Seeking truth in opposites, Myth of Dionysus in Euripedes’ Bacchae

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God, not god? Structuralists come at mythology with the intent to weed out opposing binaries, rooted in biology, that stand out as clear thematic red flags within a read. Claude Levi Strauss thought this kind of view was important in accessing mythology because the human brain works that way. In binaries. The human brain processes information as pairs of opposites used to structure our basic understanding of the world.

Dionysus: God, not god? Man, or beast? Man, or woman? It is the detail in these opposing relationships that matter in the myth, according to structuralists. What is the distinction in what makes a man in Euripedes’ Bacchae, and not man? What are the defining features of being a God? Is it about being drunk? Not drunk? Is it about perception? As in visual appearances, or how other people perceive the truth?

So, if structuralists pick at the biologically-rooted binary opposites that permeate the Bacchae, what would they find? What makes the myth tick?

What drives this story is fundamentally the dissolution of identity as Dionysus returns years later to punish people for not according him the worship/rituals of a deserving god. Dionysus AKA Bacchus. In the pantheon of Greek gods, we learn that Dionysus is seen to be some kind of misfit.

The God of Wine insists that his worshippers are drunk and therefore outside of themselves, when they worship him.  His rituals happen at night, in the hillsides, with a hunt staged. We learn that Dionysian rituals are the complete opposite of standard Greek rituals, which happen in daylight, crowded/public spaces in the center of the city, inside a main temple, involving controlled animal sacrifice.

Pentheus is the King of Thebes who bans the worship of Dionysus and forbids women from joining in his rites. The ensuing wrath of Dionysus sees a scheme hatched where Pentheus, disguised as a woman, climbs a tree to spy on what he thinks are the sexual activities of women engaged in Bacchic rites. Instead, the women (including his own mother) are in a trance. They mistake him for a lion, hunt him down, tear him from limb to limb and decapitate him.

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Red flag 1: Man or beast? So we see Pentheus’ identity dissolved.  Is he man, or beast? Is he King of the land, or a lion, king of all animals? But what about the women who kill him? Are these Dionysian revellers logical (wo)men or posessed beasts? Categorizing “civilized” humans as repressed and rational and controlled, whereas “savage” beasts have unfettered appetites and actions in a Dionysian ritual — involving alcohol and orgies… And what about Dionysus? Does he exact controlled justice or does he unleash monstrous wrath? Is it necessary to punish everyone in Thebes with such violence save Tiresias? Do Agave and Cadmus really deserve their ends?

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Is Dionysus a Greek God? He certainly has the name of one. But the circumstances around his birth are suspect, right. His mortal mother Semele was impregnated by Zeus. Through some trickery by Hera, Semele insists Zeus shows himself to her and when he does, Semele is immolated by his glory. Zeus snatches the baby Dionysus who is reborn from his father’s own thigh.

Red flag 2: Mother — not my mother?  Dionysus’ stature as God is in question. Is Semele really his mother? Or is Zeus his mother for giving birth to him from his own thigh? There’s been scholarly debate about whether Dionysus went too far in punishing Agave after she’d already suffered by mistaking her son Pentheus for a lion and ripping him to pieces/beheading him. If you see the whole story as a son avenging others for insults on his mother, you can understand why he targeted her. Perhaps more than he targeted Pentheus.

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Red flag 3: Myself — not myself. Dionysus disguises himself as a stranger. Pentheus disguises himself as a woman. Are the Dionysian worshippers really themselves when they are drunk? Being drunk, we step outside ourselves and excuse ourselves from normal behavior. You have unwilling worshippers on this hillside driven mad by Dionysus. And those who willingly followed him from Asia to Thebes. Going into a trance, the maenads have magical powers imbued by Dionysus. Out of the trance, the maenads realize their undoing.

