The Bacchae

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The Bacchae
Death Pentheus Louvre G445.jpg
Pentheus being torn apart by Agave and Ino, Attic red-figure vase.
Written byEuripides
ChorusBacchae, female followers of Dionysus
CharactersDionysus
Tiresias
Cadmus
Pentheus
Servant
Messenger
Second Messenger
Agave
Date premiered405 BC
Place premieredAthens
Original languageAncient Greek
GenreTragedy
SettingThebes
 
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For the 2002 film, see The Bacchae (film).
The Bacchae
Death Pentheus Louvre G445.jpg
Pentheus being torn apart by Agave and Ino, Attic red-figure vase.
Written byEuripides
ChorusBacchae, female followers of Dionysus
CharactersDionysus
Tiresias
Cadmus
Pentheus
Servant
Messenger
Second Messenger
Agave
Date premiered405 BC
Place premieredAthens
Original languageAncient Greek
GenreTragedy
SettingThebes

The Bacchae (/ˈbæk/; Greek: Βάκχαι, Bakchai; also known as The Bacchantes /ˈbækənts, bəˈkænts, -ˈkɑːnts/) is an ancient Greek tragedy, written by the Athenian playwright Euripides during his final years in Macedonia, at the court of Archelaus I of Macedon. It premiered posthumously at the Theatre of Dionysus in 405 BC as part of a tetralogy that also included Iphigeneia at Aulis and Alcmaeon in Corinth, and which Euripides' son or nephew probably directed.[1] It won first prize in the City Dionysia festival competition.

The Bacchae is concerned with two opposite sides of man’s natures: There is the rational and civilized side, which is represented by the character of Pentheus, the king of Thebes, and then there is the instinctive side, which is represented by Dionysus. This side is sensual without analysis, it feels a connection between man and beast, and it is a potential source of divinity and spiritual power.[2] In Euripides’ plays the gods represent various human qualities, allowing the audience to grapple with considerations of the human condition. The Bacchae seems to be saying that it is perilous to deny or ignore the human desire for Dionysian experience; those who are open to the experience will find spiritual power, and those who suppress or repress the desire in themselves or others will transform it into a destructive force.[3]

The tragedy is based on the Greek myth of King Pentheus of Thebes and his mother Agave, and their punishment by the god Dionysus (who is Pentheus' cousin). The god Dionysus appears at the beginning of the play and proclaims that he has arrived in Thebes to avenge the slander, which has been repeated by his aunts, that he is not the son of Zeus. In response, he intends to introduce Dionysian rites into the city, and he intends to demonstrate to the king, Pentheus, and to Thebes that he was indeed born a god. [4] However, as the play proceeds Dionysus encounters what he considers newly occurring reasons to be angry, and in his capriciousness, the audience watches his revenge grow out of proportion. By the end of the play, there is the horrible and gruesome death of the king and the wrecking of the city of Thebes by the destruction of its ruling party and by the exiling of its entire population. Dionysus will further cause the plundering of a number of other cities.[5][6]

In The Bacchae there are two completely different versions of Dionysus. First there is the god as he is described by the chorus, which is the god of wine and uninhibited joy and instinct. However, Dionysus as appears as a character on the stage, has come for revenge, and is never like this. He is instead deliberate, plotting, angry and vengeful. [7]

The Bacchae is considered to be not only Euripides greatest tragedy, but one of the greatest ever written, modern or ancient.[8] The Bacchae is distinctive for the fact that the chorus is integrated into the plot, and the god is not a distant presence, but is a character in the play, he is in fact the protagonist. [9]

Various interpretations[edit]

The Bacchae has been the subject of widely varying interpretations regarding what the play as a whole means, or enan indeed whether there is a “moral” to the story.

The extraordinary beauty and passion of the poetic choral descriptions indicate the the author certainly knew what attracted those who followed Dionysus. And the vivid gruesomeness of the punishment of Pentheus suggests that he could also understand those who were troubled by the religion.[10]

At one time the interpretation that prevailed was that the play was an expression of Euripides’ religious devotion, as though after a life of being critical of the Greek gods and their followers, the author finally repented of his cynicism, and wrote a play that honors Dionysus and that carries a dire warning to anyone who doesn’t believe.[11]

Then, at the end of the 19th century the opposite idea began to take hold; it was thought that Euripides was doing with The Bacchae what he has always done, pointing out the inadequacy of the Greek myths as a way towards any kind of spiritual enlightenment.[12]

Background[edit]

