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 in Plato’s Symposium), who, no doubt amusingly for an Athenian audience, huffily refuses on the grounds that such schemes aren’t “manly” (the Greeks saw women as inherently dishonest, prone to tricks and plots). Euripides finally settles on an aged relation, a hearty type called Mnesilochus, who among other things must undergo painful depilation before the cross-dressing even begins. Still, old Mnesilochus throws himself into his “role” quite enthusiastically, admiring the yellow silks with which Euripides drapes him, fussing whether the snood they borrow from Agathon looks just right.
Thus smoothed down and dressed up, Mnesilochus successfully infiltrates the Thesmophoria. But he overplays his role. After arguing rather too loudly that Euripides’ staged women aren’t half as bad as the real thing (a claim amply borne out by the women’s actions at the festival: one young mother’s “baby” turns out to be a bulging wineskin to which booties have been attached—a poke at women’s alleged susceptibility to tippling), he arouses the suspicions of the “other” women, and is unmasked and seized.
The play now tips into full-blown literary satire, as the hapless Mnesilochus—still garbed in drag—starts spouting lines from two recent Euripidean dramas about helpless females in need of rescue: Helen and Andromeda, both produced the year before, in 412. Euripides himself now reenters the action, attempting to play the heroes of those plays—Menelaus and Perseus, respectively—but curiously the playwright himself fails to make his own “plots” (in both senses of the word) work. In the end it is only by being both “real” (Euripides promises never again to traduce the good name of Athenian women) and “fictional” (in a final noteworthy moment of transvestism, he dresses up as a procuress in order to distract an overeager policeman from punishing Mnesilochus) that the playwright secures the release of his relative. Of such compromises, as we know, happy endings are made.
We cannot know how much this blithe comic fantasy of a revenge against tragedy affected the elderly Euripides—he was likely nearing seventy when Thesmophoriazusae premiered—but it’s hard not to feel that he took no little satisfaction in the elegance of his own tragic revenge. For to Aristophanes’ parodic appropriation of Euripidean plots and themes, the comedian’s challenge to the authority and dignity of serious drama, Euripides responded with a startling appropriation of his own: he went home and rewrote the comedy as a tragedy.
That play—Bacchae—is a drama that not only takes very seriously the matter and themes of Thesmophoriazusae (religious ritual, gender confusion, cross-dressing, role-playing and theatricality, the troubling and troubled status of women) but transforms the central element of its plot—a man risking his life in order to spy on secret female rites, and dressing up as a woman in order to do so—into the occasion for a profound tragic investigation of the nature of the theater itself, with its paradoxical dynamics of illusion and reality, of true identities revealed through masks. It is in the nature of comedy to assume that parody has the last word, but in the case of Thesmophoriazusae and Bacchae, it was tragedy that laughed last.
Even a cursory survey of Bacchae ‘s themes, characters, and structure suggests how minutely Euripides studied his rival’s play, and how magnificently he transformed it. Like Thesmophoriazusae, Bacchae is preoccupied with women and their secret rites. As the play opens, we learn that the women of Thebes have come under the spell of a strange new god, Dionysus, who comes from the East—from Asia, which in the Greek imagination conveniently stood for everything un-Greek, and indeed was often identified with femininity, softness, and luxurious excess. But as it happens this foreigner, the god of the grape and of wine and of a kind of oneness with natural energies (when his female adherents celebrate him in the uncultivated spaces outside the city, the ground runs with milk and honey, and they peacefully suckle wild animals), is in fact Greek—a Theban, no less. For he is the son of Zeus and his mortal lover Semele, daughter of the Theban founder-king Cadmus, the mythic princess who was famously incinerated after asking her bedmate to reveal himself in his pure form.
And yet as Dionysus bitterly informs us in the prologue, Cadmus’ surviving daughters and his grandson, the newly installed king Pentheus, disbelieve this supernatural tale (although they are happy to promulgate it for the sake of the family’s reputation). Their cynical refusal to accept wholeheartedly the divinity of Dionysus—a major thematic concern of this darkly mystical play—is shared by the populace as a whole, and as a punishment for their failure to follow the new Dionysiac worship, the god stings the female population of Thebes with daemonic frenzy, sending them to the mountains outside of the city where they celebrate his rites at last: one sign of his immense power over humanity. (The chorus, which consists of a group of the god’s female devotees—bacchants—who have followed him to Greece from Asia, continually hymn that power.) For Dionysus’ purpose in coming home to Thebes at last, as he makes clear from the start, is to make both his family and the city recognize his identity and his power—to “see” him, as he suggestively puts it, for what he truly is.
