Friday, May 9, 2014

Nero/Pseudo: Gods and Emperors

As part of my blogging about Nero/Pseudo, I have also asked Alan Katz -- the dramaturg of the show -- to share some of his wisdom and wit about the ancient world. This is his third look inside the world of the play. Check out his his first two posts on the world of the Greek taberna and on Nero and graffiti as well.)

Every people have gods to suit their circumstances
-- Henry David Thoreau

When I am dramaturging plays that are from or are set in the ancient world, one of the most difficult concepts to communicate is the ancient view of religion and gods. The problem is that the modern mind has been poisoned against “paganism” by a fire hose of monotheistic religions that have burned, tortured, bought, and conquered their way into domination of the modern mind (Did I say poisoned? I meant “gently influenced.”). Ancient Greek and Roman deities had functions that were significantly different from the way we envision divine beings today.

This isn't to say that ancient Greeks and Romans had no concept of monotheism. For Greeks going all the way back to Plato, various philosophical writings implied or proposed the existence of a single god as we would think of it. This god often came in the form of The One (Τὸ Ἕν for the Grecophiles keeping score at home) who is seen as the creator of the universe: the first cause from which all other causes and effects derive. A god in the “set it and forget it” mold of creators, what today would be called “Deism.” But this view was not wholly satisfactory for many ancient peoples. Behind this dissatisfaction is the reason that humans worship gods at all: we need to think that someone is in control of the things that we cannot control. There’s a reason that some of the first gods that humans created were gods of big natural elements like the Sun and storms, having a god that is in charge of incomprehensible elements gives humans a sense of control over those elements. As society expanded, so did the pantheon, so Romans had many gods for even the human-created woes of the world. In Nero/Pseudo, Richard expresses this attitude beautifully when news from Rome foils the plans of Chrysis and Stratocles, and Stratocles blames Chrysis. She says “Blame Mercury, not me!” Mercury (dealing with man-made phenomena like travel, medicine, news and merchants) was not the lowest god of the pantheon, but he was also not the highest. Gods of phenomena that were bigger and more mysterious were considered more important, with some subservient to others through “family trees,” creating a sort of mini-society of gods. Romans also had a sense of the hierarchy of deities (usually placing Jupiter at the top) in a way which reflected the hierarchy of their society.

That the gods reflect society and that religion was an essential part of the state are the keys to understanding the ancient view of religion. The cult of each god had followers because the worship of that deity helped a wide swath of people feel like they had a place in society: Merchants worshiping Mercury, soldiers worshiping Mars, mothers and wives worshiping Juno. Gods (and the stories of them in lore) told their followers how they should behave, what virtues they should value and what vices to avoid. If you wonder why ancient Greek and Roman gods always act so damn human in myths and don’t have the same insistence on infallibility that certain monotheistic gods have, this modelling for human behavior is one great explanation. The vast pantheon of gods and myths associated with them had lessons for everyone in almost any situation, much like the saints and their stories in the Catholic Church.

Not only were there many gods that addressed the behavior of people and their place in society, but each major gods had aspects, expressed through different names (called epithets), that brought diverse occupations and locations into the “mainstream pantheon.” Individual cities have their own versions of the main gods, so a city or tribe might have their own Zeus with different aesthetic representations or purposes than other Zeuses. More importantly, because the main gods covered so many aspects of life and nature, each god had incarnations that reflected that gods function. For example, Apollo was not only god of the Sun, but also a god of music, and his incarnation Apollo Citharoedus (“plays the cithara”) is seen on many statues carrying his stringed instrument. Nero was often depicted as Apollo Citharoedus, since he also played the instrument and was a god. Wait, what?

Woe is me! I think I am becoming a god!
-- Roman Emperor Vespasian while dying

Wait, what? Nero was a god? Today, it is more likely that a political leader will be portrayed as Nero than as a god. But Nero was portrayed as a god all the time by both his propaganda and by common people who ascribed to the “imperial cult.” The imperial cult began with Julius Caesar, whose dictatorship made the Roman emperor the embodiment of the state. Either just before or just after Julius’ death (probably after, but it is hard to tell since sources are, well, 2000 goddamn years old), he was called Divus Julius, with giant statues erected to him, his birthday made into a public festival, and Augustus, his successor, even building a temple to him. The Roman Senate declared him an official god after his death at the strong (read: violent) urging of the populace.This official deification was very important. He was the first historical figure to be deified and put into the same pantheon as the other gods of the Romans. He became the patron of the imperial order that stabilized Rome after the civil wars that followed his death.  Augustus took advantage of the populace’s fervor and found the imperial cult useful in establishing control. He would portray himself as godlike without ever coming out and saying that he was a god. (People would be all “Hey, Augustus, are you, like, a god or something?” and he would be all, “No, no, I’m just another senator who sends people to be crucified, but I only do that to people who ask too many questions.”)