Red flag 4: Predator, or prey? And now we’ve come full circle to the most obvious of binary oppositions in this play. Pentheus stalks women from up a tree – he certainly starts as predator. But is he, really? A victim of a god’s scheme, the women he spies on mistakes him for a lion. Isn’t a lion a predator? But wait. If a lion’s a predator, what’s it doing in a tree? It gets ripped apart and becomes a sacrificial animal in a Dionysian rite.

Becoming a Hero

What specifically makes Odysseus heroic?

What makes Odysseus heroic is his extraordinary story – extraordinary quest, settings, challenges, feats, distractions (i.e. the character as hero from a story perspective)! He’s got what it takes to be a hero (strength and intelligence above the norm), but we really only imagine him as a hero because he’s put on a True Hero’s Journey (wonderful trials and tribulations across the wine dark sea), he faces major major conflict (God’s wrath, temptations, monsters, geographical constraints), and showcases key values and actions that help him overcome, transforms him in his personal growth arc to achieve a worthy end goal (Save the world / Free Penelope from suitors / Bring glory to his Kingdom).

From a structural standpoint, Homer set it up that way: when we meet Odysseus in Calypso’s cave, stasis equals death – Odysseus has to get out of a dire situation. A Mentor (Athena) sets him on the path of The Hero’s Journey (via Zeus-Hermes-Calypso). Change is required (or die), and movement through the story-story sets this in motion. He embarks on a high-risk journey fraught with monsters and god’s wrath, he’s tempted by sirens along the way, thinks through decisions-decisions in the face of difficult choices, and struggles, showcases his wits and strength, James-Bonding it or Vin-Dieseling it (Chuck Norris-ing it?) to get to point B.

He gets tools, he collects allies, he battles it out with enemies. Conflict is everything, right. His arc of growth compels us to read and retell his story; his incredible situation, and what he does with it, becomes an example or morality tale for what other folks could be capable of if hard-pressed in a situation like that — and so this surmounting, or standing out, makes him heroic. [Even if he is supported by the gods or fated to do something]. And… worthy goals!

Right from the get go, Homer has got us rooting for him, even before we meet him in first person. Because Telemachus cares, and Penelope cares, and Athena and Zeus… so if all these worthy mortals and deities care, we must have lots of empathy for Odysseus and want him to prevail, too! And that’s what makes him a hero — someone we (as reader/audience) look up to and care about.

In what ways does Odysseus potentially present a challenge to models of heroism?

Odysseus is not quite the stereotypical alpha male hero from the outset.  He cries like this helpless baby when Calypso has him in her cavern. (Weeping, not anger) I mean, if he’s so full of wit and strength why hasn’t he moved to action and dreamt up a thousand methods to get off Ogygia?  And then when Hermes brings instructions from Zeus to free him, Odysseus questions Calypso’s good intentions.

He doesn’t immediately latch onto the opportunity to sail home without one last tryst with her and getting her to help him with the sails of his ship, etc. If he is so heroic, with worthy goals of going home to his wife, why be unfaithful and why delay any longer? If he’s so crafty, why does he need anyone’s help in building a ship? He delays a lot, he is unfaithful, and somehow takes a long time coming home. He questions Ino’s good advice about abandoning ship when Poseidon clearly has it out for him, and then begs for Nausicaa and Arete’s help when he does land in Scheria.

There is some inconsistency in how he trusts some women, not others, even when caught in similar dire situations where he needs help. It is not necessarily rational, but perhaps emotional, based on his view of the gods.

Also, he got into this whole mess in the first place because his crew stole cattle from the Sun God. If he’s the true ancient greek hero, who’s just a cogwheel in the piece of the gods’ plans, he really should have known or managed his crew a little better, and not have angered the gods so terribly in the first place. But I guess every hero makes mistakes.

What about Telemachus?

