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Book Report: The Mask of Apollo

I don’t remember exactly what it was that put into my mind The Mask of Apollo again, but whatever it was, I went into the book this time through wanting to read the theater stuff rather than the political stuff. I mean, I wasn’t planning to skip any of it, just that I was thinking I would enjoy the theater stuff a lot more. And what I wound up enjoying, actually, was the religion.

Well, not so much the religion as the play between the various appearances of Apollo and Dionysus. It’s not the simple and (to my mind) silly Appolonian/Dionysian dichotomy of—what—mind and body, or creation or destruction, or some such as embodying the two halves of Human Nature, vaddevah dat means. In the book, Apollo and Dionysus have real meaning, to Niko, anyway. The book is named after the Mask of Apollo, of course, which is a tragic mask that Niko uses as a sort of oracle.

There are four productions that are talked about extensively. The first is where Niko gets his Big Break as an eighteen or nineteen year old extra who goes on in the place of the third actor, who has fled for some reason (the deposed oligarchs have come back to Philogeia with a mercenary army and they are fighting in the streets). Niko goes on as Apollo, blanks on his lines, and gives instead a stirring battle speech that inspires the democrats to victory.

The second major production is in Delphi in the Theater of Apollo; Niko and his partner put on The Myrmidons, and Niko decides to play Apollo in the opening, as a religious offering, rather than let the third actor do it. When the rope nearly breaks when flying him on, Apollo gives him the courage to continue. His courage at that moment, and presumably his skill in the rest of the play, is what gains him the notice of Dion of Syracuse, and the third major production in the book.

That is the play by Dionysios, tyrant of Syracuse, which is performed at the Dionsysia in Athens, in the temple of Dionysus. In this play, Niko does not play any of the gods, but Priam of Troy, come to ransom his son’s body. He wins the garland for himself and the play, and is invited to Syracuse to perform it for the writer, who, plot-thickeningly, dies just as their boat docks.

The last major production in that Mary Renault writes about, and this she goes into at great length, is of The Bacchae. Other than a brief bit as Tiresias (blind seer of Thebes), Niko mainly plays Dionysus. After the play, Niko jokes about an oracle from Dionysus, who Niko says told him to get drunk. He later donates his pay (a talent of silver!) to go to a statue of Dionysus for the theater.

Viewed that way, it seems as if there is a move from the influence of Apollo to Dionysus over the course of the play. I could gather more evidence for this, particularly during the sack of Syracuse, when Niko passes the Temple of Apollo to hide in the theater, using the sound effects and Dionysus’ses gift of panic to scare away the Carthaginians. This is the last time that Niko’s life is saved by Divine intervention; Apollo’s temple is sacked and the priests and refugees slaughtered next door. A simple interpretation would have Dionysus ascendant and the power of Apollo reduced.

But I think that’s wrong; it is an oracle of Apollo (through the mask) that pushes Niko to accept the part in The Bacchae. And it’s the mask of Apollo that oversees the central romance of the book. Still, there is a sense, I think, not of a move from Apollo to Dionysus but of a diminution of the gods themselves. Niko never uses the old Mask of Apollo anymore; audiences, he says, wouldn’t understand it. When his lover says that the gods must be everywhere or nowhere, but certainly not on Mount Olympus, quarreling and making love, Niko recalls that when he was young, such things were whispered, and when his father was young, they were a hemlock matter.

It’s tempting to add up all the times in the book that Apollo or Dionysus is invoked, or Zeus or Hermes for that matter, and do a sort of quantitative analysis. And I think that would be useful, but only as a starting point, the first bit punctuated by it’s more complicated than that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,