While officially turning into a god was reserved for an emperor post-mortem, the emperor was practically a god in life and was crucial to the state religion because now the state had its own representative in the pantheon. And now everyone was forced to treat the emperor basically like a god, making sacrifices to him, criminalizing open dissent, and reliance only on the emperor’s self-control to prevent a megalomaniacal dictatorship. Some of the emperors had that restraint. Tiberius and Claudius were efficient administrators, but not beloved of the populace or too big in the head.

Speaking of big in the head, perhaps now is the best time to talk about Caligula and Nero. Caligula was Nero’s uncle and,  famously, fucking nuts. He took the imperial cult more seriously than any of his predecessors, and often portrayed himself as the incarnation of several different gods. Most devastating to his reign, however, was his deep and abiding love of pissing off anyone who had a significant amount of power.

Nero was an emperor in Caligula school.  He not only portrayed himself as a god, but all evidence shows that he firmly believed that he was one. He didn't want to wait until after death to enjoy being a god, so Nero did all of the god-like things he wanted to do, like make senators commit suicide, set up elaborate spectacles that showed him bringing the sun to earth, and take the stage to play the greatest heroes of legend. There was no equivocation about Nero’s god-status; he mandated that people address him as Apollo because of his music playing ability, that coins displayed him as Jupiter, and that he was a charioteer equal to Sol (who drove the Sun around in his chariot). This is the equivalent of having a president who portrays himself as the world’s greatest rockstar, NASCAR driver, and king of all religions and governments.

It’s no surprise then, that the Roman world went as nuts as he was when he died, leaving the greatest power vacuum in the past hundred years or more. None of the elites (who had been seriously repressed by Nero) had the charisma or the claim to fill that vacuum, and the common people who had loved and worshipped Nero couldn't believe he was dead.

He couldn't be dead; not a god like Nero. After all, Nero had survived so many conspiracies and assassination attempts that this must just be another false alarm. Nero must have escaped this time. Maybe he would do what he did as emperor and disguise himself, playing his music in taverns to get by. And, as Nero/Pseudo opens, there is a mysterious stranger from far off who enters the Taverna Imperial, offering to play the songs of Nero, who else could it be?

(Image: The Apotheosis of Claudius, via Creative Commons.)

Nero/Pseudo is now open at The Shop at Fort Fringe. Find out more about the play at WSC Avant Bard. Tickets are now on sale. 


Anonymous said...

Hey -- saw the show Thursday night and enjoyed it. Just a few thoughts of feedback. I had a little trouble following the flow of events. The big picture was clear -- innocent wanderer gets sucked into being a Nero substitute with ultimately tragic consequences. And I thought I was following along with the specific details until I read the program designations of where the various acts were set, and I realized I was probably missing something (not unusual after a long work day).

Was the first scene after intermission meant to be a flashback to PN's earlier life as a slave? Or is it something else? At one point, I thought perhaps it was inviting an inference that the whole thing was a dream by PN. Anyway, I lost the thread. Not the big picture, just the thread, assuming that there was a linear thread to be lost.

I also suffered from a very vague knowledge of the details of the fall of Troy. These days relatively few theatergoers will probably be up on such matters. I could guess some things ("Throw the Child from the Tower" was easy enough, even if you cannot tie it to a particular historical person, as I was able to do after some quality time with Wikipedia), but it made the details and the nuances of the reconstructed Troy ballad kinda hard to follow. That's a problem -- how to give people the background Troy story to facilitate their understanding of the poem and music (and they won't be understanding every word of lyrics) without going too exposition heavy. You did it nicely with Nero's life.

The play sorta made me think of Hedwig, but the two pieces are really different animals. Hedwig was a collection of showstopper tunes knitted together with a rather thin storyline, while your show had a meatier book supported by some kickass tunes.

Richard Byrne said...

Thank you for your kind words and your perceptive comments.

The first scene after intermission *is* a flashback to Pontus' earlier life as a slave. Not a dream, but staged in the softer focus of memory.

I'm hoping that the Fall of Troy songs do make strong connections with more recent events, even without knowing the story well. But I appreciate you letting me know where you found it hard to follow. Playwrights need that feedback.

Again, thank you. My email address is on the page if you want to ask me anything else. Richard