The Dionysian Loves a Party / by Declan Maloney Drummond

Festival (noun)

: a special time or event when people gather to celebrate something.

: an organized series of performances.

Traditionally, festivals were holidays, occasions filled with food and drink bringing together communities to honor and celebrate the gods. Some festivals were for agricultural reasons, some political, many religious.

These days festivals are everywhere, all the time. Somewhere on the planet, several are happening right now. Music, theatre, film, food, tattoos, comic books, beard grooming… The list goes on. Religious festivals are still rigorously observed in certain cultures, but much of the meaning of festivals as they once were known seems to have, if not vanished, then diluted.

Money is a factor, obviously. Landowners used to serve their servants at festival time. A breaking down of social and class barriers was a large part of the festival atmosphere. Now festivals are mostly commercial ventures. Festival organizers rely on grants, funding, ticket sales and good weather to be able to operate. These are the sacrifices required today to bring people together in celebration. It’s perhaps more cynical and corporate than the good old days, but not as visceral as Aztec sacrifices.

Like most things, the Greeks started it.

The oldest surviving play is The Persians by Aeschylus. It forms the second part of a trilogy, the first of which, Phineus, is now lost. It had its premiere in 472 BCE in the Athens City Dionysia, a festival which followed by three months the more ritualistic Rural Dionysia. Both celebrated the god Dionysus; god of theatre, wine, the grape harvest and fertility. The City Dionysia launched the great and enduring playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Even back then, the festival had a team of curators, overseeing early ritual and the sacrifice of bulls; acts of theatre before the scripted stuff began the following day. Three tragedies would be performed on successive days, followed by the bawdy burlesque of the satyr play and short comedic plays across the five days of celebration. Awards were then handed out on the final day, accompanied by more drinking and celebration. Sounds familiar...

I’ve raised a glass to our man (well, demigod) Dionysus at various kinds of festival. I haven’t quite entered ritualistic ecstasy at a cheese festival, but I’ve allowed in a modicum of wild abandon at music festivals in muddy fields or the premiere of a new piece of cinema in international film festivals. But there’s one that’s particularly close to home…

Fringe (noun)

: not part of the mainstream; unconventional, peripheral, or extreme.

I'm from Edinburgh, Scotland. Home to the world's largest arts festival – the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, technically known as the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for the reason that it was founded in 1947 as a riposte to the Edinburgh International Festival, seen as 'The Establishment' by many young artists. The story goes that eight companies, uninvited to present work in Edinburgh by the ‘official’ festival, showed up in Edinburgh and presented their work anyway, in a variety of alternative venues. The Fringe started as it meant to go on, and this is the spirit in which it has continued into its 70th edition this year. 2016, with its governing theme of ‘Defying Convention’, sees 50,266 performances of 3,269 shows from 48 countries across 294 venues. This in a fairly small city with a regular population of a little under half a million. In August, however, the population more than doubles. Savvy locals rent their homes out at extortionate rates to groups of artists sleeping on floors and sofas.

The Fringe, much like the ancient Dionysia, offers a broad spectrum of work, from serious drama to music, comedy and more. It has launched the careers of artists in every discipline and stories, anecdotes, myths and downright lies of its great successes and failures are myriad.

Crucially, it has been home to generations of new playwrights. Notably, Tom Stoppard had his break in the 1966 Fringe with the first production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

Unlike its curated older brother, The Fringe is open to all, a democratic place for artists to showcase their work. Some go on to great success and fame, most go home penniless and with a bad dose of the ‘Fringe Flu’ after a month of heavy drinking and little sleep. I’m inclined to think Dionysus might approve.

Steve McMahon