Dionysus after Nietzsche: The Birth of Tragedy in Twentieth-Century Literature and Thought

Adam Lecznar, Dionysus after Nietzsche: The Birth of Tragedy in Twentieth-Century Literature and Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020). 9781108482561.

Reviewed by Samuel Agbamu, Independent Researcher, samuel.agbamu@gmail.com.

Italo Calvino asked “Why read the classics?” in a posthumous collection of essays published under this title in 1991.[1] Although it was not specifically the texts of Greek and Roman antiquity that Calvino had in mind, the conclusions he drew in response ought to give classicists pause. A classic is a text that has never finished what it has to say to its readers. Perhaps most significantly, a classic is engaged in sustained dialogue with the present times in which it is read. It is “a work which relegates the noise of the present to a background hum, which at the same time the classics cannot exist without,” as well as being “a work which persists as background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway.” By Calvino’s account, as Adam Lecznar compellingly demonstrates in Dionysus after Nietzsche, the German thinker’s 1872 treatise on The Birth of Tragedyis a true classic.[2] Not only this, it is a classic which has invited and continues to invite wide-ranging and profound reflections on Classics as a discipline, and on what classical literature can offer readers today.

Lecznar’s is not the first extended study of Nietzsche’s engagement with classical antiquity. Scholars such as Joshua Billings, James Porter, and Miriam Leonard, who supervised Lecznar’s 2013 PhD, have carved out a vast space in classical reception studies for research on the intersections of philosophies of the tragic and of modernity, in which the figure of Nietzsche, naturally, looms large. Where Lecznar breaks new ground is in his ambitious and well-executed endeavour to show how five very different writers of the twentieth century engage with philosophies of the tragic, mediated by Nietzsche’s Greeks. Lecznar clearly states what his book sets out to do: “Dionysus after Nietzsche explores the way that Nietzsche’s understanding of ancient Greece inspired later writers and thinkers to develop their own innovative ideas about how classical antiquity could inform their approach to the contemporary world” (7). His five selected authors cover a span of around a century’s worth of readings of The Birth of Tragedy (1872–1973), and take in a range of genres and geographic and cultural contexts. The substantive chapters of the monograph proceed chronologically, beginning with Jane Harrison, continuing through D. H. Lawrence, Martin Heidegger, and Richard Schechner, and culminating with Wole Soyinka. As this roster suggests, the interest of this volume extends to a wide audience of readers, reaching far beyond the confines of the discipline of Classics.

The introduction clearly outlines the key concepts around which Lecznar’s narrative revolves, as well as outlining The Birth of Tragedy insofar as it relates to the engagement of the five authors with “Nietzsche’s Greeks,” who constitute a blend of modernity with the “nostalgic lure of the ancient” (7–8). Lecznar walks the reader through the content of The Birth of Tragedy such that one need not necessarily have read Nietzsche’s treatise to be able to follow Lecznar’s later argument—however, some prior knowledge of the text would enable the reader to engage with Lecznar’s argument more meaningfully.

In short, Lecznar suggests that Nietzsche’s vision of ancient Greece “reverberated” in the works of his five selected authors, suggesting the possibility of “an empathetic, sensuous connection between the modern observer and the ancient object,” “beyond the constraints of rationality and history” (12–13). Through the figure of Nietzsche’s Dionysus, these authors were able to draw on Greek antiquity as a repertoire of symbols with which to think about contemporary society and culture. Each of the five authors selected by Lecznar are positioned at some sort of historical rupture: Harrison as a pathbreaking female classicist in the late nineteenth century and at the turn of the twentieth century; Lawrence at the time of the First World War; Heidegger during and in the aftermath of the National Socialist nightmare; Schechner in the revolutionary storm of 1968; and Soyinka in the wake of decolonisation in Africa. Both the strangeness and familiarity of Nietzsche’s Greeks, as much modern as they were ancient, allowed these five authors to reflect upon what was held in common by all humans. The question of the differences and similarities between people draws attention to issues of gender and “race,” highlighted especially in the chapters on Harrison and Soyinka, which bookend the volume.

