The Birth of Tragedy


Chapters 7 & 8

Summary Chapters 7 & 8

Before explaining the true nature of the chorus, Nietzsche dismantles the Schlegel's theory that the chorus is the 'ideal spectator.' Because the primitive form of tragedy contained no actors and only a chorus, the chorus cannot be construed as a spectator, for at that time there would have been nothing for them to observe within the realm of the play. "What kind of art would that be in which the spectator does not enter as a separate concept? What kind of art is that whose true form is identical with the 'spectator as such'? The spectator without the play is nonsense." Nietzsche then anticipates the argument that the chorus could be called the spectator of the people by saying that the chorus and the people are not separate; "there was at bottom no opposition of public and chorus."

In order to substantiate this idea, Nietzsche argues that the chorus, defined as it was by Dionysian music, brought the audience back to a state of natural unity. "…[I]n the dithyramb we have a community of unconscious actors, who mutually regard themselves as transformed among one another." Rather than just witnessing the chorus's transformation, the audience is drawn along with it, into the depths of Dionysian tragic suffering. There they forget the shallow phantoms of culture and are able to apprehend the truth of existence.

In order to understand this melding of chorus and audience that Nietzsche describes, we must consider the Greek concept of mimesis, or imitation. We are familiar with the idea that an actor 'plays' a role, assuming the qualities of his character and pretending to live in the world of the play. However, the Greek actor did not only play his part, he lived it. The mimesis, or imitation, that took place was not feigned but real. When the news came to Creon that Antigone was dead, the audience would have wept for her actual death, not for the idea of it. For, when myths were re-enacted on the stage, a divine influence was present (in the form of Dionysus), such that the mythical actions were actually happening all over again. Thus one can say that a Greek audience member went much further than suspending his disbelief; rather, he entered the world of the tragedy, mesmerized in what Nietzsche would call the 'Apollonian dream-state.' Once he entered the realm of that reality, the world that we would consider 'real' ceased to exist. This process allowed theater to play a powerful role in the lives of its audience. In Nietzsche's conception, it allowed them to access the primordial truth offered by the Dionysian mind-state.

However, Nietzsche is careful not to become too one-sided in his praise of Dionysus. Although Dionysus instigates this process, it cannot proceed without Apollo. For, once man enters this Dionysian understanding and truth, he is in danger of losing himself there, and becoming unable to continue with his everyday reality. "In this sense the Dionysian man resembles Hamlet: both have for once penetrated into the true nature of things,—they have perceived, but it is irksome for them to act; for their action cannot change the eternal nature of things; the time is out of joint and they regard it as shameful or ridiculous that they should be required to set it right. Knowledge kills action, action requires the veil of illusion…" Luckily, art is designed to provide this very veil of illusion that will allow action to continue, that is, in the form of the Apollonian dream-state. Therein lies the redemptive quality of art.