Don’t Stereotype My Dionysus!
In my previous blog post, I discussed some discrepancies between the Bacchae and Frenzy’s version of Dionysus. My primary focus was Dionysus’ complicated identity and desire for belonging. I want to utilize this post to delve further into Dionysus’ character in Frenzy, and explore why Percival Everett wrote the character this way.
The Dionysus in Frenzy is a god with an intricate history. He isn’t accepted by humans or the other gods due to his unusual birth out of Zeus’ leg. This lack of belonging leads to Dionysus making odd choices that are uncharacteristic of the typical Greek god archetype.
A recurring example of this is Dionysus attempt at sleeping. Despite his lack of need for it, he feigns sleep every night by mirroring his human followers’ actions. Dionysus’ companion, Vlepo, notices this and realizes that he is, in fact, not truly asleep but pretending, “my master had somehow found that quasi sleep again…” (Everett, 140). When I read this passage, I interpreted Dionysus to be interested in human characteristics and possibly trying to fit in among his followers. This, again, emphasizes his want for acceptance, whether it be in the god or human world. I also found it unusual for a Greek god to be so absorbed in human behavior when, traditionally, humans are disposable to the gods.
Dionysus’ amusement with sleep stuck out to me as a curious attribute of Frenzy’s Dionysus. It is a character trait that is also not mentioned in The Bacchae. So why is Dionysus’ mimicking sleep so important that it needs to be included several times in Frenzy?
One can look at the original Bacchae for evidence behind Everett’s decisions in developing Dionysus as a character this way. The Bacchae is a classic and old Greek tragedy. Being this ancient, many of its characters are archetypic. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms defines archetype as “the original model from which something is developed or made…” (Murfin, Ray, 24). Based on the Bedford’s definition, it makes sense that an original Greek play written in 405 BC would include some of the infant models for characters used today. However, these character archetypes are basic and one-dimensional, often depicting characters as people with only one goal or emotion. This creates an improbable and frankly, boring character.
Dionysus for example, is vengeful against Pentheus’ town because of their lack in belief in him as a god, so he plots the town’s demise. This is an understandable viewpoint for a Greek god except that it is the only one we see Dionysus having in the Bacchae. This is not a realistic interpretation of any character even if the character is a god. It is also a stereotypical goal as Greek gods are normally portrayed as self-absorbed and power-hungry individuals. Perhaps this is because the Bacchae was one of the initial Greek tragedies and it represents an archetype for later Greek plays and stories.
I think that Everett noted the Bacchae’s quintessential characters and believed they could be perceived as stereotypical and uninteresting for modern audiences to read. So, he created a dynamic Dionysus that is much more complex of a character than the original. His Dionysus is not so much arrogant as one might assume a Greek god to be, but fascinated by his human followers which we can see by his imitation of them sleeping. We can also see this different depiction in Everett’s Dionysus with his urge to belong in the world as I looked at with my last blog post. This way, Frenzy’s Dionysus is not an archetype but a realistic illustration of what a Greek god could be.
This discussion of Everett’s choice to disregard the stereotypical archetype Greek god for Dionysus’ character in Frenzy reminds me of our first class in English 203 this year. Dr. McCoy pulled up a twitter photo with the caption “suspicious pants” above a photo of khakis hanging over the back of a chair. I’m assuming the photo and caption are supposed to be humorous as the pockets look like two eyes squinting suspiciously. Dr. McCoy separated us into groups to examine how we interpreted the epigraph. I explained to my group that I saw the pants as having eyes squinting menacingly at someone doing a suspicious act. In that way, they were suspicious of someone. I expected most people in my group to have seen the same thing as I did. However, Sarah, a member of my group, quickly pointed out that she saw the pants as looking suspicious themselves.
These differences in opinion lead to a larger class discussion of divergence in perceptions among humans. I thought of this experience when thinking about the possible reasons for Everett creating such a convoluted character of Dionysus in Frenzy. Perhaps Everett wants to show his readers that no character is completely as one perceives them and that can’t be represented with the simple archetypes from the Bacchae. For example, one might believe Dionysus in Frenzy to be a stereotypical Greek god who is longing for revenge, when in actuality, he may be a character who is lost and looking for acceptance just as any human can be.
I enjoyed reading Frenzy more than the Bacchae because of the in-depth characters I could relate to. Archetypes serve a purpose as templates for future roles but they are difficult to impart upon modern readers as memorable and engaging characters. Everett avoids these archetypes and in doing so, creates an expansive character that readers can contemplate in more ways than one.