The Bacchae: Ecstasy & Terror

Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth/Art Resource
‘The death of Pentheus’; detail of a red-figure cup by the Athenian painter Douris, circa 480 BC

In the spring of 411 BC, the comic playwright Aristophanes presented to the citizens of Athens a new work, Thesmophoriazousae, lampooning the tragedian Euripides. The tongue-twisting title of the play means “Women Celebrating the Thesmophoria,” a reference to an annual all-female rite held in honor of the fertility goddess Demeter. The ritual setting was crucial to the plot: in the play, the women of Athens, long irritated by Euripides’ penchant for putting oversexed and murderous heroines (Phaedra, Medea) onstage, take advantage of the seclusion offered by the Demeter festival to plot their revenge. An anxious Euripides, having got wind of their scheme, persuades an elderly relative, Mnesilochus, to dress up as a woman, sneak into the rite, and spy on the proceedings. But the old man is found out, and as the play reaches its farcical climax Euripides himself appears and attempts to rescue poor Mnesilochus. (As he does so, both men quote passages from various Euripidean dramas in which heroes fly to the rescue of helpless females.) The play ends in rejoicing, as Euripides vows never again to insult the women of Athens in his work.

Ancient biographers assert that not long after Thesmophoriazousae premiered, Euripides left the city of his birth for good, having accepted an invitation by the king of Macedon, a realm occupying the remote northern wilds of the Balkan peninsula, to adorn his court as a kind of writer-in-residence. There is little reason to believe that the playwright’s abandonment of the most civilized city in Greece for a remote cultural backwater was in any way connected to the comic drubbing he had received at Aristophanes’ hands. Some scholars believe that Euripides had become disgusted by Athens’s political and moral descent during the Peloponnesian War.

And yet it is hard to resist the thought that Aristophanes’ comedy had planted a creative seed in the mind of the great tragedian. A couple of years after arriving in the Macedon, Euripides died, in his mid-seventies; the following year, in 405 BC, his final work for the stage, Bacchae (Bacchantes) was produced in Athens. At the climax of that drama—which oscillates disturbingly between black humor and deepest horror, between the city and the untamed wilds beyond—a man possessed by curiosity about what certain women are doing during the celebration of an all-female rite dresses up as a woman in order to spy on them. But this time there is no rescue, no rejoicing. At least, not for the characters: for Euripides it won a posthumous first prize at that year’s annual dramatic competition, an accolade that had so often eluded the irreligious and daringly experimental playwright during his lifetime. Within the year his great rival, Sophocles, was dead, too, and soon after tragedy itself seemed…

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