Melodramatic and Tragicomic Modes of Theatre, Film, and Neural Networks

In ancient Greece, people gathered to witness tragedies, satyr plays, and comedies during religious festivals honoring the god of wine and fertility, Dionysus. Respect for that god’s wildness, possessing his followers, including female bacchae who mythically tore apart animals and ate raw flesh, was later seen by Friedrich Nietzsche as a key element in the “birth of tragedy” through the spirit of music, with the dithyrambic chorus in the orchestra projecting Apollonian ideals onto the actor’s mask onstage. Not long after Nietzsche developed that dialectic in the 1800s, film evolved as a new art form, eventually reaching mass audiences of millions on multiplex screens and then on digital devices. Melodrama, the most popular mode on the nineteenth-century stage, became the dominant mode in movies, with spectacular conflicts of good versus evil, focusing on clear-cut heroes fighting monstrous villains, while saving or avenging abject victims. Such a melodramatic framing of Dionysian wildness, with simplistic Apollonian ideals, continues to be the dominant mode on our numerous screens, reflecting and affecting political and war theatres. However, more complex, tragic (or tragicomic) edges in and alternatives to melodrama have also emerged, as in previous periods of theatre’s history.

This presentation explores Dionysian and Apollonian aspects of audience effects, with melodramatic and tragicomic modes of current media, through various mimetic theories: from ancient Greece (katharsis) and India (rasa effects) to current neuroscience (mirror neurons, emotion contagion, cognitive reappraisal, and mindfulness). Which networks of the brain’s “inner theatre” are potentially altered, within the spectators of theatre, cinema, or personal screens? Gendered aspects of such media mimesis are also considered through Nietzsche’s, Julia Kristeva’s, and Catherine Malabou’s interdisciplinary work, by focusing on melodramatic and tragicomic extensions of animal-human emotional drives, between outer and inner theatres, with artistic, political, or personal benefits and dangers.

Author: Mark Pizzato