Apollo and Dionysus in Alice Cooper’s Stage

Alice Cooper is an important band name in music history, as they caught attention to the concerts performed in theatrical style. A diverse comment can be done while watching an Alice Cooper show, such that it is like a tragedy from Ancient Greece. It contains the two energies that form art, or an artistic experience. This essay examines Alice Cooper on stage with references to theories of Friedrich Nietzsche which he wrote in “The Birth of Tragedy”.

Introduction: The Birth of Tragedy 

Definition of art was one of the important questions of which the philosophers search for answers throughout the history. In 1872, one more explanation is proposed by Friedrich Nietzsche in his first book The Birth of Tragedy. With his interest in the works and ideas of the German opera composer Richard Wagner, Nietzsche was already oriented into Wagner’s concept of “total work of art” (Gesamtkunstwerk). Therefore, the tragedies from Ancient Greece, which can be considered as an equivalent of the “total work of art” at that time, were at the centre of his artistic examination. 

Nietzsche proposed that the art performed on the stage of Ancient Greek theatres came to life from the contradiction of two different energies surrounded around the performers and the performing place. He introduced the energies coming from the Ancient Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus, arguing that a synthesis of the group drinking, singing of Dionysus, and terrifying images of Apollo made the ancient Athenian tragedies possible. In his book “Black Sabbath and Philosophy: Mastering Reality”, William Irwin summarizes the theory of Nietzsche on how the tragedy was born: “Nietzsche argues in The Birth of Tragedy that a synthesis of the drinking together, the celebration of Dionysus, the influence of the visual plastic arts (painting and sculpture), and the terrifying images of Apollo made possible the wonderful ancient Athenian creation of tragic theatre” [1]. The “duality” is naturally a part of these tragedies, as Nietzsche commenting analogously: “just as procreation depends on the duality of the sexes, involving perpetual strife with only periodically intervening reconciliations” [2]. He later explains this perpetuation: “These two different tendencies run parallel to each other, for the most part openly at variance; and they continually incite each other to new and more powerful births, which perpetuate an antagonism, only superficially reconciled by the common term ‘art’; till eventually, by a metaphysical miracle of the Hellenic ‘will’, they appear coupled with each other, and through this coupling ultimately generate an equally Dionysian and Apollonian form of art – Attic tragedy” [3]

Energies: Apollonian vs. Dionysian 

In order to explain further what was going on these ancient stages, Apollo and Dionysus should be introduced and compared to each other as they are seen responsible for the energies that formed the art. Nietzsche suggests separating the art worlds into the world of dreams and world of intoxication. 

World of dreams was spared for the ancient god Apollo. He was also given a lot of attributes, such as being a god of light and the sun, truth and prophecy, healing, plague, music, and poetry. Nietzsche writes in The Birth of Tragedy that Apollo originally inspired the plastic artist who sculpts or paints images from dreams and visions: “Apollo, the god of all plastic energies, is at the same time the soothsaying god. He, who (as the etymology of the name indicates) is the ‘shining one’, the deity of light, is also ruler over the beautiful illusion of the inner world of fantasy” [4]. He finds this ability of Apollo makes life possible and worth living for people as they draw inspiration from their dreams. Along with the deep consciousness of nature, these dreams are seen by Nietzsche as “the symbolical analogue of the soothsaying faculty and of the arts generally” [5]. In addition, William Irwin mentions another side of Apollo: with all his inspirational tranquil character, he “is a frightening god, for he is the god of pestilence, archery, the burning Sun, and of individual madness: of epileptics, of blind soothsayers, of cursed prophetesses. (…) Apollo terrified the ancient Greeks. Apollo is strange, for he is depicted as a slender but muscular man whose beardless face can seem boyish. But this young god terrified people. His Priestess (the ‘Pythian’) at the famous Oracle of Delphi would inhale noxious fumes, enter a strange hypnotic trance, and speak terrifying prophecies as the voice of Apollo” [6]

