Jonestown as Greek Tragedy

by Donna Deverell

Why?

Why would a modern, educated adult watch a man of flesh and blood perform magic tricks and believe he was God? Why would someone that had lived through the sterility of the Depression give up every possession to join a church? Why would parent forego, not only social mores, but the very foundation of parental instinct and willingly poison their own child? Why didn’t someone do something? Why didn’t God do something? Why?

Like everyone who has heard of Jonestown, I have asked the questions over and over. I also know the question may never be truly answered.

Now as I embark on my final year of graduate school, I have chosen to use my thesis to address these questions, and so many others, in a form that I believe lends itself very naturally to the life of Jim Jones and his followers – Greek theatre. Theatre as we know it began in fifth century Greece in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility. As the son of Zeus, the king of the gods, and the mortal Semele, Dionysus walks the line between deity and human. Known to incite madness and reckless abandon, he was worshipped mainly by cults of women who would go in to trances in which they would lose all inhibitions (in vino veritas). Many believe that the cults would go as far as to reenact Dionysus’ graphic death and rebirth by lying in wait for a male victim whom they would viciously rip apart as they believe the young god had been. Unfortunately for these men, they did not have a mystical being to mend them.

In the more organized worship of Dionysus, women and men would sing refrains that recounted the works of the supernatural being while working in fields and threshing houses. At some point they began to write down the songs, then add dance and movement in order to better narrate the tale. Eventually the polis, or community, began to gather at the Parthenon to watch the various tales, eventually inaugurating an annual festival in which various groups would bring dytharambs (sacred songs about various mythical characters) and compete against one another. In 534 b.c.e. a man named Thespis stepped forward, assumed a character other than himself, and addressed the audience in spoken word rather than song, and in the process inventing acting as we know it (and imparting the name “thespian” to future actors).

The next two centuries would give rise to some of the greatest works of theatre ever written in the Greek tragedies and comedies. Over time the style would evolve to include some very specific cornerstones. Each play was presented only once, allowing new shows to be presented at each festival. These dramas also centered on the gods and the aristocracy, the most important characters in Greek life. A chorus, often representing the audience’s point of view, would act as narrators as a small cast of actors would present dialogue wearing masks to represent the characters they were portraying. The tragic hero at the center of the piece helped to impart the message to the audience that the gods always know best, and that man’s hubris (false pride) is his downfall.

Consequently, I believe that this form of theatre is an excellent way to present a retelling of the unfortunate events at Jonestown. Jim Jones, I believe, is the ultimate tragic hero. Believed by so many to be a god on earth, capable of inciting such passion and devotion that resulted in death, and walking the same line that Dionysus himself walked between mortal and divine, it was his hubris and belief that he knew better than God that brought down his polis. His history of rising from the humble childhood he experienced to become such a public figure makes him a modern equivalent to the characters presented by the likes of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

Like traditional Greek theatre, the piece, tentatively entitled White Night, will rely heavily on music. Peoples Temple relied heavily on music in their worship, reminiscent of the refrains sung for Dionysus. It is, after all, the universal language, and one cannot help but be swept up in the emotions resonating from the spirits of those whom the audience know are doomed.

Although it will be heavily influenced in the Greek style, it will by no means be an exact copy of a Greek piece. For instance, there will be no use of masks. Originally they were used as character differentiation as well as sound enhancement, both of which will not be needed in a modern theatre. There will also be no Greek clothing, as it is only logical to keep the story set in the 1960s and 1970s.

I also hope to experiment with the make-up of the chorus. More specifically, I would like to have one chorus representing the Concerned Relatives, and another representing Peoples Temple. It is my hope that the two will interact with one another in order to communicate both sides of the story: those that followed their god and those that tried to stop the madness. Ideally, the audience will be able to see not only defectors leave the Temple, but also to see people continue to join the church despite the Concerned Relatives’ activities.

I believe one of the strongest conventions used in theatre is to bring the play to the audience, rather than asking an audience to sit and view the story from the outside. As such I plan on placing players in the audience, and having the actor portraying Jim speak directly to the audience. I believe this will go far in helping us see how persuasive and charismatic he was. I want the people watching the show to witness their fellow audience members leave their seats and become a devotee. Perhaps this will help us to understand not only the motivations of the followers, but also the pain suffered by those that were victimized.

I do believe it is important to state that I in no way plan to glamorize or excuse any of the actions of Jim Jones. What he did was completely unacceptable on every imaginable level. It is not my intention to incite any form of hero-worship for this man. I do, however, wish to explore how one becomes this kind of human being, and what possesses one to follow said person to lethal extremes.

Of course, this project is still in the early phases. I am currently in the research and review portion of my thesis, which consists of collecting data and ensuring that my work does not mimic or plagiarize the work of those before me. Because it is based on true events, and because I will be using the names and situations of living persons, I must navigate the legalities (as well as my own personal integrity) to ensure that no one is treated with disrespect or dishonesty. I am striving to keep in mind not only those that passed away during this nightmare, but also those that are still with us, the families and friends that still grieve for their loved ones, and the brave souls that survived the ordeal. I must also go through the proper channels of the university so that I will get academic credit for my work. I want to ensure that every aspect is given the time and preparation deserved.

As it stands, I will continue research for the next few months and hopefully begin the playwriting portion after the first of the year. I invite anyone that may have information, stories, questions, or simply words of encouragement to contact me. I will strive to tell this story to the best of my ability, and to give everyone involved, from the Greeks to the audience, the respect and reverence deserved.

(Donna Deverell is a Graduate Assistant and Costume Shop Supervisor studying theatre at Texas A&M University-Commerce. She received her Bachelor’s Degree in Theatre from Texas A&M University-Commerce in 2008, and is scheduled to receive her Master’s Degree in August 2010. She can be reached at donnadeverell@yahoo.com.)

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on January 23rd, 2014.
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