Casting the Curse of Dionysus on the
Naeema Ali Abdel
In The Great God Brown, Eugene O'Neill invokes many Greek gods, however, they all appear as either extensions or complementary to the god Dionysus. Zeus, Hermes, Pan and Apollo are all different faces of Dionysus whose curse seems domineering. The play discusses the history of two foiling families whose off-spring voluntarily immolates the self for Dioinysus in search for liberation. The members of the two families are modern distorted versions of the Greek gods; unlike the spirit of Dionysus that remains immaculate. In coincidence with Nietzsche, O'Neill seems to believe that all the Greek gods on stage are but masks to Dionysus. Nietzsche maintains:
In The Great God Brown, all the Greek gods voluntarily immolate the self for perpetualising the existence of the god Dionysus.
In Greek mythology, Dionysus is made to be a son of Zeus and Semele. He was also known as Bacchus. Dionysus had an unusual birth. Zeus's wife, Hera, a jealous and vain goddess, discovered the affair while Semele was pregnant. Appearing as an old crone, Hera befriended Semele, who confided in her that her husband was actually Zeus. Hera pretended not to believe her, and planted seeds of doubt in Semele's mind. Curious, Semele demanded of Zeus that he reveal himself in all his glory as proof of his godhood. Though Zeus begged her not to ask this, she persisted and he agreed. Mortals, however, cannot look upon a god without dying. He came to her wreathed in bolts of lightning and she perished in the ensuing blaze. Zeus rescued the fetal Dionysus, however, by sewing him into his thigh. A few months later, Dionysus was born. In this version, Dionysus is borne by two mothers (Semele and Zeus) before his birth, hence the epithet dimetor (two mothers) associated with "twice-born". The rebirth of Dionysus is the primary reason he was worshipped in mystery religions, as his death and rebirth were events of mystical reverence. The legend goes that Zeus gave the infant Dionysus into the charge of Hermes. One version of the story is that Hermes took the boy to King Athamas and his wife Ino, Dionysus' aunt. Hermes bade the couple raise the boy as a girl, to hide him from Hera's wrath. Therefore, he is described as being womanly or "man-womanish (Otto 85)."
Dionysus is viewed as the promoter of civilization, a lawgiver, and lover of skeptic as well as the patron deity of agriculture and the theatre. He was also known as the Liberator who frees an individual from his normal self, by madness, ecstasy, or wine. In the past, the worship of Dionysus was opposed by some princes who dreaded its introduction on account of the disorders and madness it brings with it which make of it a sort of a curse. The orgy of celebration of the god requires an immolation of the self; as Dionysus demands one's identity so as to affirm his. This is might be called the curse of Dionysus as his followers involuntarily immolate their selves to him in return for liberating the self from care and worry, and give reign to their imagination. The continuous repetition of the sacrifice confirms the Dionysian living death and underlines his relationship to the cult of soul enabling him to preside over communication between the living and the dead.
The Great God Brown opens on a Commencement party in a plier of a casino in which dancing is mingled with singing and love-making; similar to the orgiastic rites of worshipping the god Dionysus. All over the party, Dion daringly moves around in a gray flannel shirt, sneakers over bare feet and flannel trousers; an attire contradictory to the formal one worn by every one in this party. Though shabbily dressed, he is admired and envied by his peers with whom he appears as a master of the art of life; including Billy Brown who admires him. He avows with grinning appreciation that Dion is "real sport. He wouldn't have been afraid to appear in his pajamas! [sic] (258)." In return, Dion consciously deals with them calling them 'children;' he is showing the dimension of Dionysus the god of theatre After the orgy, Dionysus is victorious as he has found a human, Dion, who totally sacrifices his identity to liberate his soul. On the other hand, Billy is ready to do the same so as to enjoy the multi-layered qualities and the romance that his friend possesses because of immolating his self to the god Dionysus.
The orgy is attended by Zeus and Hermes accompanied by their wives. When speaking together, Mr. and Mrs. Brown invoke the imagery of the wrathful whimsical Zeus along with his vengeful wicked wife Hera. They harmoniously speak, judge the others and make plans for the future as if they were on the Olympus disregarding the citizens. Their extension on earth is their son Billy whom they desire to be an engineer so as to enlarge their business and develop it into a sophisticated form no matter if this means that they should exclude Mr. Brown's partner, Mr. Anthony, who originally gave the chance to Mr. Brown to be his partner. "He'll design expand us make the firm famous, (258)," plans the Zeus-like Mr. Brown for his son, Billy.