The action of the play charts the gradual but inexorable assertion of his divine identity, culminating in his punishment not only of the stiff-necked Pentheus but of the other cynical family members, who must now accept Dionysus, just as Greece itself will have to incorporate his worship. Thus does Euripides take Aristophanes’ offhand donnée—a large crowd of women celebrating a mystic rite—and transform it into an inquiry into the nature of belief, and indeed of identity.
If the ritual and feminine milieu of Bacchae reflect the play’s Aristophanic inspiration, so too does the motif that serves, in the tragic rewriting of the comedy, as the vehicle for the two main characters’ exploration of their identities and struggles to assert their power: transvestism and gender play. The central conflict in the play is the power struggle between the young god Dionysus and the equally youthful king, Pentheus, who stands here for the city and its institutions, indeed for civilization and its achievements, in contrast to the wild, to nature. (When he talks, he tends to mention things like city walls or man-made tools—crowbars are much on his mind; by contrast, Dionysus tends to mention fields, flowers, mountain ranges.)
This conflict between civilization and the wild is assimilated, as often happens in tragedy, to a difference of sexual character. Pentheus starts out—like Mnesilochus at the beginning of Thesmophoriazusae—as a man persuaded of his own profound manliness, much given to disdainful pronouncements about women and their bad habits, their propensity to unreason and their enslavement to the senses and the emotions. Dionysus, by contrast, is represented as unsettlingly androgyne, an “effeminate stranger,” as Pentheus declares in their first encounter, with “girlish curls.”
It is specifically the aspect of Dionysiac worship that is demeaning to masculine identity that irritates Pentheus. Hence his horror when, as he enters the stage for the first time, he is confronted by the spectacle of his aged grandfather and the equally superannuated seer Teiresias, ridiculously attired in bacchic garb, wearing fawnskins and clutching the ritual staff or thyrsus—the play’s first experiment with dress-up games—ready to go to the mountains to celebrate the new god. This absurd pair rather cynically urge Pentheus at least to go through the motions of Dionysiac worship. But a superficial show of celebration is anathema to this divinity: the point of the wine god, after all, is to let him overwhelm us, to make us forget about propriety. (As the god of ecstasy—literally, of “standing outside of oneself”—it makes sense that Dionysus should preside over both drunkenness and the theater, two realms in which one becomes an “other” to oneself.) Pentheus is, anyway, intent on maintaining his integrity, in every sense of that word. Teiresias’ insistence that new and unfamiliar Dionysiac practices be incorporated, his assertion that true wisdom is precisely not to believe too rigidly in one’s own wisdom, are ignored.
Following this charged encounter, after the leader of the bacchants has been apprehended, Pentheus finally meets Dionysus face to face. (Throughout the play Dionysus appears—tellingly, in the case of a “masked god,” a deity with an interest in manipulating appearances—not as himself but as his own high priest: an arch bit of role-playing.) Their meeting, like that between Pentheus and the old men, upsets the very categories to which Pentheus has always clung, and which will disintegrate by the time this play is over. When the young king first lays eyes on his opponent he declares himself repelled, but finds himself strangely fascinated by the soft and girlish youth—just as Mnesilochus was intrigued by the fey Agathon in Thesmophoriazusae, a comic scene of gender confusion now carefully clothed in darker, tragic clothes. For Dionysus’ indeterminate gender triggers a disorientingly ambiguous response in Pentheus, and while he is quick to repress that response (“so you are attractive, stranger—at least to women…”), we feel strongly that this is just one of many repressions in the young king’s psyche, repressions that will, as he falls increasingly under his adversary’s delicate spell, explode ruinously.
