By Cody Elliott
The national reaction to the murder of George Floyd shouldn’t shock any student of theatre. In Euripides’ The Bacchae (written a long long time ago), the tyrannical king Pentheus believes he can limit the orgiastic revelries of the god Dionysus, against the advice of wizened sage Tiresias. This proves to be his undoing, as the god tricks Pentheus into putting the revelries down by force, only to be torn apart by the crowd, his head carried back into town by his own entranced mother. I bring up the play to point out a few truths that have long been acknowledged: That which is suppressed will come out, and that not all “riots” are made of rage alone.
We’ve spent a lot of time talking about rage in the last few days, and that is absolutely understandable. There’s a lot to be mad about. I’m upset enough on many nights that I can’t sleep, and spend hours staring out at the distant buildings I can see from my window. But the counterpart of rage in the mad revelries of old was always glee, and today’s protests are no exception. For as many videos that I see showcasing new and terrifying forms of violence, I also see a number of videos that could as well be portraying great parties. I’ve seen dances and fireworks, poetry readings, and improvised music. It’s been pointed out that we rarely describe the chaotic aftermath of major sporting events as riots, tending instead only employ that word in racialized ways, ignoring the debauchery often perpetuated by white baseball fans. Perhaps we understand their joy more- it is, after all, a simple one.
The complicated joy that arises in times like these- which can be in turn achingly beautiful and blissfully destructive- can seem like an odd bedfellow to the times. What is there to be joyous about right now? But, I have asked the question duplicitously. There is, even more to celebrate during these times than there has ever been. Great black and indigenous artists have long noted the revolutionary potential that lies within survival. Another day breathing can itself be defiance- there is nothing more radical than a thriving working class, and there is nothing more radical than the continued contradictory existence of blackness in America. The protests that have emerged in the last week mourn and rage on behalf of George Floyd and all the other victims of police abuse, but they also celebrate those who live and thrive, and they are an affirmation of life during a pandemic.
Coronavirus, itself an awful burden, has worsened at every turn in the hands of policymakers, whose decisions have unjustly impacted black and working-class Americans. While the decision to lock down in just the way we did will be debated for years, its psychological trauma has been immediate and undeniable. Denied meaningful work, routine, money, and luxuries, deaths of despair have soared. Couple this with the increased rate of infection amongst black Americans- who are also more likely to be economically depressed, and the trauma is unprecedented. At the beginning of all of this, much humor was made about the comparison between this crisis and world war II- the punch line always being that we simply had to stay home. Ignoring that this isn’t even true for the untold millions who are essential workers, few of us can deny that months into this event the isolation can be crippling.
Attending a protest and risking COVID is like pulling the Band-Aid off. It is the taking into one's own hands the levers of destiny, and it is the joyous affirmation of sacrifices made and of life itself. The Bacchae ends with Pentheus' mother coming out of her bacchic trance to release the object she holds is not a lion’s cub, but her own son's head. Perhaps we will ultimately suffer calamity at the hands of ourselves, and pay the price for these social affirmations of existence. But in the meantime, the rage is beautiful, and the joy overwhelming. I remain deeply worried about a COVID resurgence, have quibbles about specific policy changes being discussed, but these attributes are undeniable and provide me with a measure of peace during chaotic times. Perhaps they can do the same for you.