original’ or ‘authentic’ performance. However, I feel that treatment of the video as a different performance will not undermine either medium. While I do not have time to discuss the theoretical implications inherent in the distinction between recording and performance, I want to clarify that the video is not a representation or a reproduction of the performance but a wholly new artifact, an iteration that does not (and could never) replace or replicate the performance.