Singing Mania
July 10, 2004 12:18 AM   Subscribe

Here is an appeal to the Classics scholars out there. Some time ago I read an article that told a story in passing of the effects of live drama upon an unsophisticated audience in a provincial town in the Roman empire. The citizens had hitherto never been exposed to the particular form--it was on the comedic end of the scale and involved singing as I imperfectly recall--and reacted with a sort of mass hysteria: they went into a mass swoon, rioted and things fell apart and days later there were still people in the streets singing the choruses of the songs. I have tried to Google this a number of times and have yet to find anything resembling what I read. Does this ring a bell with anyone here ?
posted by y2karl to Society & Culture (19 answers total)
I'm no classical scholar (Renaissance here) but this sounds fascinating. If you find the story, do post a link or info. Some suggestions, though, for books to try (and you might have already gone this route):

Woodman and Powell's Author and Audience in Latin Literature (NY: Cambridge UP, 1992)

Richard Beacham's The Roman Theatre And Its Audience (NY: Routledge, 1991)

The story you're citing is strange enough that it's sure to pop up in at least one of these books. Maybe. I don't own either of these and haven't looked at them in a few years.
posted by josephtate at 1:41 AM on July 10, 2004

Reminds me a bit of what has happened in Bhutan when the government decided to allow TV to the people.
posted by Goofyy at 3:06 AM on July 10, 2004

I don't have an answer but I'm posting here anyway so I can check on whatever turns up when I get back from vacation in a week and this thread has long since slipped beneath the waves. Fascinating question!
posted by languagehat at 6:01 AM on July 10, 2004

This does ring a bell for me, but only faintly, and I haven't had any google luck. You might check if your library has the book at the bottom of this page, which I imagine would definitely mention the incident if it was a Roman empire audience.

Anyway, I've been thinking about the question since reading this thread, and also find it fascinating, and couldn't help reflecting that the nature of humankind has not really changed so very much over the centuries, as witnessed by this description of a similar, 20th century, phenomenon:

The film opened at Christmas in 1973 and generated waves of audience hysteria. Reports were released (from the hyperactive brains of dutiful press agents?) of people fainting, vomiting, having heart attacks and running screaming from the theatre. Breathless European press reports following the movie's worldwide release blamed a series of strange behaviors, suicidal and criminal, on the influence of the film. A superstitious belief that there is something inherently dangerous about the THE EXORCIST is an idea which prevailed around the campus during the filming (abetted by the death of one actor during the shoot, and the mysterious conflagration of on the the sets in Hollywood) and persists today among those who enjoy such amusement.
posted by taz at 7:13 AM on July 10, 2004

Reminds me a bit of what has happened in Bhutan when the government decided to allow TV to the people.

Oh you can't just stop there ... can you elaborate or provide a link? Please?
posted by anastasiav at 8:41 AM on July 10, 2004

For anastasiav: Has TV changed Bhutan? from the BBC, and Fast forward into trouble from the Guardian.
posted by zztzed at 9:20 AM on July 10, 2004

It rings a Japanese bell, which probably doesn't count, but then we've just had Bhutan, so anyway, it reminds me somewhat of Imamura's Eijanaika.
posted by carter at 11:28 AM on July 10, 2004

A quick question or two-- Are you certain of the time period i.e. Roman rather than Greek? And was it framed as a cautionary tale? I'm wondering if it might not be an interpretation of an anecdote from either Plato or Aristotle on the dangers of poetry. This is just a guess, but I'll go and check it out.
posted by jokeefe at 12:31 PM on July 10, 2004

I don't know of a real world example but it does sound quite a bit like the model of audience/performer interaction which Plato proposes in his work Ion. Forgive me, the section of lengthy quotation follows, in which Plato is speaking to a rhapsode who performs the works of Homer.