Even less the alpha male, perhaps more beta or omega, Telemachus just requires a whole bunch of handholding all the way. He’s lounging around when everyone’s ransacking his home and waiting to pounce on his mom, dreaming of the day his dad comes home to save the day. It takes Athena in disguise many times to move him to action. He has no proven track record to inspire authority when he calls for assembly, instead, he is cajoled and pitied. He doesn’t seem to have his father’s good luck being surrounded by a harem of women (did this define a hero in Ancient Greece imagination?). And Nestor, Menelaus and Helen have to bring up the story of Orestes over and over before Telemachus gets it through his thick skull that action is required to do something about his situation. Other people have to tell him what to do! It’s like he’s not even aware of how bad it is, he’s just a frog in boiling water waiting for it to get so hot he dies before jumping out. And he requires a lot of divine intervention in order to get tools and friends necessary to proceed.

Beginning with the Pitch…8 steps to Pitch Perfect by Michael Hauge

Once I’d done OODLES of research, reading, and conceptualizing for The Black Tail, I decided to pitch it. Yup, to 90 agents in Hollywood at a Screenwriter’s World Conference October 2012 in the Kodak Theater. In Hollywood, I learned that the industry considers writing a given. Authors and screenwriters start backwards by pitching first to as many agents as they can — and they normally pitch a few ideas, so that they can sit back and write knowing that someone is either funding the effort, or that it needs reworking because it isn’t ready yet for commercialization. I can’t emphasize enough, the importance of pitching, if you’re really passionate about an idea. What better way to get feedback on moving forwards?

At Storyworld, I was extremely fortunate to have the opportunity for a 30-minute one-on-one coaching with Michael Hauge, from Storymastery.com. To quote his bio from his official website, “Michael Hauge is a story and script consultant, author and lecturer who works with writers and filmmakers on their screenplays, novels, movies and television projects. He has coached writers, producers, stars and directors on projects for Will Smith, Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lopez, Kirsten Dunst, Charlize Theron and Morgan Freeman, as well as for every major studio and network…He is on the Board of Directors of the American Screenwriters Association and the Advisory Board for Scriptwriter Magazine in London.”

So, I was in the Ray Dolby Ballroom, teeming with budding screenwriters, agents, and producers… and Michael sat me down at a corner table and recorded me as I pitched my idea to him for 10 minutes. In under 20 minutes, he  then proceeded to give me feedback, which was exceedingly useful. I’m going to paraphrase: “stop saying you’re not a writer. Everyone is here to write, and writing is a serious business whether you’re making money doing it full time or whether you’re doing it on the side.” I sat up straight away, taking him seriously. He then went into the heart of my story. “Listen, this is clearly, obviously, a romance. You’ve got a great storyworld of monsters and themes from Greek mythology, but it is obviously a romance. And romance sells! It’s the largest selling genre in the world. Why wouldn’t you want to make this a bestselling romance? Why do you think it’s hard to write? You’ll have many resources at your fingertips with this genre…” and then he went on to put structure to my pitch, especially seeking out certain key elements that needed to be made explicit. (He wanted the 3 Labors I was putting my heroine through to be stated to the agents). When he was done, I went back and reshaped my whole pitch, and had something like the perfect back cover review for my book. This then served to structure the entire outlining process, that led to the process of building my novel scene by scene. Pitching is so important because the key elements that inform the structure of the story — plot, character, conflict —- has to be nailed in order to get it right.

Michael then went on to say that he’d be happy to work with me long-distance on the development of my story, and that is something I’d definitely recommend to those who have the time and resources. I am currently still learning a few tricks, through online courses at Writer’s Digest University, and still getting the first draft together. By the time I do, I’ll definitely work with Michael, because I see the potential in having my book also be a screenplay, and he’s definitely the go-to guy to get it right!!!

Without further ado, here are my notes from Michael Hauge’s “Screenwriter’s Pitch Perfect” lecture. He says that pitching is all about conveying an emotional experience.

