Dionysus in 69 (play)

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Dionysus in 69 was a theatrical production by The Performance Group (TGP), a New York-based experimental theatre group. Dionysus in 69 was directed and conceived by TPG's founder and long-time artistic director Richard Schechner. The stage play was an adaptation of Euripides' The Bacchae.[1] Dionysus in 69 is an example of Richard Schechner's practice of site-specific theatre as described in his 1973 book Environmental Theater, utilizing space and the audience in such ways as to bring them in close contact with each other. Dionysus in 69 challenged notions of the orthodox theatre by deconstructing Euripides' text, interpolating text and action devised by the performers, and involving the spectators in an active and sensory artistic experience.[2] Brian de Palma, Bruce Joel Rubin, and Robert Fiore made a film of Dionysus in 1970. The film records and merges the final two performances of the 1968 stage play.[3][4]


The cast of the play at the time of its filming was:[5]

  • Remi Barclay
  • Samuel Blazer
  • Jason Bosseau
  • Richard Dia
  • William Finley
  • Joan MacIntosh
  • Vicki May
  • Patrick McDermott
  • Margaret Ryan
  • Richard Schechner
  • William Shephard
  • Ciel Smith

The Bacchae[edit]

The Bacchae is a play written by the Greek playwright Euripides. The play opened at the City Dionysia Festival in Athens in 405 B.C. and won first prize. It follows the God Dionysus on his return to the city of Thebes to avenge his mother's reputation and the God's own rejection as the bastard child of Zeus. The title refers to the groups of female followers of the God, who serve as the chorus in the play, and would engage in ecstatic rituals to the point of euphoric delirium motivated by the God's association with wine, sexuality, celebration and the theater. The play deals with the themes of religion, sexuality, sacrifice and devotion.[1] The translation which served as the basis for the TPG production was written by William Arrowsmith.[6]

Project details[edit]

Rehearsal and performance took place in a “performing garage” which was rather a small metal stamping factory, but Schechner found “garage a much jazzier title”. According to Schechner the group rehearsed for 5 months at least 6 days a week on average 6 hours a day including vocal training and psychophysical interactions (e.g. attack therapy, a controversial method at that time in use to treat drug addicts).[7] Dionysus in 69 is an example of Richard Schechner's theories of Environmental Theater in terms of the uses of the performing space, deconstruction of classic texts, and audience participation. In his book, Schechner describes participation as the opening up of a play so that the audience/spectators can enter into the action—they are included in the world of the drama which is made all the more actual by their participation. As Schechner writes in Environmental Theater: “The transformation of an aesthetic event into a social event—or shifting the focus from art-and-illusion to the formation of a potential or actual solidarity among everyone in the theater, performers and spectators alike.” There were no seats, though the cast would chant "May I take you to your seat, sir?" The audience sat either on the floor, against a wall, or wooden scaffolds.[8] Dionysus in 69 created an atmosphere in which participation ranged from clapping and singing to spectators stripping and joining in the ritual celebrations and dances.[2]

After working on Dionysus in 69, Schechner composed three rules regarding participation:

  1. The audience is in a living space and a living situation. Things may happen to and with them as well as “in front” of them.
  2. When a performer invites participation, he must be prepared to accept and deal with the spectator's reactions.
  3. Participation should not be gratuitous.

Schechner also notes that the key to participation is that it fundamentally changes the nature of the performance, its rhythms and outcomes. He states that, “Without this potential for change participation is just one more ornamental, illusionistic device.”[2]

Previous to Dionysus in 69, Schechner practiced and theorized "Six Axioms for Environmental Theater".[2] These axioms were enacted in this play, as well as in other of Schechner's theatre pieces:

  1. The theatrical event is a set of related transactions
  2. All the space is used for performance; all the space is used for audience.
  3. The theatrical event can take place either in a totally transformed space or in found space.
  4. Focus is flexible and variable.
  5. All production elements speak in their own language.
  6. The text need be neither the starting point nor the goal of a production. There may be no text at all.

Critical reception and influence[edit]

Dionysus in 69 was widely considered to be Schechner's seminal work. It is often looked to as the piece that broke ground on the movement of happenings in American theater and performance art. Jill Dolan, of Princeton University, says of Schechner's work on Dionysus: "Schechner [made environmental staging] famous, in which the audience is interspersed with the actors, in a way that refuses the conventional separation between spectators and performers.”[9] The production also gained something of a cult following, with audiences who returned to see (or participate in) the show again and again. This was so much the case that when, during a performance in which the audience held a revolt of sorts and several students "rescued" the actor playing Pentheus, removing him from the performance over the objections of other cast members. Schechner then asked the audience for a volunteer to replace the actor playing Pentheus in order to complete the performance, and a spectator who had been many times before and was familiar with the piece volunteered to fill in the role.[2] Although wrought with controversy, the New York Times called Dionysus in 69 "a production of extraordinary grace and power".[4]


  1. ^ a b Euripides; Kirk, G. S. (1970). The Bacchae. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. ISBN 9780130552853.
  2. ^ a b c d e Schechner, Richard (1973). Environmental Theater. New York: Hawthorn Books.
  3. ^ Brian De Palma: interviews - Brian De Palma, Laurence F. Knapp - Google Books. Books.google.com. 2003. ISBN 9781578065165. Retrieved 2012-03-27.
  4. ^ a b Greenspun, Roger (1970-03-23). "Screen::De Palma's 'Dionysus in 69'". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-03-27.
  5. ^ Dionysus in 69 on IMDb
  6. ^ "Dionysus in 69 (digitally re-rendered)". Hemispheric Institute Digital Video Library. Credits box. Retrieved 3 August 2017.
  7. ^ Richard Schechner (2009). Richard Schechner on rites and rituals in Dionysos 69 (Interview recording). OnlineDramaturgy. Retrieved February 25, 2017.
  8. ^ "New Plays: Dionysus in '69". Time Magazine. 28 June 1968. Retrieved 3 August 2017.
  9. ^ Runk, Steve (9 December 2011). "Performance Studies Symposium at the Lewis Center for the Arts Noted Performance Studies Scholar and Theater Director Richard Schechner Keynote Speaker". Lewis Center for the Arts. Princeton University. Archived from the original on 2 December 2012. Retrieved 23 March 2012.

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