Jane Harrison is chronologically the earliest of the five authors and is thus the subject of Chapter One. Lecznar introduces Harrison as a classicist whose work on ancient Greece exercised a strong influence on modernist authors’ vision of Greek antiquity, and as one of Nietzsche’s earliest readers in English, influencing her approach to Greek religion. Harrison’s interest in the chthonian aspects of Greek religion was coupled with a turn towards visual sources, a bold move at a time when classical scholarship was still largely philological. By viewing Greek religion through an anthropological lens, Harrison contributed to the de-idealisation of ancient Greece. In addition to these contributions to classical scholarship, Harrison’s work was also picked up by the feminist scholar Camille Paglia, who in her 1990 work Sexual Personae argues that Harrison is an antecedent in seeing male and female sexuality along the lines of Olympian and Chthonian, Apollonian and Dionysian.[3] In charting the developing anthropological thought of Harrison, Lecznar focuses on the classicist’s engagement with Dionysus as a symbol of the irrational in Greek religion in two key publications: Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1903) and Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion (1912).[4]

The chapter offers a compelling snapshot of the discipline of classics at a moment of great change, of an increasing awareness of the need to draw upon scholars and thinkers beyond the limits of philology. Although by the 1927 re-edition of Themis Harrison had distanced herself somewhat from Nietzsche’s work on Greek ritual, the chapter nevertheless demonstrates the significance of the author of the Birth of Tragedy for rethinking the discipline of Classics at the turn of the twentieth century.

Chapter Two shifts the focus to D. H. Lawrence, who encountered Nietzsche while working as a schoolteacher in Croydon, South London, between 1908 and 1912. Lecznar suggests that Lawrence engages with Nietzsche in two main ways: as the philosopher of German aggression on the eve of the First World War and as the lyrical poet of modernity. In exploring these two sides of Lawrence’s engagement with Nietzsche, Lecznar homes in on Lawrence’s constructions of tragedy and antiquity in his novels and his travel writings. First, however, the reader is introduced to Lawrence’s most sustained discussion of tragedy in his “Study of Thomas Hardy,” which he wrote in 1914 contemporaneously with reading Frazer’s Golden Bough and Harrison’s Art and Ritual.[5] Despite the title of Lawrence’s study, Hardy exercises Lawrence’s attention less than is to be expected. Instead, Lawrence enters into a deep engagement with Nietzsche’s The Gay Science (1882).[6] The gay science refers to the art of medieval troubadours in southern France, which had been included among the subject of a series of lectures, later published as The Spirit of Romance (1910), delivered by Ezra Pound in London, and with which Lawrence would have been familiar.[7] For Nietzsche, as Lecznar explains, this gay science allows for a new approach to tragedy, an alternative to the tragic worldview of Nietzsche’s own day. This work also marked a shift in perspective from the earlier Birth of Tragedy—now Nietzsche’s Greeks, as he describes them in the preface to the second edition of The Gay Science, were “superficial—out of profundity” (cited on p. 78). Lecznar proposes that it is this same sense of the profound superficiality of “the gay science,” which overcomes the tragic worldview of Nietzsche’s modernity, that proliferates in Lawrence’s novels and travel writing. The British author takes inspiration from Nietzsche’s Dionysiac vision of Greek antiquity as a means to overcome the pessimism of a tragic modernity.

The next stop in Lecznar’s narrative is Martin Heidegger and his thought around the time of the Second World War. Here, the focus is on the shared interest of the phenomenologist and Nietzsche in Presocratic philosophy. For Heidegger, Lecznar argues, the Presocratics represented a means by which he could “harness the irrationality of the National Socialists to effect a philosophical and cultural revolution” (99). This trajectory of what Heidegger euphemistically refers to as his “confrontations” with Nazism, through the lens of the Presocratics, culminates with his 1946 essay “The Saying of Anaximander.”[8] Lecznar highlights the way in which Heidegger’s construction of a “closed racial resonance between Germany and Greece” (100) contrasts with the other authors considered in the volume, whose reception of Nietzsche’s Greeks emphasises an “open and interconnected vision of culture” (100). Heidegger’s turn to Presocratic philosophy constituted a turn away from Judaic and Biblical texts, which in turn allowed for the incorporation of antisemitic discourse in modern philosophy, as Miriam Leonard argues and Lecznar reiterates. Thus, at his inaugural lecture at Freiburg only four months after Hitler became the German chancellor, Heidegger saw Nietzsche’s Greeks as an origin myth for the German present, and Nietzsche himself as sharing a close affinity with the Presocratics. In this chapter, therefore, we catch a terrifying glimpse of how Nietzsche’s Greeks were repurposed as a point of origin for Germanism under National Socialism.