"The gift which you possess of speaking excellently about Homer is not an art, but, as I was just saying, an inspiration; there is a divinity moving you, like that contained in the stone which Euripides calls a magnet, but which is commonly known as the stone of Heraclea. This stone not only attracts iron rings, but also imparts to them a similar power of attracting other rings; and sometimes you may see a number of pieces of iron and rings suspended from one another so as to form quite a long chain: and all of them derive their power of suspension from the original stone. In like manner the Muse first of all inspires men herself; and from these inspired persons a chain of other persons is suspended, who take the inspiration. For all good poets, epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed. And as the Corybantian revellers when they dance are not in their right mind, so the lyric poets are not in their right mind when they are composing their beautiful strains: but when falling under the power of music and metre they are inspired and possessed [...]

"For in this way, the God would seem to indicate to us and not allow us to doubt that these beautiful poems are not human, or the work of man, but divine and the work of God; and that the poets are only the interpreters of the Gods by whom they are severally possessed. [...]

"Do you know that the spectator is the last of the rings which, as I am saying, receive the power of the original magnet from one another? The rhapsode like yourself and the actor are intermediate links, and the poet himself is the first of them. Through all these the God sways the souls of men in any direction which he pleases, and makes one man hang down from another. Thus there is a vast chain of dancers and masters and undermasters of choruses, who are suspended, as if from the stone, at the side of the rings which hang down from the Muse."

Basically he's saying that poetry (which can be interpretted to mean all written works which are of an expressive, as opposed to a simply declarative nature) possesses the audience and therefore poetry is evil. Aristotle goes on in Republic to state that because of this control which the written word can wield over individuals, its function in society should be limited to prevent the wrong sorts of ideas from being introduced to children, specifically those who are being groomed as future leaders.
posted by mmcg at 12:38 PM on July 10, 2004

Oops, looks like I was confusing my old dead philosophers. Plato goes on to further refine his point in Republic, not Aristotle. My memories were confused by Plato's use of Socrates as a narrator, but that doesn't explain how Aristotle crept in there.

I should never try to have a serious discussion a Saturday. It never goes well.
posted by mmcg at 4:33 PM on July 10, 2004

I'm wondering if it might not be an interpretation of an anecdote from either Plato or Aristotle on the dangers of poetry.

No. It may have been in the Hellenistic period rather than the Roman era. It may very well have been in one of those volumes of the Loeb Library of which only Robert Graves seems to have had an edition--as in an elaborate fiction--but it was not in Plato or Aristotle.

A town saw a performance and slipped into a sort of mass hysteria. Days later people were lying in the streets chanting or singing a line from a song. They had been overwhemed by the experience, although whether by the song or songss, the story, the performers or the whole concept of the performance, I am no longer sure.

But it wasn't some character in a Platonic dialogue relating an obscure myth like the ring of Gyges or anything like that. It's not like I'm that well read in the Classics but I would have remembered it being from a primary source like that. Or so I hope.

I do remember reading something like that but who knows? Maybe it was a dream remembered within a dream.
posted by y2karl at 5:33 PM on July 10, 2004

hm, I actually had thought of the exact same passage that mmcg suggested. The supposition that this was the initial exposure of the audience to theater (or to this genre of theater) makes it a bit hard to locate historically, or to make it fit a Roman setting.

You know what else it reminded me of? Anecdotes concerning the premiere of The Rites of Spring, or The Great Train Robbery, or Cabaret Voltaire. Épater le bourgeoisie.

IIRC, the concept of possession as the mechanism whereby creative activity succeeded had pretty broad currency in Classical Greece, and presumably would have been inherited, to one extent or another, by the Romans. The idea actually forms the basis of our own concepts of creative inspiration, I believe. Look at how we use the word 'genius.'

Given the somewhat fanciful nature of that tale, could it be from a source such as Herodotus?
posted by mwhybark at 9:20 PM on July 10, 2004

One more time: It's not like I'm that well read in the Classics but I would have remembered it being from a primary source like that.
posted by y2karl at 9:30 PM on July 10, 2004

y2karl, you may just be fantasizing about #mefi, but this really did happen.
posted by Kwantsar at 10:02 PM on July 10, 2004

Hmm, if the account I recall was of a real event or at least an account of such an event from the appropriate ancient time and that time was in Roman empire, it could have found it's way into Gibbon's Decline and Fall...

