Whatever else it may be—a stark symbolic drama about the conflict between nature and culture; a startlingly prescient “psychoanalytical” exploration of the dynamics of sexuality and repression; an eerie mystery-play celebrating the obscure power of divinity; or, simply, the work that offers the greatest single “specimen of sheer theatrical power” that the Athenian stage bequeathed to us—Euripides’ Bacchae is surely the cleverest literary riposte in history. It was first presented in 405 BC, one year after the dramatist’s death in Macedon, the wild northern kingdom to which he had traveled at the invitation of that realm’s culture-vulture king, gladly abandoning Athens during the final, bitterest, most disillusioning years of the Peloponnesian War. Those circumstances no doubt help to explain the work’s ostensible distrust of cities and a narrowly conceived “civilization,” here personified by the Theban king, Pentheus, with his macho swagger and obsession with control; and its apparent embrace of the sauvage, embodied by the king’s inscrutable but implacable adversary, Dionysus, the god of wine and mystic ecstasy, whose return to Thebes, the city of his birth, is in every way a return of the repressed.
But you can’t help suspecting that the idea for Bacchae germinated in the spring of 411, when the great comic playwright Aristophanes produced a frothy concoction with the tongue-twisting title of Thesmophoriazusae—“women celebrating the Thesmophoria.” The proper noun refers to an annual all-female festival in honor of the fertility goddess Demeter, but the comedy’s overriding concern may be said to be another deity altogether: Dionysus, god of the theater. For the play is really a gleeful send-up of Euripides and his work, and the women Aristophanes is concerned with aren’t so much the real women of contemporary Athens—the festival is just a dramatic convenience, an easy way of getting lots of females on stage—as the dazzling array of tormented female characters that Euripides famously put on the Athenian stage.
Or rather, its concern is a fraught but highly suggestive competition between the real and the fictional women. As Thesmophoriazusae opens, Euripides has just learned that the women of Athens, incensed at his penchant for portraying “bad” women such as Phaedra and Medea, are using the seclusion afforded by the festival to plot a terrible punishment for him. In response, he devises (as what playwright would not?) an ingenious plot of his own: he’ll get a friend to dress up as a woman and infiltrate the festival, spying on the unsuspecting celebrants and speaking up for the dramatist at the opportune moment. This plot inevitably generates lots of jokes about gender, sexuality, and masculinity—always of great concern to the male Athenian audiences of both comedy and tragedy.
Euripides first approaches the notoriously effeminate tragedian Agathon (a memorably fey character …