The next chapter jumps into the culturally revolutionary atmosphere of the 1960s and the American playwright and academic Richard Schechner’s 1968 play Dionysus in 69.[9] Here, Lecznar’s interest is in the way that Schechner’s engagement with Nietzsche’s Greeks allows for an exploration into how performance could respond to the philosophical debates of the 1960s on the limits of rationality and the possibility of a “rapturous, irrational knowledge” (131). Schechner’s play emerged from the context of a wave of popularity enjoyed by Euripides’ Bacchae in the 1960s and has enjoyed some attention in previous classical reception scholarship, as in Edith Hall, Fiona Mackintosh, and Amanda Wrigley’s 2004 edited volume, Dionysus since 69.[10] Lecznar locates his specific contribution to existing scholarship, which has tended to home in on Schechner’s use of performance to think about the cultural, social and sexual politics of the 1960s, in focusing specifically on the play’s engagement with Nietzsche’s Dionysus.

In the 1960s Greek tragedy saw a renaissance in American avant-garde theatre. Lecznar quotes from Jan Kott’s review of Dionysus in 69 to illustrate what classical texts meant to the American avant-garde of the time, and shows that the same period encapsulates some of the significance of Nietzsche’s Greeks for the authors studied in the volume, if we substitute references to the theatrical with references to the literary more generally:

The classics become alive when a collision takes place: the collision of a classical text with new political and intellectual experiences, as well as the collision of the classical text with new theatrical texts with new theatrical techniques… (cited on p. 152).

The play itself is what Lecznar refers to as a “bricolage” of Greek tragedy: mostly the Bacchae, with bits of Euripides’ Hippolytus and Sophocles’ Antigone thrown in for good measure, as well as drawing on the ritual of the Asmat people of New Guinea. Its staging was followed by an essay by Schechner entitled “The Politics of Ecstasy.”[11] This provocative essay called for a cultural revolution in the West, in which ritual and theatre, embodied by Eros and Dionysus, might overcome the staid rigidity of western cultural mores. However, Schechner indicates the dangers of an unbridled Dionysian spirit, embodied, for example, by the Red Guards of China’s Cultural Revolution and the masses of the Nuremburg rallies, a trajectory culminating at the gates of Auschwitz.

The counter-hegemonic Dionysus proceeds into the next chapter, which takes the Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka as its focus. Soyinka’s The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite was the subject of Lecznar’s doctoral thesis, and thus serves as a powerful, thoroughly considered denouement to this book.[12] In short, the chapter considers Soyinka’s response to the racial dimensions to Nietzsche’s theory of tragedy, as set out in Lecznar’s chapter on Heidegger. This consideration homes in on Soyinka’s Bacchae, which uses tragedy as a means to meditate upon the hopes of anticolonialism.

After discussing Soyinka’s criticism of tendencies to subsume non-European cultures into Eurocentric literary frameworks as well as his ambivalence towards Négritude, Lecznar introduces us to “The Fourth Stage,” a 1969 essay by Soyinka.[13] This essay offers an account of tragedy, with a specific interest in Yoruba tragedy. Lecznar argues that Soyinka’s engagement with tragedy is not only “a political gesture and cultural statement” but “a more subtle attempt to philosophise about the particular benefits that come from an appreciation of the tragic elements of human experience” (177), with Bacchae being the best example of this. Lecznar provides an outline of postcolonial receptions of Greek tragedy by way of a contextualisation of Soyinka’s contribution, and situates the play within the political context of the Biafran War. The figure of the Black slave leader of the chorus of Soyinka’s Bacchae is highlighted by Lecznar as focal point of Soyinka’s interactions with Négritude and its reception of the figure of Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution. The ecstasy of revolution, and the figure of the Slave Leader in the Bacchae, draws attention to the chaotic, Dionysiac forces of anticolonialism and a postcolonial modernity. Although Lecznar does not explicitly make the connection, this serves as a counter to what Achille Mbembe sees as the Dionysian outpouring of colonisation, “the mix of voluptuousness, frenzy, cruelty, drunkenness, and dreaming that is one of the structural dimensions of the colonial enterprise can be understood only in relation to that form of enchantment that is both unrest and turmoil.”[14] “The colonial world,” writes Mbembe, “after all included many of the characteristics that Friedrich Nietzsche recognised in Greek tragedy.”

The conclusion draws together the numerous strands of the book to suggest that the figure of Dionysus after Nietzsche offers an approach to consider the future of Classics as a whole. A key theme of Lecznar’s concluding thoughts is that of the untimeliness of Classics. Lecznar quotes (202) from the preface of Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition (1968),[15] which in turn quotes Nietzsche’s second Untimely Meditation (1874),[16] in which the philosopher of the tragic writes that:

I do not know what meaning classical studies could have for our time if they were not untimely—that is to say, acting counter to our time and thereby acting on our time and, let us hope, for the benefit of the time to come.