On the other hand, the Anthonys are in cacophony. Though dialoguing, each seems to address only the self. The simple, plain and kind-hearted Mrs. Anthony, whose hopes and will are suppressed, lives in a world of her own in which she imagines that she got married to a Zeus and gave birth to a Dionysus. To her, Mr. Anthony is the wrathful and cruel dimension of the whimsical Zeus when descends on earth to his wife Semele with all his glory. She exceedingly believes at the faculties of her son; though he does not share her the opinion. Dion is sent to college only after Mrs. Anthony pokes the jealousy of Mr. Anthony by mentioning to him that the Browns will send their son to it.
In contradiction, Mr. Anthony is the incarnation of the self-made labouring American. Compared to the devoted labouring Hermes, he is incapable of assuming a leading role as "Brown takes all the credit! He tells everyone the success is due to his energy that [Mr. Anthony is] only an old stick-in-the mud (260)." The modern version of Hermes scorns the cruel whimsical Zeus of nowadays. Due to Mr. Anthony's achievements and ability to bridle the whims of the others, Mr. Brown reaches the fore. "The damn fool!," says Mr. Anthony, "He knows better'n anyone if I had not held him down to common sense, with his crazy wild-cat notions, he'd had us ruined long ago! (260)."
The off-spring of Zeus and Hermes in Great God Brown are the modern version of Apollo and Pan, respectively. Billy Brown is depicted as an Apollo. He is in the prime of his adolescence and vigour. O'Neill describes him as "a handsome, tall and athletic boy of nearly eighteen. He is blond and blue-eyed, with a likeable smile and a frank good-humoured face, its expression already indicating a disciplined restraint (257)." Like Apollo, he enjoys sight, reason, form and beauty. The modern version of Apollo despite his capturing handsomeness especially in his formal dress, he does not enjoy the popularity and talents that distinguish Apollo. With him, the Hera-like wife turns into a loving Leto believing that her son enjoys all the required talents so as to be the optimum version of Apollo. Both parents believe that Bill is intelligent enough to make true their dreams for a better future. Nonetheless, the Hera-like dimension of the loving Mrs. Brown victimizes Billy by forcing his character and youthful wishes to remain unstable; not on terra firma; similar to Apollo whose birth was on the floating island of Delos. He hoards his hopes and wishes until they suddenly erupt one day.
The powerful, well-off Billy is, tragically, not successful with girls and cannot fight assiduously to win the love of Margaret; the only girl he desires. In reality, he is not as vigorous or as sexually attractive as his friend Dion. Attempting to kiss Margaret, in a desperate moment so as to win her attention, he does that 'clumsily,' and instead of attention, he receives an amused laugh destroying his hopes sealed by an emphatic declaration, "Like a brother! You can kiss me if you like (263)." Hurt by the fact that an Apollo-like character is rejected for a Pan, Billy conjures his destructive capabilities. In Greek mythology, for once, Pan had the audacity to compare his music with that of Apollo, and to challenge Apollo, the god of the kithara, to a trail of skill. Pan blew on his pipes, and with his rustic melody gave great satisfaction to himself and his faithful follower, Midas. Finding that Pan is victorious, Apollo struck the strings of his lyre. Thus, Apollo was declared a winner. Similarly, Billy and Dion contest on the love of Margaret. Billy's kithara is his handsomeness, money and well-planned for bright future. While Dion's lyre is his assumed capturing air of Dionysus. Compared to Apollo, Billy schemes a long-term plan in which he would be declared a sole winner. He shows for both Margaret and Dion the face of a 'good loser.' To Margaret, he asserts his happiness that it is Dion whom she chooses because Dion is his best friend; ""so here's wishing you all the success and happiness in the world, Margaret and remember I'll always be your best friend [my italics] (263)." He almost reveals the same for Dion, too, "Go on in and win! We've been chums ever since we were kids, haven't we? and I'm glad it's you, Dion (265)." Nonetheless, the honey-coated 'best friends' and 'chums' cover a great animosity underneath and a threat of revenge and destruction that Dion has already sensed. "Chums? Oh, no, Billy Brown would despise me! (265)," says Dion because he knows that Bill "want[s] what he thought was my love of the flesh! He feels that I have no right to love (287)." As an Apollo, Billy feels that an ugly black Pan should not be loved.
