This weekend, your friendly neighborhood pagan librarian had the pleasure and privilege of journeying down to the City of Angels to visit the “Beyond the Nile: Egypt & the Classical World” exhibit held at the Getty Center. I heard about this upcoming exhibit back in February, and I found it to be an opportunity too good to miss. Not only was it going to be exploring Egyptian art and the way it shaped and was shaped by other Mediterranean cultures (including Minoan Crete, Mycenae, Greece, and Rome), but it had an Antinous – an honest-to-gods Antinous, from the ancient world. If that wasn’t draw enough, not only was the exhibit going to be on my continent, it was going to be on my coast. How could I not?
But before we get to the raison d’etre for this little adventure, I have a story to share about some unexpected pleasures and opportunities that I encountered along the way. The evening of my arrival into Los Angeles, I booked a ticket for a preview showing (i.e. a fancy dress rehearsal) of Euripdes’ The Bacchae, which was showing at the Getty Villa. A sister to the more conventional museum that is the Getty Center, the Villa is a reconstructed Roman villa, the country home of the wealthy elite. It has gardens, statues, murals, and for my purposes, an outdoor amphitheater where the play would be performed. I was prepared to have the most pagan art-filled weekend ever, but when I arrived that evening to the Villa I was just…blown away.
Not being familiar with the city, and having a few hours since my flight into town that would otherwise be spent twiddling my thumbs, I arrived a bit early for the show. I’m so glad that I did. I was invited to explore their ongoing exhibits and walk the grounds, and I was so utterly distracted by the grounds that I nearly ran out of time to explore the exhibit! The amount of detail they had in their reconstruction was exquisite. At first I was just besotted by the landscaping. It became a game of Spot the Sacred Tree. Rosemary draped elegantly from the arching stairwells, urging visitors onward into ancient and sacred memory. Olive and laurel trees lined the labyrinthine walkway up from the entrance to the Villa, to the amphitheater and gardens above. To each side of the central pool was a line of fragrant bay laurel (twelve trees on each side, by my count…). Two arbors holding winding grapevines and hanging ripe grape clusters. And in the corners of the gardens were two pomegranate trees – the first I’ve ever seen with my own eyes. I had to do several double-takes to be sure that my eyes did not deceive me, that they were in fact bearing witness to the ripening fruit of that most blessed of goddesses, Persephone. And those were just the trees and plants that I was able to identify – those more skilled and knowledgeable in the gardening arts would have seen so much more. And yet it was all still so, so beautiful.
Since the Villa was only open at that time in anticipation for that evening’s entertainment, an added bonus was the relatively empty paths and exhibits to walk and enjoy at my leisure.
The exhibits themselves seem almost a blur of rapt enjoyment. Art depicting the stylized female form from the Cyclades, goddesses of the prehistoric age. Frightening masks of the Gorgon. Etruscan bronze chandeliers. A crouching goddess of love. And an immense statue of Hercules that nearly brought me to my knees in reverence. Not only was it an incredible specimen of well-preserved classical sculpture, it was displayed in such a way to highlight its divine and sacred nature. Housed in a rotunda beneath a pointed arch, under a vaulted ceiling, the statue stood upon a pedestal before an vibrant tile array, that grew and radiated energy throughout the whole room. It was beautifully designed. And it didn’t hurt that this particular statue of Hercules once resided in Hadrian’s Villa…..
And now we can get to the ostensible reason I came to the villa in the first place – on with The Bacchae!
The stage is set by the playing of a familiar tune: the musical stylings of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell On You”. The jaunty yet haunting tune seems quite appropriate, knowing what I know of this play, and the cast of characters who would soon join the stage. The star of our production, the young god Dionysos, who was seeking honor and recognition of his divine heritage from his mortal family in Thebes, enters, embodied by a woman, Ellen Lauren (the SITI Company co-artistic director). As he tells his tale of struggle and woe, and sets the stage for the drama to behold, the martial bacchants begin marching, wielding staffs of fig and dressed in skirt and suit jacket rather than the traditional leopard skin. Continuing the gender fuckery, the Chorus of Bacchant Women is embodied by women and men both, and everything seems as it should be – save that the divinity of their mad god of wine and ecstasy is denied and not celebrated!
While certainly adding a modern touch to this ancient play, through music and dress, it all came together for me quite beautifully. The rhyme and meter of the Chorus did much to stir a Bacchic frenzy within me. When they cried out for the city to join them in their sacred and joyous rites, it was all I could do to stay in my seat! I doubt that they would have welcomed that level of audience participation…. Now, I’ve been to and participated in sacred theater before, at such religious festivals as Spring Mysteries and Orpheus Descending, and this production did much to evoke that atmosphere, that quality of spirit. It felt like a true offering to Dionysos, and brought more religious…zeal than the rest of my weekend, as it would turn out. But, more on that later…..
All in all, it was an amazing night, and a wonderful and auspicious beginning for the days ahead.