The Dionysus in Euripides' tale is a young god, angry that his mortal family, the royal house of Cadmus, has denied him a place of honor as a deity. His mortal mother, Semele, was a mistress of Zeus; while pregnant she was killed, through trickery, by Hera, who was jealous of her husband's affair. When Semele died, her sisters said it was Zeus' will and accused her of lying; they also accused their father, Cadmus, of using Zeus as a coverup. Most of Semele's family refuse to believe Dionysus is the son of Zeus, and the young god is spurned in his home. He has traveled throughout Asia and other foreign lands, gathering a cult of female worshipers (Maenads or Bacchantes). At the play's start he has returned, disguised as a stranger, to take revenge on the house of Cadmus. He has also driven the women of Thebes, including his aunts, into an ecstatic frenzy, sending them dancing and hunting on Mount Kithaeron, much to the horror of their families. Complicating matters, his cousin, the young king Pentheus, has declared a ban on the worship of Dionysus throughout Thebes.

Plot[edit]

The play begins in front of the palace of Thebes, with Dionysus telling the story of his origin and his reasons for visiting the city. Dionysus explains that he was born prematurely, when Hera made Zeus send down a lightning bolt, killing the pregnant Semele and causing the birth. Some in Thebes, he notes, don’t believe this story. In fact, Semele’s sisters — Autonoe, Agave, and Ino – claim it is a lie intended to cover up the fact that Semele became pregnant by some mortal; they say Zeus' lightning was a punishment for the lie. Dionysus reveals that he has driven the women of the city mad, including his three aunts, and has led them into the mountains to observe his ritual festivities. He explains that while he is appearing, at the moment, disguised as a mortal, he will vindicate his mother by appearing before all of Thebes as a god, the son of Zeus, and establishing his permanent cult of followers.[13]

Dionysus exits to go into the mountains, and the chorus enters. They dance and sing, celebrating Dionysus and adding details of his birth and the Dionysian rites. Then Tiresias, the blind and elderly seer, appears. He knocks on the palace doors and calls for Cadmus, the founder and former king of Thebes. The two venerable old men are planning to join the revelry in the mountains when Cadmus’ grandson Pentheus, the current king, enters. Disgusted to find the two old men in festival dress, he scolds them and orders his soldiers to arrest anyone engaging in Dionysian worship. He wants the "foreigner", who he doesn't recognize as Dionysus in disguise, to be captured. Pentheus intends to have him stoned to death.[14]

The guards soon return with Dionysus himself. His hands are bound, and he is disguised as a priest and the leader of the Asian Maenads. Pentheus questions him, his words showing both his skepticism and his interest in the Dionysian rites. Dionysus' answers keep the meaning hidden, only hinting at the truth Pentheus cannot see. Infuriated, Pentheus has him taken away in chains and locked up in his stable, where the guards attach the other end of their prisoner's chains to the hooves of an angry bull. Dionysus, being a god and powerful, breaks free and creates more havoc, razing the palace with an earthquake and fire. Dionysus is confronting Pentheus, when a herdsman arrives from the top of Mount Kithaeron, where he had been herding his grazing cattle. He reports that he found women on the mountain behaving strangely. First, some were sleeping quietly, or drinking wine while listening to flute music. Some were going into the woods "in pursuit of love". Some women were putting snakes in their hair, some were suckling wild wolves and gazelles. Some caused water, wine or milk to spring up from the ground. One woman had honey oozing from her thyrsus. The herdsmen and the shepherds made a plan to capture one particular celebrant, Pentheus' mother. But when they jumped out of hiding to grab her, the tables were turned, and the women pursued the men. The men escaped, but their cattle were not so fortunate, as the women fell upon the animals, ripping them to shreds with their bare hands. The women carried on, plundering two villages that were further down the mountain, stealing bronze, iron and even babies. When villagers attempted to fight back, the women drove them off using only their ceremonial staffs of fennel. They then returned to the mountain top and washed up, as snakes licked them clean.[15]

Dionysus, still in disguise, persuades Pentheus to forgo his plan to defeat and massacre the women with an armed force. He says it would first be better to spy on them, while disguised as a female Maenad to avoid detection.[16] Dionysus dresses Pentheus as a woman, giving him a thyrsus and fawn skins, and leads him out of the house. At this point, Pentheus appears not wholly sane, as he thinks he sees two suns in the sky, and believes he now has the strength to rip up mountains with his bare hands. He has also begun to see through Dionysus' mortal disguise, perceiving horns coming out of the god's head. They exit.