Another world of art, world of intoxication came from Dionysus. He is known for being god of wine. He was also god of the grape harvest and winemaking, of ritual madness and ecstasy. His festivals gathered people, involved alcohol and offered escapism from the agonies and sorrow in daily life. The people in these festivals lose themselves, become the part of a whole through intoxication. People can get intoxicated through different sources: alcohol, drugs, sex, meditation, and rhythm. This intoxication is believed to be one of the sources to the artistic production and a driving force for it. In the “Twilight of the Idols: Or, How to Philosophize with the Hammer” book, Nietzsche comments about the intoxication and its driving force on art: “What is essential in intoxication is the feeling of increased strength and fullness. This feeling leads us to donate to things, to make them take from us, to force ourselves on them—this process is called idealizing” [7]. Therefore, Dionysian festivals were considered as the prototype for theatre, for the reason that the chorus prepared their role and songs by getting intoxicated through wine, and acted on the stage with the energy provided by this intoxication. 

In comparison of these two gods, there are a lot of contrasts between two. However, these distinctions complete each other and form the tragedy on the stage. For instance, Apollo is concerned with the order of the things, while Dionysus suggests chaotic experiences. While Apollo is more serious and even frightening, Dionysus represents the enjoyable moments, his festival becomes a way for people to stay away from the sad part of the life. Apollo is more associated with giving energy to the artists of the plastic arts such as sculpting and painting, Dionysus gives energy to the art performers. Encountering Apollo is inevitable as we see dreams whenever we sleep, whereas the same case for Dionysus depends on our choices: If we do not want to get intoxicated, we do not get into the source of intoxication (but after encountering Apollo or Dionysus, we cannot claim any control on our will). Apollo gives chance to the people to emphasize their individuality, act in the “principium individuationis”, however, Dionysus suggests breaking this principle and losing the individuality, becoming a part of a bigger thing. 

Alice Cooper’s work as a tragedy 

Alice Cooper is a rock band formed in 1968 and the stage persona name of the frontman Vincent Furnier. They kept as a band until their 1973 album “Muscle of Love”. From the 1975 album “Welcome to My Nightmare”, the band disbanded and Alice Cooper became the solo project of Furnier. Especially in the first albums of their career, they incorporated psychedelic music elements in their style. The most remarkable detail about them was their theatrical stage presence. Three of the five band members were educated in arts discipline, and they were into surrealism. Before the band changed its name to Alice Cooper, they were known as The Spiders and they already decorated the stage with props related to spiders and their web. They developed the stage decoration under the name Alice Cooper, and became famous for their theatrical scene performance accompanying the music. Anyone who saw the presence of Alice Cooper on stage, they would get something more than only a concert. They would catch a glimpse of something which was going on in the Ancient Greek theatres: A group of intoxicated men performing on stage, representing their acts, playing their roles, losing their individuality, telling stories that terrify the audience and dragging them to catharsis. 

Their stage performance was not only based on props and role-play. With their psychedelic songs and rhythms that bring into trance, they represented a strong Dionysian presence in such performances. One of them can be seen in a video from Cincinnati Pop Festival, in 1970 [8]. Alice Cooper performs two songs in this video, connecting them seamlessly: “Lay Down and Die, Goodbye” and “Black Juju”. Frontman Vincent Furnier holds two rattles and constantly shakes them as he wears an unusual cloak, giving him a shamanic imagery from the primitive tribes. He looks like he is isolated from the stage and the audience, spiritually departed from there, living in another level of reality. He hisses rhythmically to the microphone as the song transforms into “Black Juju”, then the lyrics comes: “Bodies need their rest / We all need our rest / Sleep an easy sleep / Rest rest rest rest / But come back in the morning / Come back hard / Wake up wake up wake up wake up”. Even if the audience throws something like a sand-filled balloon, Furnier is still in trance, continues to keep his rhythm. He finally tries to cover his bandmates under white sheets while they are continuing to play the same rhythm. He gets himself under a sheet, too, and finishes their performance for this song. 

