When Princeton professor of classics Daphne beseeches the Grecian deities in a moment of despair, her prayer is heard and answered by the gods — the gods of comedy, that is.
Who are the gods of comedy? Dionysus and Thalia. (Technically, Thalia is the muse of comedy and thereby an immortal but not a god. Quibbling, quibbling, quibbling.)
Dionysus, on the other hand, is much more than the god of comedy, wine, and orgies. His genesis has been associated with the Egyptian story of Isis and Osiris, the origin of which fades into prehistory and the matriarchal age. Much like Demeter, the goddess of the harvest and fertility, he predates what many of us know as Greek Mythology 101.
Playwright Ken Ludwig’s knowledge and insight into the themes of Greek Mythology exceed Greek Mythology 101. The qualities of Dionysus as the liberator — whose wine, music, and ecstatic dance, free the self-oppressed — was shared equally by Thalia. The qualities of the mortal characters are exactly those which need to be freed up by wine, music, and ecstatic dance.
Dionysus and Thalia skip the booze and music and substitute an adventure as a means of freeing Daphne, the hero of the story, from herself. She receives a literal invitation to adventure. As the hero’s journey demands, Daphne is reluctant to take up the adventure but circumstances force her into it.
The adventure is designed to remove her obsessive self-consciousness and societal fears. This is completely in keeping with the best traditions of Dionysus’ cult. Dionysus is also the god of resurrection, and Ludwig weaves a narrative of rebirth in between the slap-stick comedy.
Dionysus has been “helping” us to get over ourselves since the beginning of time, but even after such an interval, we need his guidance. He represents what was once a structured rite of passage, the Dionysian Mysteries, back to our natural state. The mysteries were designed to temporarily restore our humanity by stripping away the confines of culture, society, and convention.
The Dionysian Mysteries were kind of like the 1960’s but with a structure in place to guide the participants. In our current society, there is nothing like them. Right now it’s possible to get drunk, dance, and participate in an orgy, but without a structure in place to frame those activities, what’s the point?
Ken Ludwig’s The Gods of Comedy plays at The Old Globe through June 16.