8 Steps to the Process of Pitching

[PREP]

A. Review the story, identity and key elements of the story

  1. Who is the hero/protagonist of the story?
  2. What is the everyday life that character is living at the beginning of the story? (Before picture of the hero)
  3. Why will we empathize with this character? Why will the audience connect emotionally with this character? Eg. Avatar – we become Jake. Why we care (ways to develop empathy):
    1. We feel sorry for the person. Some undeserved misfortune.
    2. Character is in jeopardy. Someone who finds out she’s about to lose her job. Doesn’t have to be life-threatening.
    3. Make the hero likeable — tell us something in everyday life that shows he/she’s a kind, good-hearted, loving person
  4. What opportunity is presented to your hero at the 10% point in your script?
    1. e.g. Harry Potter learns he is the son of a wizard…
  5. New situation (character moves into~) something happens to create new desire in the person
  6. What is the hero’s outer motivation?
    1. Harry Potter has to find the Sorcerer’s Stone and stop it from falling into the hands of evil Lord Voldemort
    2. The outer motivation is the visible goal that takes the character to the end point of the movie (visible finish line that the character will cross)
  7. What makes that scene possible? What’s the conflict?
  8. What are the 2 antecedents for your movie? Example of movies in the same genre (similar tone), same audience, doesn’t have to be the same subject matter: Immortals, Clash of the Titans

B. You write. Take these elements, and compose that picture-perfect pitch

C. Rehearse. (Don’t read – can have note cards)

D. Research. Know as much as you can about the buyer.

  1. Go on Internet Movie DataBase and see what they produce, what’s in development

[PRESENTATION]

Create rapport  – identify commonality with the person…

  1. Acknowledge the person for something they or their company have done
  2. Don’t bullshit – why did you love the movie? “I saw it with my daughter and we had the best conversations about it…”
  3. They’re here – They took the time to come here (Thank them). “I’m here from Malaysia… it means a  lot to have the opportunity to talk to you…”

[REVEAL]

  1. Pitch
  2. Do not open with the title of the script or ____? Emotionally confusing
  3. Begin by telling the person about how you came up with this idea. HOW. Show originality. You want to draw the buyer into the pitch (get into it). If not listening 100%, it doesn’t matter. True, less nervous. The things about your story that generates passion and excitement…
    1. Good place to step in and link idea to the story; “I started thinking… WHAT IF”… (What movies you liked that led to this)
  4. Go into 8 elements
  5. Awkward moment #1: finish staying story… silent because buyer doesn’t know you’re finished.
    1. 1 short peek: summarize (title and log line) can be conveyed in 1 sentence)
  6. Silence again.
    1. Request feedback/next steps– “So, do you have any questions about my story or would you like me to send you a copy”?
  7. Q&A
    1. When someone asks a question, you must answer in 10 seconds. If they want to know more, they’ll ask.
    2. If someone was not interested in your pitch, 99% of the time, it had nothing to do with your pitch. No means their company is not interested in making that kind of movie right now (they already have stuff in development).
    3. “Got a couple of minutes left, can you give me some suggestions to sharpen my pitch?”
    4. If YES, see a copy – thank them, “great, I’ll get you a copy this week, I look forward to seeing what you have to say”

[DON’T]

  • Begin your pitch with a question
  • In your pitch, don’t tell the buyer how the story ends. END your pitch with a CLIFFHANGER. … that’s why CONFLICT was the last of those 8 items…
  • Don’t say if you want to know the ending, read the script
  • If you’re pitching a true story, don’t tell the person it’s a true story. Just pitch it. Only in the end – the title is this, 1-sentence summary, and can you believe it, it’s actually true (hook at the end)
  • Do not hype your story: this gets you nowhere – “this is really heartwarming, will appeal to children of all ages…”. Don’t tell them why or how good it will be – let them make the commercial conclusions of your story
  • Don’t apologize for nervousness. Don’t apologize during the pitch.
  • Don’t try to tell your whole story
  • Do not worry about getting rejected