This scene from their performance strong reference to the Dionysian energy, because it hypnotising in many ways: The actions, the music, the lyrics, the gears such as the cloak and the rattles… They all represent a state of intoxication. The meaning is lost in all of these elements, even in the lyrics, and the most important thing is losing oneself for that moment. 

The experience in the early psychedelic performances were much of the Dionysian energy, however, as Alice Cooper’s music evolved from psychedelic rock to 70’s hard rock, later new wave, glam metal, and even industrial metal genres, the theatrical prop usage in order to support the music became more common over such trance moments. Actually, the disbandment was due to the reason that Furnier wanted a more theatrical focus than music. The song durations in the concerts became closer to the album versions (which is contrast to the tradition in 70s, in which the solos performed in improvisation, or repeating the rhythm over and over in order to get into trance). The chaotic nature of psychedelic rock performances left their place to the planned concerts. The performance I watched in Sonisphere Festival 2011 in Istanbul, was incorporating an order of songs and their own theatrical shows for each one in a limited time interval. If the gods Apollo and Dionysus attended to the concerts, Dionysus would have been watching Alice Cooper shaking his rattles under his weird cloak, while Apollo was breathing the same air with me, listening to the best selected songs from Cooper’s discography. 

From the fan’s point of view 

Concerts, especially music genres originated from rock music, are ceremonial for the fans. They gather around the stage similar to the Ancient Greeks attended to the theatre, feel like attending to a Dionysian festival, according to William Irwin: “Listening to a heavy metal album or attending a heavy metal concert or thrashing in a mosh pit or playing in a heavy metal band is participating in a modern, electronic Dionysian festival. Heavy metal is horrific: Black Sabbath lyrics deal with death, fear, magic, and more—yet this is what we love about the songs. Heavy metal is loud: it is easy to lose yourself in the sheer volume. And heavy metal is about bands: groups of people working together toward a common goal of pleasure” [9]. For Alice Cooper’s case, their lyrics dealt mainly with horror stories, spiders, and unconscious states. The other words of Irwin fits right into an Alice Cooper concert. The musicians as actors lose themselves in the characters as they perform the play. And the audience lose themselves in the characters as they watch the play. As they watch with pity and fear for the characters on the stage, the audience feel that they are not alone in the horrors of existence that they experience. Irwin continues on being a fan: “To a lesser extent the fans can participate by being a member of a tribe. We can be part of the heavy metal community. The experience can be a communal experience and can overcome loneliness and existential despair” [10]


Taking an Alice Cooper concert as an art experience, gives a modern example of the tragedies performed in Ancient Greece. This experience, just as the tragedies, is born from the contrast of Apollonian and Dionysian energies and contains both of them inside. Nevertheless, some periods of Alice Cooper’s career puts Apollonian or Dionysian elements more in front than the other, such as the performance of the “band” Alice Cooper was more of Dionysian, while of the “solo project” Alice Cooper was more of Apollonian. Along with the performance, music, or lyrics, being a band itself is also a thing that can be examined with the view of “The Birth of Tragedy”. Irwin points the community spirit in the Dionysian festivals and doing things together, suggesting that “An intoxicated person, through Dionysus, can belong to a group and lose the troubling self” [11]. Nietzsche’s singular sentence can be valid for this experience: “He is no longer an artist, he has become a work of art” [12]


[1] Ross, Stephen David. “Art and Its Significance: An Anthology of Aesthetic Theory”. State University of New York Press, 1984. pp. 7-8 

[2] Ibid. 

[3] Ibid. 

[4] Plato. “Republic”. Book X. 

[5] Balzac, Honoré de. “Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu”. The Project Gutenberg EBook. Produced by David Widger. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/23060/23060-h/23060-h.htm 

[6] Ibid. 

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