“The Bacchae” by Euripides

When Tom from the Wuthering Expectations blog suggested at the start of this year that we read through all the surviving plays from ancient Athens, one a week, and blog about them, I was enthusiastic, despite my diffidence about writing on matters I knew little of. And, for a while, I kept at it, as some of my posts from earlier this year testify. But, after a while, the vicissitudes of real life intervened, and, while I continued to read Tom’s posts, I felt unable to give the project the time it ideally required. However, now that this mammoth project is nearing its end, it seemed a good idea to rejoin and add my comments, such as they are, on the two works that may with justice be described as the culminating point of this extraordinary sequence of plays: The Bacchae by Euripides, and Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles – the former perhaps the darkest and grimmest of all these plays, and the latter the most luminous. Given my conspicuous lack of classical scholarship, I remain, as ever, unqualified to write about these plays – especially two plays as enigmatic as these – but I have convinced myself that even an articulation of my incomprehension and of my bewilderment may not be entirely without interest. So with that in mind, let us proceed.

All excerpts quoted taken from the prose translation by John Davie, published by Penguin Classics.

With most other Greek dramas, I could, I think, provide in a few sentences a rough overview of what the play is about. I don’t merely mean that I could summarise the plot: I mean that I could convey some idea, at least, of the themes the dramatist addresses, of the way in which these themes are presented, and, perhaps, something of the effect it has on the audience (or readers). With The Bacchae, I am unable to do even this. The plot is simple enough: the god Dionysus comes with his followers – the Bacchae of the title – to Thebes, to mete out punishment to this city that refuses to acknowledge his divinity. He makes his intentions abundantly clear in his long introductory speech. And in the rest of the play, we see him do what he has told us he will do: the dramatic tension comes not from whether he will carry out his intention – this god, at least, does not waver – but from how he does it. And how he does it is grotesque: it is possibly the grimmest, the most horrible scene even in Greek tragedy, which is not known for avoidance of grimness. But all this is mere plot; what I find more puzzling is what we are to make of it all.

So what are we to make of it all? We cannot just follow the plot – which is easy enough to do – and leave it there: something such as this cries out for interpretation. And yet, at the same time, it appears to reject any attempt at interpretation, as there is no interpretation that seems commensurate with the intensity of what we experience when we read or see it. We may view it, if we wish, as a pious drama warning us to revere the gods; or we may see it as an impious drama, depicting the merciless cruelty of the gods; or we may see the gods as purely metaphorical, and see it as a warning of the dangers of refusing the recognise the importance of the irrational in our mental make-up. Or we may see it as a sort of meta-theatre, a meditation on nature of drama, and of artistic creation. It can be any or all of these things, but they all seem to fall short, far too short, of the terror it communicates.

But terror of what? Of whom? Who, for that matter, is the tragic protagonist? Usually, in a tragic drama, the tragic protagonist is a central character who meets the tragic fate – Oedipus, say, or Hamlet, or Hedda Gabler. But the central character here is the god Dionysus: it is he who dominates the drama, from the long opening speech to the finale, in which, utterly unmoved by the savage terror he has already unleashed, he continues remorselessly to heap further punishment on his victims. Dionysus may be the central character, and, hence, the protagonist, but he is hardly tragic. So perhaps the tragic protagonist is Pentheus. It is he, after all, who undergoes the peripeteia that Aristotle felt the tragic protagonist should undergo – that reversal of fortune from a position of greatness to calamity. But here, too, we draw a blank: Pentheus simply cannot command the stage at any point, not even when he is exerting his royal power: his is too weak a dramatic presence, and he is certainly no match for Dionysus, who is more powerful and more masterful at each stage of the drama. As for the others who are made to suffer – Agaue, Cadmus – these are effectively subsidiary characters: their part is simply to suffer the god’s hostility, despite their being devotees of this same god’s cult. A god who has been defied – and there can be no greater defiance of a god than a refusal to accept his divinity – is merciless when meting out punishment, not merely to the defier, but to the defier’s entire family. No god, after all, can bear to have his divinity questioned.

Of course, the theme of a god punishing mortals is a common one in Greek mythology, and has been dramatised often enough, especially by Euripides himself in his earlier dramas. Sometimes, as in Heracles, we aren’t even told why the god is punishing: enough that the god dislikes a mortal, for whatever reason. But The Bacchae is the only instance I know where it’s not the punished mortal who is at the centre of the drama, but the punishing god.

Dionysus – Bacchus, whatever we want to call him – is a strange god. As god of wine, he presides over celebration, over pleasure, over joy; but also over intoxication, and while this intoxication can lead to inspiration, it can easily slip over into delusion, into madness. As he says of himself:

… Dionysus, son of Zeus, is by turns a god most terrible and most gracious to mankind.

It is the terrible aspect of his double-edged nature that we see here. He carries out in the course of the play what he has said he will at the start: he punishes the entire house of Pentheus, the king of Thebes who refuses to accept his divinity. And he does this not merely with an implacable and remorseless sense of purpose, but also – as far as I can judge from the translations I have read – without any passion: throughout, he is calm and collected, and quite unruffled: if Pentheus’ lack of belief has angered him, he doesn’t show it. Everything he does, he does in cold blood, displaying neither anger, nor even triumph or revulsion once the terrible punishment has been meted out.

This god, inhuman in his single-mindedness, is pitted against an all too mortal Pentheus. When he first appears, he is full of bluster, confident in his temporal powers:

They say that some foreigner has arrived from the land of Lydia, a wizard conjurer, with fragrant golden curls and the flush of wine in his complexion. … If I catch him inside the borders of this land, I’ll cut his head off his shoulders, and put a stop to his making his thyrsus ring and shaking his locks.