And indeed, the climax of the play and of its dazzlingly complex exploration of identity and gender, truth and illusion, is a scene of transvestism framed by two quite literal explosions. After Pentheus’ first encounter with Dionysus, the king, made nervous by the soft youth’s double-talk and evasions, has the young man clapped in irons and thrown into the palace dungeon (an order that once more betrays his unconscious affinity for both tools and enclosures: he is a man addicted to forms of control and containment). But immediately afterward, a violent earthquake shakes the palace to its foundation—a manifestation of Dionysus’ power that would seem clear to all but the most narrowly rationalistic, the most foolishly “wise.”
This “palace miracle,” true to its seismological character, represents both a structural and a psychological fissure in the play. Structural, because it divides the first half of the play, in which Pentheus appears commanding and authoritative, from the second, in which he is utterly under Dionysus’ spell; and psychological, because it is only afterward that Pentheus considers Dionysus’ insidious invitation to go on a spying mission, to infiltrate the all-female ritual and finally see just what the women get up to when men aren’t present. (And not just any women but, in particular, his mother: one of many reasons that this play has had a special attraction for psychoanalytical interpreters.)
Here, at last, we start to see how Euripides is going to adapt the Aristophanic transvestite scene to awful tragic purpose. For as we know, to penetrate the bacchants’ mountain camp, Pentheus must dress up as a woman—a requirement he indignantly brushes aside, at first, as too much a slight to his manly dignity (an echo of Aristophanes’ Agathon), but to which he ultimately acquiesces. Grotesquely dressed now as a female celebrant of the god who is his mortal enemy, fussing coquettishly over the correct placement of his feminine garments—just as Mnesilochus did after a similar surrender to femininity in Thesmophoriazusae, a scene Euripides carefully replicates—he is led away, his own now-doubled nature, male/female, king/bacchant, reflected in his newfound double vision (“I seem to see two suns…two Thebes”), a double vision that is, precisely, the one that characterizes the theater, a genre that has people don masks in order to reveal truths. If the transvestism scene in Thesmophoriazusae leads to some amusingly acute observations about Euripidean tragedy, Euripides’ transformation of that scene leads inexorably to some devastatingly acute observations about theater itself.
Pentheus’ transformation from male to female (a transformation that is itself inherently “theatrical,” since of course on the Greek stage there were no actresses; putting on women’s clothing was an intrinsic aspect of normal theatrical experience) leads to the second explosion, an all too literal one. As in Thesmophoriazusae, the transvestism ploy doesn’t work, and Pentheus, like Mnesilochus, is discovered and captured by the women he has come to spy on. But this time there is no “rescue” by Euripides, no reasonable, real-life truce, no happy ending. As if to assert the extraordinary power of the tragic theater, Euripides abandons his hero, allowing Aristophanes’ scenario to be played out in the most horrible way imaginable. Pentheus is set upon by the frenzied bacchants and torn to pieces by his mother and her sisters and the others in a grotesque parody of the Dionysiac rite known as sparagmos, the ritual dismemberment of wild animals. (In a final irony of false identities, illusions, and misrecognition, the bacchant and Pentheus’ mother Agave believes him to be a wild animal that she has triumphantly, successfully hunted.)
The play’s lengthy dénouement restores “correct vision”: we see the grief-stricken old Cadmus “talking Agave down” from her frenzy, reacquainting her with “reality”: the air, bits of her personal history, the identity of the face on the head that she holds in her hands. (Much, indeed, as you’d try to shake off the spell of a particularly powerful play you’d seen.) Pentheus, for his part, lies in pieces, literally disintegrated—an appropriate punishment for someone who held self-control and “good form” in excessive regard. About one thing there is no doubt: the power and identity of Dionysus, the god who has effected these awful transformations and inversions. Not the least of these is the transformation of Aristophanes’ blithe comedy into a tragedy of awesome power.
I have rehearsed at some length the curious genesis (as I see it) of Bacchae and its idiosyncratic preoccupations and devices—its status as a literary response to another play, its special emphasis on dynamics of gender and illusion—because to my mind any successful production of this overwhelming play must find a way to deal with its unique status as a great work of the theater that is particularly concerned with how the theater works. This was the signal virtue of an often striking new production staged recently in New York City’s Central Park by JoAnne Akalaitis—a production of which the almost unanimously hostile reception by critics seems to merit a riposte of its own. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should state that Akalaitis is the head of the theater department at Bard College, where I teach as part of the humanities faculty; I can only trust that the criticisms I offer below, along with the praise, will deflect any charges of undue partiality.)
