Euripides' Bacchae

I've probably seen more productions of this play than any other Greek tragedy: and none has so far hit the spot! I remember a Bradfield College production which did amazing things with a blond wig (it started off as Dionysus' curls and ended up as Agauë's trophy: a tropos indeed). And I was there on the opening (and as it turned out also closing) night of the legendary Kings College London production in the mid 80s. Pentheus had not learned his lines, and was made to mime the role while the words were read backstage by an academic in a featureless monotone. The Maenads were symbolised by a single plump dancer, who suggested a post-Christmas aerobics class rather than the abandoned passion of the east. I seem to remember the scenery collapsing rather more effectively than intended in the earthquake scene, and the audience gradually warming to the comedic possibilities, despite being shushed by theatre staff. Being reminded that it was a tragedy only encouraged the laughter, which was in some cases had become hysterical by the interval.

Other productions have failed by blatant populism and striving for relevance. It's not really a play about rock 'n' roll, or Fascism, or Communism, or Ireland, or Iraq. As I have never had the opportunity, or the guts, to mount a production (I have done a number of "difficult" dramas though: Ted Hughes' Oedipus, Flecker's Hassan, Titus Andronicus, Doctor Faustus, Kopit's Indians among others) here are some of the things I'd have liked to see:

To paraphrase Neo in the Matrix "I want drums, lots of drums". In Indians I collected dozens of drums of every kind available, which were played live on stage: no complicated rhythms, just a steady 4/4 with an occasional extra emphasis, aiming at an effect like that of the Kraut rock band Faust in their "Rainy Day, Sunshine Girl" . Perhaps use tablas or African talking drums. I'm thinking, too, of a performance by the Afro-Celt Sound System at Glastonbury in 1999.


The play is serious about religion - I don't go along with the simplistic view that Euripides is trying to anticipate Lucretius, showing "tantum pouit religio suadere malorum". Tiresias and Cadmus are often played for laughs (in the Kings production, they were old men dressing up as teenagers in jeans and cheesecloth, harking back to trends of the 70s - hippies, Woodstock, Haight Ashbury etc). But the Bacchic gear is not a fashion statement: each man has his coherent view of what religion is. They are like Polemarchus and Thrasymachus in Plato's Republic Book 1, setting out the popular ("Daily Mail") view, which will soon be shown to be dangerously superficial. For Tiresias, as for many clergy today, religion is, for him personally, essentially a business, a career. He's spent a long lifetime in the service of Apollo. For Tiresias, belief is less important than "belonging" to something important, something which gives his life significance, (the very argument that I found in a pamphlet I picked up on a recent visit to a church in the City of London). Even if his belief has grown shaky, he could not bear to contemplate that his entire life has been devoted to a useless cause.

Cadmus reminds me of a well-heeled member of what has been called "the Tory Party at prayer": concerned with being seen to carry out the correct responses, and rather excited by the idea that a member of his family is someone "special". His family is like one of those old English families where the first son traditionally went into the army, the second into the church. But without him and his genuine support, there would be no Church of England. I conclude that conventional religion in Athens had, in Euripides' eyes, perhaps reached that stage of unexamined comfort with which we are familiar: an institution ripe for revolution (trendy prayer books, rocking in the aisles and peace signs), or scrapping in favour of something more dangerous (fundamentalism? It's a process which happened before to Christianity, in the Reformation, the Free Church movements and so on). But I believe we are intended to respect the efforts of these two old men, not to laugh at them. They are simply trying to integrate the new idea with the old comfortable ones. This will later be shown to be impossible - but for the moment, the audience goes along with them. If we laugh, we align ourselves - at this point - with Pentheus: surely not. Euripides is up to his usual trick, just as he does in Medea and other tragedies, of luring our sympathies towards a cause which we shall be ashamed of ourselves for doing by the end of the play. And yet our sympathies were genuine: we admired Medea, and took her side against Jason - and we end up backing a child-murderer. Maybe we started off backing an Iraq war, and ended up ashamed of what was done in our name. Euripides understood perfectly how to mess with our minds. It's also important that we remain sympathetic to him, so that we can share his suffering at the end of the play.

All Greek gods had a dual nature - they could kill as well as cure; we need look no further than another play by Euripides: Artemis and Aphrodite in Hippolytus, or than to Apollo the Healer causing the plague at the beginning of the Iliad. The herdsman, having witnessed the two sides of Bacchic possession takes this for proof that Dionysus is a true god.

Pentheus must not be dismissed as a narrow-minded bigot. He is a typical sophist-educated 5th century Athenian, a scientific rationalist in the tradition of Anaxagoras, allegedly prosecuted for teaching that the moon was merely a rock, likewise the sun ("probably about the size of the Peloponnesus"). He's not dissimilar from a younger Euripides himself. I'd want him to be a sympathetic character - he's no pervert: an ordinary Greek male, with normal views: not unlike Creon at the beginning of Antigone. A man new to command, who wants to give a good impression with firm leadership. He makes a mistake, and suffers terribly as a consequence.

The quiet scene at the end between Agauë and Cadmus is really important: two mortals trying to salvage some dignity from the wreckage of their lives. They despair of finding meaning! In order to ensure this scene has its proper impact, I would resist the urge to make Agauë too "frenzied and panting" (Vellacott) on her entry. She has a triumphant dignity perhaps - a general on his victory parade (Margaret Thatcher after the Falklands?).

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