On the other hand, Dion is a typical Pan who is rejected for his appearance no matter if he were appealing and multi-talented. Unmasked, Dion's face appears dark, spiritual, poetic, passionately supersensitive, helplessly unprotected in its childlike, religious face in life. His are all features of an individual renouncing the malaise of the modern era; i. e. materialism. However, such features are not plausible for the modern world. As a practical Hermes, Dion's father wishes his son not to be crushed by the cruelty of life through courageously experiencing pain to force the world to accept him as he is, "Let him slave like I had to! (260)," says Mr. Anthony who never deceives himself about the fragile nature of his son making him unfit in the commercial material modern era. Mr. Anthony thinks that going to college will aggravate Dion's fragility making of him "a bigger fool that he is already! (260)." As a loving father, Mr. Anthony desires to "teach him the value of a dollar (260)" so as to help Dion renounce romanticizing his fragility, and face the world unmasked as his father does. Yet, Dion is not responsive. Accordingly, Mr. Anthony no longer feels that Dion is his son; Dion seems to have inherited nothing of his qualities; "(with bitter hopelessness to his wife indicating their son) Who is he? You bore him! (261)," wonders Mr. Anthony. This invokes the issue of the unclear parentage of Pan; as in some myths he is the son of Zeus, though generally he is the son of Hermes.
To confront the world with a plausible face, Dion, in coherence with his romantic sensual nature assumes the airs of Dionysus the Liberator so as to free himself from his fragility. He becomes mocking, reckless defiant, gaily scoffing and sensual. Such airs are encouraged by Dion's mother who believes that she is another Semele, "He's my boy! He's Dion! (261)," Mrs. Anthony proudly declares. Dion's assumed airs are based upon the fact that there are endless similarities between Dionysus and Pan; including the rivalry with Apollo. Through the artificial assumed nature of Dionysus, Dion becomes sexually appealing for each female and the object of admiration for the males. Margaret, is madly in love with the Dionysus Dion, "Dion!," says she, "I love the sound of it! (263)." She feels that the indications of Dion's attraction to her won her the fervent competition on his love, and that such indications are enough to make her reject the love of Billy. Despite the mask of Pan that Dion wears, Margaret mistakes him for a Dionysus.
Despite their differences and love-hatred relationship, Dion's and Billy's desires diverge at their love for Margaret regarded by both the moon-goddess Selene. Unlike Brown, Dion's love for Margaret does not only stop on the sensual level; he secretly believes that at the time of need she will be his faithful adherent, the same as Midas to Pan. Shrouding him with excessive passion, Dion imagines that Margaret will accept him as he is; unmasked and fragile failure or 'fool' as Mr. Anthony judges him. Unlike Dion and Billy, the experienced Mr. Anthony discovers that Margaret's Selene-like nature is destructive. He feels that "the full moon" is not a romantic sign, but "bringing on [his] rheumatism." Thus, to avoid such and ominous sign, it is better to take refuge to a shelter; "Let's go back indoors (261)," instructs Mr. Anthony his wife and son.
Compared to Dion, Margaret first appears on stage masked with an exact almost "transparent reproduction of her own features, but giving her the abstract quality of a Girl instead of the individual MARGARET (262)." The 'quality of a Girl' is Margaret's seductive mask of innocence and love. Masked, to the moon she looks and sings in low tone: "Ah, moon of my delight that knows no wane! (262)." It is not clear whether she means that her delight or the light of the moon that will never fade. In both cases, Margaret's singing, similar to an oath, is an indication to a perpetual seductive and devastating powers. In a sign of uttermost egoism and narcissism, Margaret only speaks, sings and takes off her mask to the moon. Her desires and needs never exceed the bounds of the self; she is unable to see anyone except herself. Margaret's egoism widens the gap between Bill and Dion and adds a new destructive dimension to their love-hatred relationship; exactly, envy. In a brief practical manner, suitable to Margaret's nature, Billy openly and directly announces his love to her; yet she persists on rejecting "the sure thing;" which is the sincere love of the unmasked Billy, for the sake of "the uncertain part (263);" namely, Margaret's devoted love for a non-existent Dionysus.