But the anecdote I recall doesn't sound like something that could have happened in Roman times:

What The Roman Play Was Like

Reasons for the decline of the classic drama. It goes without saying that such associations did not improve the drama. The Roman world, or such part of it as frequented the spectacles, was not of the sort to find delight in the more subtle revelations of character. Thrilling scenes were for them almost daily enacted in real life: their malefactors were stretched on the cross, or tossed to the beasts of the arena; their generals, returning from war, led their captives in chains through the streets. Such plays as were given had to compete, very unequally, with the spectacles and circuses, as well as with the turbulent and sensational life of the city; and they were further degraded by being placed, on occasion, on the circus programs between the gladiatorial shows and the wild beast combats.

Meanwhile, I am perusing this sample of Greek and Roman Actors - Aspects of An Ancient Tradition and wondering if it happened in Hellenistic times and in a Hellenistic empire or kingdom or even earlier periods.

the concept of possession as the mechanism whereby creative activity succeeded had pretty broad currency in Classical Greece

Ekstasia, stepping out of one's self, and enthusiasmos from en theos, the god within, come to mind.

I recall reading a passage about the role of masks in sacrificial ritual in Rene Girard's Violence and the Sacred and the shifts in consciousness he thought came in putting on masks. One put on the mask and become the god. Now that drama arose from sacrificial ritual is a commonplace, as is that Greek drama was associated with Dionysian rituals and certainly Greek and at least some Roman drama was enacted enmasked.

I remember buying a pair of full headed masks at a garage sale--a Velociraptor mask from Jurassic Park and a Darth Maul--and giving them to a friend's sons around Halloween. Man, they put those things on they were gone, totally into it and doing amazing and appropriate mimes from the get go when they put those things on. It was spooky.

It confirmed my tendency to think we are hardwired for sacrificial ritual, that anything smacking of the dramatic arts is embedded with religous significance and, by extension, by the way, that celebrity worship is no small way just that: worship. Of gods incarnate. None of which is a terribly original thought. Oh, well.

Well, this might have been a snipe hunt but it's certainly provided me with some interesting links. So, thank you all for the comments so far.

Bhutan, Author and Audience in Latin Literature, Ion and the Exorcist--this has all been food for thought so far.

And, you know, taz, I had a girlfriend who saw The Exorcist one afternoon after a couple of consecutive all nighters during finals week in graduate school at Tulane--and she was from the area of D.C. the movie was filmed. Well, she didn't sleep for quite a few more days after seeing it and had to have her mother come down and stay with her, she was so frightened. Not only that, but the longer she stayed awake, the more she looked like Linda Blair at her most demon possessed. This was some years before I met her and she was still shuddering to talk about it.

It all seems connected right now in some mysterious way but perhaps that could be my state of mind.

Jimbo: Man, that guy's guitar is talking.
Otto: Hey, my shoes are talking too!
Left Shoe: Don't worry. We won't hurt you.
Right Shoe: We only want to have some fun.

Upon review: People throwing up at a Palahniuk reading--so, is that a novel concept ?
posted by y2karl at 11:06 PM on July 10, 2004

NO... it is all connected!

I actually read the book while I was home from school with the flu, with a raging fever... imagine how that was.

At any rate, I'm sure I've read something just like what you've described in the post, so don't give up; the truth is out there.
posted by taz at 5:02 AM on July 11, 2004

It's not like I'm that well read in the Classics but I would have remembered it being from a primary source like that. Or so I hope.

No offense intended, y6.
posted by jokeefe at 8:37 PM on July 12, 2004

my apologies too if appropriate. I wasn't considering Herodotus as a primary source, but, of course, he is.
posted by mwhybark at 3:26 PM on July 14, 2004

*slaps forehead*

jeebuz, sorry y2k, I got your number wrong. Oy.
posted by jokeefe at 2:45 AM on July 23, 2004

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