A messenger arrives to report that once they reached Mount Kithaeron, Pentheus wanted to climb an evergreen tree to get a better view and the stranger used divine power to bend down the tall tree and place the king in its highest branches. Then Dionysus, revealing himself, called out to his followers and pointed out the man in the tree. This drove the Maenads wild. Led by Agave, his mother, they forced the trapped Pentheus down from the tree top, ripped off his limbs, his head, and tore his body into pieces.

After the messenger has relayed this news, Agave arrives, carrying her son's head. In her possessed state, she believes it is the head of a mountain lion. She proudly displays it to her father, Cadmus, and is confused when he does not delight in her trophy, and his face instead contorts in horror. Agave then calls out for Pentheus to come marvel at her feat, and nail the head above her door so she can show it to all of Thebes. But Dionysus' possession begins to wear off, and Cadmus forces her to recognize what she's done. As the play ends, the corpse of Pentheus is reassembled, as well as is possible, the royal family is devastated and destroyed. Agave and her sisters are sent into exile, and Dionysus decrees that Cadmus and his wife Harmonia will be turned into snakes and lead a barbarian horde to plunder the cities of Hellas.[17]

Modern productions[edit]

Dramatic versions[edit]

British Film Institute entry: http://explore.bfi-dev.org.uk/4ce2b79d27b29 . Cast:Alkis Panayiotidis, Sotiria Leonardou , Angelique Rockas ]]

Ramona Reeves and Lynn Odell in director Brad Mays' stage production of Euripides' The Bacchae, 1997, Los Angeles.

Operatic versions[edit]

Musical versions[edit]

Significant quotations[edit]

Dionysus: "It's a wise man's part to practise a smooth-tempered self-control."
Dionysus: "Your [Pentheus'] name points to calamity. It fits you well." (The name "Pentheus" derives from πένθος, pénthos, grief)
Messenger: "Dionysus' powers are manifold; he gave to men the vine to cure their sorrows."
Dionysus: "Can you, a mortal, measure your strength against a god?"

Religious significance[edit]

The ancient Greek concept of religion is not at all like the concept as it is generally known today. The Greek gods didn't demand worship, but instead they, with their imperfections, needed to be recognized and accepted as a part of the the human experience.[33] Parallels have been drawn between passages regarding God in the Pentateuch and Jesus in the New Testament, and passages in The Bacchae, including the idea that Dionysus wants no other god to be respected above him, the idea and symbolism of both wine and bread, and the idea of Dionysus being a god taking on the form of a man. The scene of Dionysus being brought before King Pentheus to be interrogated regarding his claim of divinity is compared Jesus’ interrogation by Pontius Pilate.[34] However that particular comparison is limited: Dionysus in his meekness before his interrogator is not about to be crucified, indeed the shoe is on the other foot and Dionysus will soon be sending the king to die after being torn apart by his own mother.[35]

Dramatic structure[edit]

In the play's climactic plot construction, Dionysus the protagonist instigates the unfolding action by simultaneously emulating the play's author, costume designer, choreographer and artistic director.[36] Helen P. Foley, writing of the importance of Dionysus as the central character and his effect on the play's structure, observes: "The poet uses the ritual crisis to explore simultaneously god, man, society, and his own tragic art. In this protodrama Dionysus, the god of the theatre, stage-directs the play."[37]

At the play's start, Dionysus' exposition highlights the play's central conflict; the invasion of Greece by an Asian religion.[38]

Critical review[edit]

Until the late 19th century, the play's themes were considered too gruesome to be studied and appreciated. It was Nietzsche's "Birth of Tragedy" in 1872 that re-posed the question of Dionysus's relation with the theatre and awakened interest in The Bacchae. In the 20th century, performances became quite fashionable -- particularly in opera, due in part to the dramatic choruses found throughout the story.[39] In 1948, R.P Winnington-Ingram said of Euripides' handling of the play: "On its poetical and dramatic beauties, he writes with charm and insight; on more complex themes, he shows equal mastery."[40]