The first confrontation between the two, in which the possessor of temporal power questions the divinity of his prisoner, certainly has resonances of Christianity for the modern viewer, but the Greek view of divinity was startlingly different from the Christian: self-sacrifice is the last thing on this god’s mind. The dramatic problem that Euripides faced here was that, given the different natures of the two protagonists, the outcome is a foregone conclusion; and hence, there can be no drama, as such. However, there’s more to this than simply a powerful god running rings around a powerless mortal: the means Dionysus uses to bring about Pentheus’ downfall are rooted in Pentheus’ character:

Dionysus: Do you want to see them, huddled together there on the mountain slopes?

Pentheus: Oh yes! I’d give a treasure of gold for that!

Pentheus has perhaps given away too much of himself here, and tries to backtrack almost immediately by saying that he wouldn’t want to see them drunk. But Dionysus knows he is on the right track:

Dionysus: And yet you’d enjoy looking at something that distressed you?

Pentheus can’t deny it:

Pentheus: Certainly I would, but privately, sitting under the firs.

It is Pentheus’ prurience, his voyeurism, his desire to see for himself the sexual activities he is convinced the devotees of the cult indulge in, that make him easy prey. Dionysus merely leads him in the direction he was inclined to follow in the first place.

Dionysus goes further, and persuades Pentheus – who had, at his first appearance, been so full of macho swagger – to dress as a woman, so he could blend in with the other members of the Dionysian cult. The reference here is clearly to Aristophanes’ play Women of Thesmophoria (a play in which Euripides himself appears as a character), in which a man dresses as a woman in order to infiltrate an all-female society; but where the effect there had been comic, here, it is grotesque. It is quite common for comedies to appropriate elements of tragic drama, and then to parody the tragic by depicting these borrowed elements in an absurd manner; but here, Euripides reverses the process: he borrows from a comedy to add to his tragedy an extra layer of horror. Pentheus, dressed absurdly as a woman, follows his own prurient inclinations towards his own grisly death. Dionysus merely helped facilitate the process.

What happens next is well-known: Agaue, Pentheus’ own mother and an enthusiastic follower of the cult of Dionysus, is made to believe by Dionysus that her son Pentheus is a wild beast, and, in her delusion, and with her intoxicated, god-given strength, she tears her son apart, limb from limb. Euripides spares us nothing. The scene where the bloodied mother enters, triumphant, holding her son’s decapitated head in her hand, thinking it to be the head of a lion, shocks even when read in the comfort of one’s library.

Stage directions have not survived, but it is clear from the dialogue that the rest of Pentheus’ dismembered corpse is also brought on stage. We may but conjecture how this would have been staged in Euripides’ own time, but however it is staged, the effect is horrible beyond words.

Dionysus appears again, this time not bothering to hide who he is: his aim has been achieved. And Pentheus is not the only one punished: his mother, like Heracles in Euripides’ earlier play, must live not only with the death of her son, but with the awareness that it is she who had killed him. And even now, Dionysus isn’t finished: he inflicts further punishment upon Agaue and on Cadmus, despite them both being devotees: he condemns them to spend the rest of their lives as snakes. They are Pentheus’ family, and for a god, this is crime enough.

What is one to make of all this? That it is gripping and compelling, that it resonates powerfully in the mind, hardly need saying; but none of this answers my question “What does it all mean?” Why does it grip so compellingly, and resonate so powerfully? That I cannot answer: it is, perhaps, a question not even to be asked.

In one sense, Euripides is contemplating the nature of his art. Drama, after all, was part of a festival dedicated to Dionysus: Dionysus was, in effect, the god of drama itself. And here, he is presented from the start as the dramatist: it is he who devises the drama, he who develops it and moves it forward right to its bloody climax and beyond; and in encouraging Pentheus to dress as a woman, he even becomes a costume designer of sorts. And, in his role as tragic dramatist, he asks Pentheus that question that has bedevilled us for centuries: Why should we enjoy seeing that which is distressing?

And yet you’d enjoy looking at something that distressed you?

Pentheus’ answer is the answer of all who have ever been drawn to tragic drama:

Certainly I would, but privately, sitting under the firs.

Yes, we would enjoy seeing it, but from a safe distance. This issue is played out on stage in this play in a dialogue between an actor playing Dionysus, and an actor playing Pentheus, but it dramatises a conversation that has been continuing ever since – between the tragic dramatist and the audience, neither of whom truly understands, nor even will understand, just what it is about tragedy that compels us so.

All of this takes us towards what we may call “meta-theatre”. It is a kind of interpretative approach I usually avoid, as anything that refers back to itself usually invites us to take a step back from that self in order to engage in contemplation; and in taking that step back, we inevitably lose something of the immediacy of the thing. But, for reasons beyond my analytic abilities, that doesn’t happen here: we are invited to contemplate why tragedy affects us so, while simultaneously being affected in the strongest possible manner. As with so many other things in this elusive and mysterious play, I have no idea how Euripides pulled it off. It is a work that poses far more questions that could ever, I think, be answered.

[For the post on The Bacchae on the Wuthering Expectations blog, see here.]

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Robert Bowden on October 24, 2022 at 9:33 am

    And now we sit under the firs (on the couch) watching Scandi noir where e.g. The Bridge a naked corpse appears split in two in episode one. French noir e.g. Spiral where there is an unending stream of corpses, breasts hacked off English noir e.g. Luther with a psychotic drinking blood, licking the face of one of his victims before slaughtering her. The reasons behind why we watch are as relevant as they were all those years ago. We (I) go to Lear time and time again to see Gloucester blinded, Edward II assassinated (that word in this context has appalling resonance), John Proctor led away to be hanged.


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