Unexpectedly defeated, Billy filled with bitterness and envy declares for Dion that Margaret loves for him. Billy's forced joking statements, "you nut trying to get more moon-struck?" and "You're the original white-haired boy [My italics] (265)" are more menacing than joking. Billy's failure love story makes him lose the final layer of his innocence. He is well aware that the natures of Dion and Margaret are neither divergent nor even foiling; though his and Dion's are. Billy's rhetoric statements foresee that such a discordant union is devastating for both Dion and Margaret. Billy's statements also deflate the victory of Dion to which the latter retorts, "I'm afraid! (265)." Dion attempts to cure Margaret the same way her love does to him. Her love makes him get rid of his fear; "Was afraid! (265)," and suggests for him the possibility of facing the world unmasked. Accordingly, Dion decides to cure Margaret of loving the 'uncertain part' by revealing for her his unmasked face and self.
To his surprise, Margaret never recognizes him unmasked, or his voice openly declaring his love for her. Her response is sheer stiffness and contempt. Dion's thwarted hopes turns him into a real Pan whose great conquest is seducing the moon goddess Selene and making love to her while "wrapping himself in a sheepskin (Kerenyi 95)" to hide his hairy black goat form, and draw her from the sky into the forest to make love to her. It is worthy to mention that when "Pan was forbidden the light and warmth of the sun he grew sensitive and self-conscious and proud and revengeful and became Prince of Darkness (Carpenter 68)." Likewise, the disappointed Dion puts on his mask and acts the role of the orgiastic god Dionysus worshipped by Margaret. Seducing Margaret, he professionally actor-like tells her hollow rhetorics with ironic mastery. His seduction does not stop at kissing, as he furthers it to love-making in the open; similar to Pan who becomes lecherous and devilish when angered. Losing his innocence and incepting a harsh journey of experience, Dion announces his death, "Great Pan is dead (267)."
Obviously, the prologue marks the rituals of immolation for the god Dionysus. The Commencement party is a typical Dionysian dithyramb during which each of the characters suddenly discovers in them faculties they never experienced before. Nietzsche contends:
Though Mr. Brown's whimsicality is described by his partner, Mr. Anthony, as destructive, during the party, for the first time, it proves to be creative as if Dionysus has cast upon him some of his faculties. Planning for the future of his son, as well as, the firm is not a daydream but a successful motivating force when shortly put into action. Compared to him is the practical Mr. Anthony who only sends his son to college out of competition. Unknowingly, Mr. Anthony opens the way to Dionysus to fully invade his son. The sudden decision liberates from a life of slavery in which he enjoys nothing. Perceivably, Mr. Brown and Mr. Anthony, during the party, 'suddenly become impetuous' when planning for the liberation of a steady monotonous life. Considering Billy and Dion, they are the ideal forces resurrecting the god Dionysus. The orgiastic party is overwhelmed by the presence of Dionysus making the Apollo-like Billy lose his sight and reason when he decides to compete with Dion on winning the love of Margaret who is known to be in love with Dion. Rejected, Billy discovers that his beauty is of no importance, and that the only way to the liberation of the self is being a Dionysus; a hope he keeps lurking for until he makes true after the death of Dion. As for Dion, he 'impetuously' declares his death because of his unrestrained passion for Margaret aspiring that the merger of his isolated self with that of the god Dionysus would achieve a more profitable and creative unity the same as the Nietzschean 'Oneness' with all nature. In The Great God Brown, nonetheless, "such a union is seen to be impossible, and man is condemned to the cell of self until his death (Bogard 264)."