A deep sense of the play’s theatricality was, to my mind, everywhere in evidence, starting with the way Akalaitis has her Dionysus rummage through some men’s and women’s clothing on stage before the play actually begins, as if deciding which identity to don. John Conklin’s set consists of a more or less bare stage at the back of which stood a set of metal bleachers, suggestively collapsed at one end, that looked a good deal like the tiers the audience was seated on—a shrewdly effective way of underscoring this work’s particular interest in spectatorship, in the uncanny mirroring of audience and actors that has its horrifying climax in Pentheus’ death scene. (He goes to the mountains with the intention of watching a ritual, only to find himself transformed unwittingly into its chief actor. Shirley Jackson would reuse this gruesome inversion in her story “The Lottery.”)
Across the stage, from backstage to the apron (along which ran a slender channel filled with water), a deep and jagged fissure had been cut, containing some kind of liquid: a powerful visual analog to Bacchae ‘s preoccupation with subterranean phenomena both literal and metaphorical (the earthquake; Pentheus’ “breakdown” halfway through the play). At times the liquid was clear; at times—as during the brilliantly staged palace miracle—it ran hot with what looked like lava, emitting a creepy smoke. As for the lighting, by the great Jennifer Tipton, one particularly effective moment, which betrayed a meticulous sensitivity to the text, lingers in the memory: during one of the choral dances, the bacchants trailed their hands in the water that ran along the apron, and while the women’s bodies remained dark the hands were lit in such a way as to make them appear detached—a creepily effective foreshadowing, I thought, of the climactic dismemberment to come.
The costumes, too, showed that Akalaitis and her designer, Kaye Voyce, had parsed the text shrewdly. In one of the more dismissive reviews, in The New Yorker, the critic derided the chorus’s costumes—which were of a deep orangey color, and which took the form of a kind of harem pants—as looking like leftovers from the old Solid Gold show. (“Light opera in a minor key…the frolicsome blandness of a Ruritanian romance set to music”: so the New York Times critic.)
Perhaps. But Bacchae is, in fact, a show—a show in which the chorus is a major star. (And a glamorous one: the showy harem outfits reflected the drama’s overriding concern with the difference between Greek and “Eastern” culture; to the Greeks, these costumes would have looked properly “Oriental.”) Akalaitis’s special attention to the chorus was, indeed, the highlight of this production—an emphasis that, along with the director’s preoccupation with “the societal repression of women,” the Times critic found curious, but which, of course, is central to the drama. Much has been made by scholars over the years of the prominence of the chorus in this play—an oddity in late Euripides, who, it’s hard not to feel, grew increasingly impatient with this tragic convention as the years passed: in a number of works that predate Bacchae, the choruses feel parachuted in, brief and perfunctory.
In Bacchae, by contrast, the chorus is of paramount importance—a result of Euripides’ strong interest here in collective female ritual (an inheritance from Thesmophoriazusae), but also a nod to the history of tragedy itself, which, as Aristotle reminds us in the Poetics and as Euripides certainly knew, began as a ritual choral performance.
It would be difficult to think of a recent production of a Greek tragedy in which the chorus spent so much time doing, with so much musical élan and visual flair, precisely what choruses did on the classical Athenian stage: that is, sing and dance. Akalaitis commissioned from her ex-husband, Philip Glass, a full score, very much in his familiar style, that sets all of the choruses—sung here with impressive clarity; you could understand every word—and provides an effective background, sometimes agitated, sometimes eerie, for some of the dialogue, too. Many modern directors of Greek tragedy don’t like to imagine that they are putting on an all-singing, all-dancing musical, but that’s exactly what tragedy was.
Akalaitis understands that for Bacchae to work—for us to feel the force of Dionysus, even before the characters fully recognize it—the chorus must seem in thrall to the god, an extension of his eerie power. Accordingly, her chorus gave the impression of being like a pack of animals, sniffing out the commands of its leader; the women often moved unnervingly in synch with each other. There were, in particular, moments in which they reacted to events—claps of Dionysiac thunder (no production of Bacchae that I can recall made you as aware as this one did that Dionysus was bromios, a thunder-god), divine utterances—with a kind of inarticulate collective exhalation, sometimes lustful, as if in the act of love, sometimes fearful. Not quite human, but not animal, either: just right for the acolytes of a god who mediates so subtly between the natural and the civilized, the bestial and human realms.
