A Meditation upon Dionysus’s Smile

Jun 15, 2018

The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer.  (Theodore Roosevelt)

I already miss Anthony Bourdain, a man who traveled the world through his senses and shared his experiences and enthusiasms with countless viewers.  His access to the world came first through food, which led him to stories, which in turn, through his senses, his palate and his openness, led to an empathy for specific cultures and the individuals within those cultures.  His palpable humanity seemed to arise from learning people’s stories through their food. Bourdain often insisted that he was the dumbest person in the room, that in his journeys he constantly discovered that he had been wrong about the assumptions with which he had arrived. He stayed open to influence and cultural difference.  And then, apparently, he committed suicide.

As I grow older, I feel my neural pathways becoming increasingly calcified by habit and convention. In the artistic process I have somehow managed to stay relatively open to novelty, unexpected interferences and new directions but in my daily life I have accumulated so much practice of living that I generally default to solutions that have already proven effective.  Hard-wired assumptions tend to rule my decisions and I have become increasingly distanced, via routine, from the direct interface of moment-to-moment life unfolding.  The wisdom gained by life and experience is useful up to a point but can also keep me from wide-open receptivity to what is novel.

I remember not being so defended against discovery, or against what felt like raw experience. I remember feeling more vulnerable to the moment-to-moment interface with the world swirling around and through me.  When I was younger, especially while travelling in an unfamiliar country, I swam in novelty. I struggled to keep my balance in imbalanced situations. And now I find that I am nostalgic for such unguarded experience in my daily life.

SITI Company is embarking upon a brand-new production: Euripides’ The Bacchae, a play that is precisely about remembering to embrace and celebrate unguarded experience. The god Dionysus and his band of Bacchants arrive from Asia Minor to Thebes with a vital message: Do not put up walls between yourself and the rest of the world. Let go. Nothing is certain. Nothing is solid. 

What is as solid as anything can be, is that our first rehearsal for The Bacchae is July 23rd at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles towards the premiere in early September.  Following the Getty, in the first week of October, we will head to the BAM Next Wave Festival where we are proud to be part of Joe Melillo’s final season.  What might also be solid is the fact that I have spent and will continue to spend a great deal of time preparing for this first rehearsal.  I have been studying, reflecting, imagining and researching for more than a year but I also realize that ultimately, I know very little.

The mask of Dionysus, which is fixed in a smile, is one of the play’s central features.  I have never liked masks and I do not want to use masks in this production. I understand intellectually why a mask can be liberating both for actors and audience, but I love actors’ faces and the mere idea of putting a mask on an actor feels distancing to me and lacking possibility for variation and nuance.

In examining the phenomenon of Dionysus’s smile, I am confronted with my own history of smiling and not smiling.  As a child in school I resented being urged to smile in any situation.  These days, my stepdaughter Alona lovingly pleads with me to smile for family photographs, which ultimately makes my face glummer. I belong to a generation influenced by Andy Warhol photography and folk-rock music album covers where people look directly at the camera with no attempt to put on a happy aspect.

But now I want to consider and explore the art and poetry of the smile. Perhaps smiling will help me to dissolve calcified boundaries and barriers.

In poetry, all facts and beliefs cease to be true or false and become interesting possibilities.  

(W. H. Auden)

The beauty that I find in actors’ faces does not emanate from visible strain or “putting on a face.”  This beauty originates in what director Tadashi Suzuki calls “the good face.” Despite the strain and involvement in the extreme act of being onstage, when an actor truly relaxes the face, a gentle smile tends to appear. Pina Bausch’s dancers always appear to be slightly smiling. They seem to be enjoying some private secret. I find their presence enormously attractive and I am drawn towards them.

The Mona Lisa’s smile has a similar mystique.  Leonardo da Vinci worked on the Giaconda portrait for nearly eight years.  Right up to his death, he claimed that he had still not quite caught that enigmatic smile that he was seeking. Some said he had fallen in love with his sitter. 

The image of Buddha sitting silently under a tree, with his eyes half-closed is one of the most iconic images in the world and one of the most reproduced. His face radiates the most beautiful, kind and understanding smile imaginable. Why is the Buddha smiling? What is he smiling about? Can I smile like the Buddha?  Perhaps the Buddha smiles because of the possibilities and the beauty of the current moment. His face reminds me to be present in the here and now. His smiling emanates power.

Dionysus’s smile is referred to often during the course of The Bacchae. In mask form the smile would have remained stable.  It is the audience’s reaction to the fixed smile over time that would not remain consistent. By the end of the play, the acts of violence may change the mask smile to an appearance of a divine sneer or a ghoulish expression of inappropriate glee at a vengeance easily executed. 

Dionysus’s smile clearly embodies ambiguity and binary opposites. I imagine that it radiates a relaxed harmony that conceals frightening and unfathomable depths; an ambiguous smile, perhaps at first the smile of a martyr and later the smile of a destroyer.

In my teens and twenties, well-meaning friends, knowing how devoted I was to the theater, invariably proffered me with tragedy-comedy mask pins and tee-shirts for my birthday or as Christmas presents. To me this symbol, with its smiling face and frowning face, always seemed like an embarrassing cliché and I could never bring myself to wear them.  But perhaps embedded within these two shapes, the two adjacent faces, lurks a valuable lesson about the potential richness of emotions. 

In Greek the word klausigelos (κλαυσίγελως) suggests a prolonged sequence where laughter and crying are interchangeable.  Perhaps the tragedy-comedy mask embodies the idea of extreme and mixed emotions. In modern Greek culture klausigelos is still understood as a complex but emotionally rich state, laughing through tears, or weeping through laughter. Perhaps in my quest to transcend my own crusty limitations and assumptions I can learn to relish greater states of mixed emotions rather than quickly categorizing and dismissing them.  The Buddha’s equanimity is itself an emotion. Paradoxically, the smile is synonymous with having come face to face with suffering and having overcome it.  It lies at the midpoint between pleasure and pain, midway between liking and not liking, wanting and not wanting, greed and hatred. It points to an intensity of emotional response that accepts and even celebrates what is happening without trying to distort in into something else, into something that an “I” prefers.

Anthony Bourdain had his demons and I am not suggesting that he lived a life that was ultimately completely successful. But I am in awe of how he managed to eat foods from which I would normally flee. He was open to culinary experiences and adventures, seeing them as his access to the people who cooked and enjoyed them. Can my own enthusiasms be accessed via the senses rather than being blocked by my prejudices? Can I approach each moment, at least initially, without preconceived ideas? Past experience does not have to dictate how I react in the present. Perhaps I can start by smiling and allowing for a split second of openness to a different way of responding. It might be the same as before but then again it might be different.

In approaching our production of The Bacchae, Dionysus’s smile throws down a gauntlet in my direction. In return, I will smile back. I will take steps to become more fluidly connected to the moment and to the environment.  In life, as I do in rehearsal, I will be hyper present and take in vast amounts of information without categorizing. I will be more in the moment and I will welcome magical thinking and bright colors. Perhaps the simple act of smiling will ultimately lead to a feeling of genuine enthusiasm.  The word enthusiasm, from the Greek enthousiasmós, (ενθουσιασμός), means “to be filled with god.” I will endeavor to gravitate without fear, hesitation or apprehension towards whatever triggers that enthusiasm.