Myths in Camden

Remaking ancient Greek and Roman myths in the twenty-first century
7 July 2016

To Camden for a one-day colloquium at The Open University. It’s an emotional part of town for me, and the proliferation of chain stores cannot completely erase the traces of ugly t-shirts, leather jackets, Record and Tape Exchange, and Compendium Books. The OU building is another matter: modern, and with a pleasant garden area tucked into a small plot of land. The colloquium was free, as was lunch, so I was well-disposed towards the event from the start.

The topic was Remaking ancient Greek and Roman myths in the twenty-first century, and the organizers had assembled an admirably inclusive collection of practitioners – poets, novelists, playwrights, musicians – and academics examining prose, poetry, theatre, film, and video games. The breadth of styles and genres covered proved the continuing saturation of Western culture by the myths, characters, tales, and structures of the classical world.

I’ll comment here only on two papers which addressed themes from tragedy. Emma Cole reported on a performance of Jan Fabre’s twenty-four-hour theatre work Mount Olympus, which is subtitled, ‘To glorify the cult of tragedy’. Fabre uses the physical pressure of long-duration performance with vigorously embodied choreography and speech to heighten the immersive evocation of the cathartic extremity of ritualized myth in a ‘postdramatic’ spectacle. Dr Cole described the scene in which one of the actors, pushed to the limits of physical endurance was seen retching at the side of the stage. How, then, is the audience to respond? Is it part of the performance? Are we to react aesthetically or morally? At the close, Mount Olympus assuredly produced a cathartic effect, and I was curious to discover whether Dr Cole gained any insights into the contested academic definitions of catharsis as purgation, purification, clarification, and so on, but she suggested there is a split between the popular definition of catharsis as intuited by audiences (and described by Fabre himself) and the academic attempts to categorise it.

Tragedy returned later in the afternoon with David Bullen’s paper on ‘Subversive advents: exploring a Bacchic narrative in popular cinema’. He identified Bacchic structure in films as seemingly different as Chocolat and Avengers. The Dionysiac pattern of ‘repression-desire comedies’ such as Chocolat and Footloose is clear to see, with readily identifiable Bacchic incomers encountering Pentheus-like authority figures (the argument was, of course, more thoroughly and persuasively mapped and developed than this brief thumbnail sketch). The delineation of the inverted structure of action films (Avengers, Skyfall, etc.) was particularly impressive. The villain follows the Dionysian role, but Pentheus’ doom is transferred from the (super-)hero to a semi-heroic companion. Despite the hero’s inevitable victory, the denouement demands the renegotiation of cultural identity following the Bacchic subversion, but – as Bullen demonstrated with a scene from Skyfall – the rupture is softened by a familiar, comforting retro aspect to the new order.

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