The vivid successes of this production, which revealed a deep understanding of this extraordinarily rich text and its multilayered meanings, only pointed up more sharply certain weaknesses. One of these was the direction of the principal actors; you sometimes felt as though Akalaitis had expended herself on the chorus, and not much was left over for them. (An exception was the splendidly directed encounter between Cadmus and Teiresias, which perfectly captured an aspect of this scene that has been much commented on by scholars, and which itself reflects the play’s odd genesis: the way in which the old men’s dress-up game, their attempts at embracing bacchic abandon, stands uncomfortably at the intersection between comedy and tragedy.)
Particularly disappointing, to my mind, was the Dionysus of Jonathan Groff. The New Yorker reviewer seemed captivated by the “beauty” and “physical poetry” of this handsome young actor, but to me he came across as callow: merely “cute,” in the way teenaged girls want boys to be cute. (Groff made his name starring in Spring Awakening, the recent musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s 1906 play about lusty adolescents: a perfect part for him.) Never did you feel the mysterious and uncanny power of the god who, so strikingly in this tragedy and in no other, wears the bewitching “smiling mask.” Groff has no notion how to give shape or nuance to classical monologues or dialogue: his idea of emphasis was to shout or cackle like a mad scientist—a particularly grievous failure when playing Euripides’ Dionysus, whose unsettling “quiet” and refusal to be “touched to anger” are repeatedly emphasized in the text. His performance was a black hole at the center of a play whose protagonist should be alluringly mysterious rather than adolescently vacant.
His counterpart, Anthony Mackie, clearly has more resources as an actor, but he had nothing to play against; uncomfortably clad in a business suit, as if being King Pentheus were like being a CEO, he looked a little lost. Mackie is black, and the New Yorker critic, who took offense at the way, in his eyes, the transvestism scene consequently smacked of “minstrelsy,” suggested that the casting was racist. But this line of criticism ignores the demands of the text—it would leave no room for anything but an all-white cast. Had Mackie been cast as Dionysus, the libidinous cultural “other”—once a favored choice in Bacchae productions—you could have made the same accusation, with perhaps more reason.
Akalaitis did try some interesting things in the two important scenes between the two characters, notably a screwball-comedy pacing in their first encounter—an experiment, I suspect, in trying to find a way to do stichomythia, the rapid-fire exchanges characteristic of tragedy. But the scene came off simply as jokey, and the odd energies, the submerged erotic tensions and gender confusion, evaporated. The same mistake fatally deflated the climactic moment in which, in response to Dionysus’ offer to let Pentheus view the maenads’ secret ceremonies, Pentheus at last caves in and gives way to his inner desires. In this production, it all happened too fast: Dionysus offered, Pentheus immediately accepted, and that was that. You had no sense that this moment was the culmination of a process that had been simmering away from the beginning of the play.
Only one actor was really memorable: Rocco Sisto as the messenger, who delivers the harrowing account of Pentheus’ death. (Joan MacIntosh made a noble effort as Agave, but had to compete with another striking Akalaitis coup de théâtre: the shockingly real-looking dismembered remains of her character’s son, lying wetly, heavily, in a sack downstage center.) Sisto got every shade, every coloring of this long and fearsome speech, working through the narrative with admirable agility, shaping it expertly as it reached its awful end.
On the night I saw this Bacchae, a commotion broke out in the audience just as Sisto hit the climax of his speech—the description of how the maddened Agave tears her son’s arm from his body, the beginning of the sparagmos—and his performance was so powerful that I assumed that the agitated spectators were reacting to Euripides’ text. Only after we were leaving our seats did we learn that a raccoon—there are, apparently, a lot of them in that part of the park—had got loose in the bleachers. That seemed a nicely appropriate meeting of the text and the world beyond. Bacchae, after all, should leave you feeling a little uneasy about what can happen when the wild things get into the city and run amok in its civilized spaces.
October 22, 2009
Thus the classicist Froma Zeitlin in her essay “Playing the Other: Theater, Theatricality, and the Feminine in Greek Drama,” now collected in Playing the Other: Gender and Society in Classical Greek Literature (University of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 341. ↩