Dionysus, for Lecznar and Nietzsche, offers a rallying point for approaches to the ancient world which see it as a space of “presence, mutability, and possibility” rather than of “absence, permanence, and certainty.” It is fitting, therefore, that the book closes with Nietzsche’s exhortation for us to become “tragic human beings,” as we join Dionysus’ procession “from India to Greece.”

It is notable that Dionysus’ procession goes from India to Greece. European modernism’s turn to non-European cultures as an antidote to the decadence of European bourgeois society at beginning of the twentieth century has long been discussed.[17] For example, a 1922 review of the Italian Futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s novel The Untouchables (Gli intoccabili) saw Nietzsche as an important figure in this turn.

It was Nietzsche who first turned toward Africa to ask for a sun-crazed art, an art disinfected and purified by the burning sun. He had an intuition of the original link between African barbarism and Mediterranean civilisation, the same link that would give a new direction to much of scientific research only a few years late…[18]

It is fascinating to read about how the anthropological thought of Harrison informed her classical scholarship, how Schechner was influenced by Asmat ritual, and how Nietzsche was used by Soyinka to think about Yoruba tragedy. I would therefore be excited to learn more on whether non-European cultures influenced Nietzsche’s Greeks and his Dionysus.

This links to Lecznar’s selection of authors discussed. The Soyinka chapter refers to a rich context of Black and anti-/postcolonial engagements with Nietzsche’s philosophy of the tragic, including Mbembe and David Scott’s excellent reading of the tragic in the work of C. L. R. James, so it could have offered further food for thought. Lecznar’s past work on Black classicisms, as well as his forthcoming work, reassures us that this will be expanded on in due course. Similarly, Harrison’s influence on feminist theory suggests that more remains to be said on the links between Nietzsche’s Greeks and feminism.

As a result of the vast ground covered by Lecznar, and the rich density of the texts examined, the reasons for bringing these authors together occasionally require close attention from the reader. However, the chapters complement each other very well: for example, Lawrence’s readings of Harrison and of Soyinka’s response to Schechner reveal the logic of the book’s structure and choice of texts. These choices offer new approaches to “tragic modernities,” to use the title of Miriam Leonard’s 2015 monograph,[19] by offering perspectives from beyond the standard canon of European philosophers of modernity, aside from Heidegger, and by showing how wide ranging the influence of Nietzsche’s Greeks was. In this way, Dionysus after Nietzsche complements Leonard’s Tragic Modernities excellently and makes an important contribution to existing work on the place of ancient tragedy within our contemporary cultural and political worlds.

The scholarly rigour of Dionysus after Nietzsche, and the painstaking research evidenced throughout, mark it out as a vital addition to existing work on the interactions between ancient and modern literature. This book will be of keen interest to all students and researchers of classical reception, especially tragedy, as well as those of modern literature, philosophy, and social theory, in addition to the interested general reader.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Dionysus after Nietzsche (1—33)
1. Corybants, Satyrs and Bulls: Jane Harrison (34—67)
2. A Great Kick at Misery: D. H. Lawrence (68—98)
3. In Search of an Absent God: Martin Heidegger (99—129)
4. What Oedipus Knew: Richard Schechner (130-160)
5. Dionysus in Yorubaland: Wole Soyinka (161-192)
Conclusions: Dionysus Today (193-203)


[1] Italo Calvino, Perché leggere i classici (Milan: A. Mondadori, 1991).

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik (Leipzig: E. W. Fritzsch, 1872).

[3] Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).

[4] Jane Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903); eadem, Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1912).

[5] James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion (London: MacMillan, 1890); D. H. Lawrence’s “Study of Thomas Hardy” was not published until 1936 in Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence, ed. Edward D. McDonald (New York: Viking, 1936), 398–516.

[6] Friedrich Nietzsche, Die fröliche Wissenschaft (Chemnitz, 1892).

[7] Ezra Pound, The Spirit of Romance: An Attempt to Define Somewhat the Charm of the Pre-renaissance Literature of Latin Europe (London: J. M. Dent, 1910).

[8] Martin Heidegger, “Der Spruch des Anaximander,” in GesamtausgabeHolzwege, ed. Friedrich Wilhelm von Herrmann, 2nd ed. (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 2003), 321–73.

[9] Richard Schechner, ed., Dionysus in 69 (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1970).