With Margaret, Dion begins the second phase of his life-journey; exactly, a live-incarnation of the dissipated orgiastic Dionysus as he sells his share in his father's firm for a life of sensualities and celebration. He used the money to tour Europe and be capable of "living and loving and having children (271)." In the process, Dion turns into the Roman version of Dionysus, Bacchus, the god of wine; who wears a Mephistophelean mask. Dion becomes into a real Prince of Darkness. Underneath the mask, Dion's face ages greatly, grows more strained and tortured, but at the same time, in some queer way, more selfless and ascetic, more fixed in the its resolute withdrawal from life. Dion also becomes addicted to reading the New Testament because he is in an assiduous search for the 'Saviour.' The Mephistophelean mask is a paradoxical reflection of Dion's hard-core Christian withdrawal. His forced attitude makes his spirit inwardly transforms into that of a celibate priest, while outwardly degenerates into the worst image of Pan; a Satan; and the worst image of Dionysus; a mad alcohol-consuming Bacchus. Added to his traumatically cleaved self is the pressure of his wife, Margaret, who forces him to cope with the materialist pace of the age, and to humiliate himself by working for his former friend Billy, though Dion has before immolated his soul and desires for Dionysus to satisfy Margaret. The outcome is a sham image of a happy family in which the husband sacrifices his soul to satisfy his wife, and the wife feigns happiness to satisfy the last aspect of the Dionysus remained in Dion. The acting couple is also threatened with poverty. Therefore, Dion is compelled to slave in the materialist world like any slaving practical human; namely, the image of his father that he rejected before. Dion goes mad. His ever wrestling inner and outer self become unmasked before his wife in a frenzy in which Dion chooses to destroy himself completely:
Like Hera did to Dionysus, Margaret strikes Dion with madness and drives him forth a wanderer through the various parts of the earth.
In Greek mythology, Cybele, the goddess of caverns, nature and fertility who is known as the Mother of the Gods, cured the madness-struck Dionysus and taught him religious rites. Likewise, the frenzied Dion keeps wandering all the night long to wake up sprawled on his back on a sofa in the house of the hardened prostitute Cybel who takes him to sleep in her house after finding him asleep at the steps of her house. To his surprise, he finds his mask fallen down on his chest, and the face of his interlocutor is that of a strong calm, sensual blonde girl of twenty or so. Similar to Dion, she is masked and her mask is a second nature to her concealing her delicate goddess self. She wears the mask of a hardened prostitute when dealing with her clients. Cybel's genial attitude, simple exchanges and ability to discern acting from normal behaviour encourage Dion to take off his mask in front of her, and to recognize her immediately as the long sought for 'Saviour' when she lays her hand gently on his forehead; "And he laid his hands on them and healed them (278)," quoting Dion from the New Testament. He also defines Cybel as 'Miss Earth;' a typical identity of the goddess Cybele. With Dion, she agrees to be friends 'only friends.' Accordingly, she imbues him with her healing wisdom enabling him to live peacefully the rest of his life; "Life's all right, if you let it alone (280)," she advises Dion. Following her advice, Dion accepts the job that Billy Brown offers him; and he also comes to terms with his late father towards whom Dion kept being a disdainful stranger.
Henceforth, Dion incepts the final phase in his life in which he publicly assumes the identity of a successful materialist Dionysus for the sake of his wife, and privately becomes a typical eunuch priest in the temple of the Magna Mater and the Mother of Gods Cybel to whom he addresses as if praying with uttermost homage; "taking off his mask, wearily comes and sits down at her feet and lays his head in her lap with a grateful smile) You're strong. You always give. You've given my weakness enough strength to live (285)." Compared to a goddess, Cybel senses that Dion's final visit to her will be the last in his life. Indirectly, she reveals to him that feeling; "I'm afraid you're going away a long, long ways. I'm afraid I won't see you again for a long, long time. So it's good-by, dear. . . . Don't get hurt. Remember, it's all a game, and after you're asleep I'll tuck you in [My italics] (288)." 'Tucking' Dion in is a typical allusion to Cybel identity as the goddess Cybele who is known as Mother Earth. Therefore, she will be his final abode as inside her ground Dion will be buried. In contradiction to Cybel's angel-like attitude is the cruel frantic one of Margaret who cries: "Dion! Don't! I can't bear it! You're like a ghost! You're dead! Oh, my God! Help! Help! (292)," then she faints down. Fainting down symbolizes complete rejection of the idea that the Dionysus she adores might die, as well as, she repulses the fact that the mask has never changed the reality of her husband who lived as a Pan and will die as Pan did.