Translations[edit]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Rehm (1992, 23).
  2. ^ Euripides. Vellacott, Phillip, translator. The Bacchae and Other Plays. Penguin Books Ltd.1979
  3. ^ Euripides. Dodds, E. R. translator. Bacchae; Plays of Euripides. Clarendon Press, 1960. Page 14
  4. ^ Murray Gilbert. Euripides and His Age. Oxford University Press. 1965. ISBN 0-313-20989-8
  5. ^ Corrigan, Robert W. editor. Classical Tragedy, Greek and Roman; Eight Plays in Authoritative Modern Translations. Euripides. Bagg, Robert, translator. The Bakkhai. Applause Theatre Book Publishers. 1990. ISBN 1-55783-046-0
  6. ^ Euripides. Vellacott, Philip, translator. The Bacchae and Other Plays. Penguin Books. 1954. ISBN 0 14 044 044 5. Page 193.
  7. ^ Corrigan, Robert W. editor. Classical Tragedy Greek and Roman; Eight Plays in Authoritative Modern Translations. Euripides. Bagg, Robert, translator. The Bakkhai. Applause Theatre Book Publishers. 1990. ISBN 1-55783-046-0
  8. ^ Euripides. Slavitt, David R., editor. Bovie, Palmer, editor. Epstein, Daniel Mark, translator. Euripides, 1. University of Pennsylvania Press. 1998. ISBN 0-8122-1626-1
  9. ^ Euripides. Slavitt, David R., editor. Bovie, Palmer, editor. Epstein, Daniel Mark, translator. Euripides, 1. University of Pennsylvania Press. 1998. ISBN 0-8122-1626-1
  10. ^ Corrigan, Robert W. editor. Classical Tragedy Greek and Roman; Eight Plays in Authoritative Modern Translations. Euripides. Bagg, Robert, translator. The Bakkhai. Applause Theatre Book Publishers. 1990. ISBN 1-55783-046-0
  11. ^ Murray Gilbert. Euripides and His Age. Oxford University Press. 1965. ISBN 0-313-20989-8
  12. ^ Winnington-Ingram, R. P. Euripides and Dionysus, an Interpretation of the Bacchae. Bristol Classical Press. 1997. ISBN 1 85399 524 X
  13. ^ Euripides. Vellacott, Philip, translator. The Bacchae and Other Plays. Penguin Books. 1954. ISBN 0 14 044 044 5. Page 193.
  14. ^ Euripides. Vellacott, Philip, translator. The Bacchae and Other Plays. Penguin Books. 1954. ISBN 0 14 044 044 5. Page 198.
  15. ^ Euripides. Vellacott, Philip, translator. The Bacchae and Other Plays. Penguin Books. 1954. ISBN 0 14 044 044 5. Page 218.
  16. ^ Euripides. Ten Plays by Euripides. Trans. Moses Hadas and John Mclean. New York: Bantam Books, 1981, p.299
  17. ^ Euripides. Vellacott, Philip, translator. The Bacchae and Other Plays. Penguin Books. 1954. ISBN 0 14 044 044 5. Page 242.
  18. ^ Orton, Joe. 1976. The Complete Plays. London: Methuen. p.278. ISBN 0-413-34610-2.
  19. ^ Dionysus in '69 at the Internet Movie Database
  20. ^ "Performing the Bacchae", The Open University.
  21. ^ The Bacchae 2.1 on the web.
  22. ^ See: Rolandsson, Ottiliana, Pure Artistry: Ingmar Bergman, the Face as Portal and the Performance of the Soul, PhD dissertation, University of California, Santa Barbara, 2010; especially Chapter 4: "The Embodiment of Ritual and Myth as Text and as Performance."
  23. ^ LAweekly.com
  24. ^ Laweekly.com
  25. ^ NYPL.org
  26. ^ IMDb.com
  27. ^ IMDb.com
  28. ^ http://www.radiolistings.co.uk/programmes/d/di/dionysos.html
  29. ^ "A Greek God and His Groupies are Dressed to Kill", New York Times theater review by Charles Isherwood, July 5, 2008
  30. ^ Waterhouse, John C.G. "Baccanti, Le". Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Retrieved February 28, 2011. 
  31. ^ http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/john-buller-6157292.html
  32. ^ Taylor, Kenric. "Compositions: The Music of Gustav Holst". The Gustav Holst Website. Kenric Taylor. Retrieved March 1, 2011. 
  33. ^ Euripides. Vellacott, Phillip, translator. The Bacchae and Other Plays. Penguin Books Ltd.1979
  34. ^ Powell, Barry B. A Short Introduction to Classical Myth. Prentice Hall. 2001 ISBN 0130258393
  35. ^ Winnington-Ingram, R. P. Euripides and Dionysus, an Interpretation of the Bacchae. Bristol Classical Press. 1997. ISBN 1 85399 524 X
  36. ^ Teevan (2001, 4)
  37. ^ Scully (1987, 321)
  38. ^ Johnston (2001)
  39. ^ Morwood (2008, x-xi)
  40. ^ Norwood (1949, 317)
  41. ^ Bryn Mawr Classical Review

References[edit]

External links[edit]