[10] Edith Hall, Fiona Mackintosh, and Amanda Wrigley, Dionysus since 69: Greek Tragedy at the Dawn of the Third Millennium (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

<[11] Richard Schechner, “The Politics of Ecstasy,” in idem, Public Domain: Essays on the Theater (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969), 209–28.

[12] Wole Soyinka, The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite(London: Eyre Methuen, 1973).

[13] Wole Soyinka, “The Fourth Stage,” in The Morality of Art, ed. D. W. Jefferson (London: Routledge, 1969), 119–34.

[14] Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 109–110.>

[15] Gilles Deleuze, Différence et répétition (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1968).

[16] Friedrich Nietzsche, Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen (Leipzig, 1874).

[17] See, for example, Mbembe, Critique40–41.

[18] La Nazione (Trieste), Aug. 18, 1922.

[19] Miriam Leonard, Tragic Modernities (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).


1. Rhea Classical Reviews aims to publish reviews for and by early career researchers and prioritises reviewing works by emerging scholars. I was wondering whether you could talk us through the process that took you from writing your doctoral thesis on Soyinka to selecting the four other authors discussed in your volume.

When I’d finished writing the dissertation on Soyinka’s Bacchae I realised that the play was an integral part of at least a couple of traditions in twentieth-century classical reception. The first is the Nietzschean tradition I sketch out in DAN, and the second is the postcolonial turn to tragedy that I’ve written about in my essay on Aimé Césaire for Classicisms in the Black Atlantic. I was also inspired by the multidisciplinary work of Michael Bell, especially in D. H. Lawrence: Language and Being and Literature, Modernism and Myth, to rethink the tradition I’d uncovered in my work on Soyinka’s play beyond the traditional rubrics of postcolonialism, modernism, history of philosophy/literature, etc.

A further reason for the change in focus was that I wanted to advertise the specific thinking that I’d done as a scholar of classical reception. Most answers to the question of ‘what is classical reception?’ make it into either a handmaiden of classics (e.g., exploring the so-called dialogues between antiquity and modernity) or a subsidiary of other pre-existing academic disciplines (e.g., classical reception in this author, or that country, or this period). There is a tremendous anxiety, understandable given the aggressively conservative teaching requirements of the humanities job market, about developing novel ways of thinking in the subject. I hope that DAN goes some way to show that it is possible.

2. In the conclusion, you suggest some ways that the figure of Dionysus might revitalise the study of the ancient world. Do you think that Nietzsche’s philosophy of the tragic and his Dionysus has much to say for wider cultural and political contexts today, as he did for the thinkers that you write about?

I’ll bracket off the idea of ‘Nietzsche’s philosophy of the tragic’ at the outset. I think the idea of a tragic philosophy too often becomes part of a tedious parody of Nietzsche that preys on an ambivalent fear and fascination with irresolvable tragic situations to support a conceptually-bankrupt morality of cruel individualism, cultural Alexandrianism, and, fundamentally, Social Darwinism. Nietzsche’s Dionysus is an antidote to this. It calls us to remember the truth of human commonality that lives and breathes beneath external difference, and the realms of human experience and identity that can’t ever be controlled, disciplined or marketised. It is also about the hope that, in the longue durée of human civilisation, creativity will win out over destructiveness and tolerance will triumph over fear.

3. Tensions appear throughout your historically rich book between historicist and Dionysian approaches to antiquity. How did you approach the balance of giving expression to the sensuality of Nietzsche’s Greeks at the same time as making them academically legible?

I remember seeing a Rothko exhibition once where they had a small display of his library, including a copy of Aristotle’s Poetics and, if I remember correctly, something by Gilbert Murray. Researching these real objects led me to understand Rothko’s attitude towards tragedy, art, and (as I briefly show in the introduction) Nietzsche’s Greeks. All of which is to say that I don’t think I ever really thought about a tension between historicism and sensuality in DAN. History is our understanding of the past. To put it bluntly, we can pursue this in either a boring or an interesting way. The first, valuable when done well, makes the past an object of study that is considered in academic surroundings. It subtracts human appetites from events in the cause of dispassionate understanding, and helps us appreciate the truth of difference over time. The danger of the interesting route is that it can mask this difference in an intoxicating blur of identification and presentism. But it is my wager that it reveals the past’s living, lively worth in a more transformative way. I’ve received a lot of comments about the archival work I did, and my specificity about sources and dates. I see this as an apotheosis of sensualism. It’s about life, the reality of what we read, with whom we speak, where we work, what we do. Whether we put it in a footnote or not, it is this stuff that makes us who we are.

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