Therefore, Dion chooses to die at Billy's house, the unmasked modern Apollo with the intention to transfer the curse of Dionysus to Billy who has always coveted whatever belongs to Dion. Remarkably, Dion keeps being a revengeful Pan though he knows that he is on the verge of death. "Poor Billy! God forgive me the evil I've done him! (287)," confides Dion to Cybel before his death underlining his inner conflict. As the worship of Dionysus brings with it disorders and madness, the same, exactly, happens to Billy who willingly renounces his successful and modern era godhood for the sake of assuming Dion's character after the latter's death. As a Dionysus wearing the late-Dion's mask, Billy finally makes true all his desires. He wins Margaret as a wife who showers him with great affection and unfeigned happiness; because, finally, her husband metamorphosed into what she precisely desires; namely, a dazzlingly successful materialist Dionysus. As a Dionysus, Billy loses his calm face of self-assured success and becomes forced to wear a mask giving such expression. Tearing off his mask, Billy reveals a suffering face that is ravaged and haggard; because his face is tortured and distorted by the demon of Dion's mask; such a demon is the curse of Dionysus. However, Billy realizes that the suffering and the torture that the mask of Dion, which is a symbol of the worship of Dionysus, have inflicted him with have liberated him from a perpetual death-in-life state and lack of creativity and imagination. At last, Billy understands that the suffering and torture he has been lately plagued with have purged his soul and rendered him an alive innocent human once more; "But it is a paradise! I do love! (305)," asserts Billy. The curse of Dionysus also enables him to creatively and imaginatively design a church instead of the 'barns' he used to design. Thus, like a dope-fiend after a drug, Dion keeps reaching out for the mask of Dion. As soon as he holds it, he seems to gain strength. He becomes the identical twin of the sensual and vengeful masked-Dion. The more Dionysus-like he becomes, the more the self of Billy is mortified; just like Cybel prophesized to Dion regarding the present and the future of the envious Billy; "Well, remember he's paying, he'll pay in some way or other (287)."
Ravaged and tortured by the mask, Billy finds solace at the house of Cybel with whom he shamelessly reveals that he has been wearing the mask of Dion. He courageously takes off the mask of coveted madness, as well as, the materialist envious identity of Billy. He dies naked like an innocent newly-born baby that Cybel identifies to the police captain as man; a human. On the other hand, Margaret, who adores the mask, kneels in front of it, picks it up and kisses heart-brokenly. With Margaret, the curse of Dionysus finds a thriving loophole. She continues kissing and worshipping the mask after long years of the death of its wearer whose identity is of no importance for her.
In The Great God Brown, Eugene O'Neill experiments with Greek mythology asserting that the curse of Dionysus is triumphant. All the male characters turn into other faces of the god Dionysus in search for liberating the self. Attending the orgy of the celebration of the god, incarnated in the Commencement party, the modern versions of Zeus and Hermes, involuntarily immolate the self in hope of liberating the self and winning a hegemonising attitude in their social milieu. Regarding Apollo and pan, their conscious immolation of the self makes them transcend their limitation and give reign to creativity and sexual fulfillment. On the other hand, all women are directly influenced Dionysus. Mrs. Anthony and Margaret are his obedient disciples; while Mrs. Brown's disgust of the young daring Dion is merely a shield covering her admiration of unrestrained spirit jeopardizing the welfare of her only child. As for Cybel, the modern incarnation of the Mother of all Gods Cybele, is the Saviour for Dion and Billy. The curse of Dionysus that is spurred by Margaret's vanity in the Commencement party will proceed. In the closing scene, it is also Margaret who keeps the diabolical mask of Dion and treats it with uttermost homage; a sign that the curse of Dionysus will sooner or later find a victim.
 Leto is the mother of Apollo.
 Because of sheer love, Midas was the only one who sided with Apollo during the music contest, and refused the judgment of Tmolus who awarded the victory to Apollo.
 Pan is the only Greek god who is dead; for more information see: Walter Burkert (1985). Greek Religion. Harvard University Press, & Leo Vinci (1993), Pan: Great God Of Nature, Neptune Press, London
 Cybele is also known as Kybele, Magna Mater and the Mother of the Gods. She was a goddess of caverns, of the Earth in its primitive state; worshipped on mountain tops. Cybele was worshipped in wild, emotional, bloody, orgiastic, cathartic ceremonies. The cult of Cybele was directed by eunuch priests called Corybantes, who led the faithful in orgiastic rites accompanied by wild cries and the frenzied music of flutes, drums, and cymbals. For more information see: Robert Graves (1955Cmb/Rep edition 1993). The Greek Myths. Penguin.
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