Euripides was more than seventy years old and living in self-imposed exile in King Archelaus’s court in Macedonia when he created The Bacchae, just before his death in 406 B.C. The play was produced the following year at the City Dionysia in Athens, where it was awarded the prize for best tragedy. Ever since, The Bacchae has occupied a special place among Greek dramas and particularly among the eighteen surviving plays of Euripides. It was a favorite of the Romans in the centuries following the decline of the Greek Empire. It persisted through the ‘‘dark ages’’ of Medieval Europe and was among the first classical plays translated into vernacular languages during the Renaissance. Alongside Medea and Sophocles’s Oedipus the King (also known as Oedipus Rex) it is one of the most produced ancient plays of the twentieth century.
The simple plot of The Bacchae mixes history with myth to recount the story of the god Dionysus’s tumultuous arrival in Greece. As a relatively new god to the pantheon of Olympian deities, Dionysus, who represented the liberating spirit of wine and revelry and became the patron god of the theatre, was not immediately welcomed into the cities, homes, and temples of the Greeks. His early rites, originating in Thrace or Asia, included wild music and dancing, drunken orgies, and bloody sacrifice. Many sober, conservative Greeks, particularly the rulers of the many Greek city-states, feared and opposed the new religion.
Pentheus, the king of Thebes, stands as a symbol in the play for all those who opposed the cult of Dionysus and denied the erratic, emotional, uninhibited longings within all human beings. He confronts the god, faces him in a battle of wills, and is sent to his bloody death at the hands of his own mother and a frenzied band of maenads, female worshipers of the god.
In half a century of playwriting, Euripides tackled many difficult and controversial topics and often took unconventional stands, criticizing politicians, Greek society, and even the gods. The Bacchae, however, has proven frustratingly ambiguous in its treatment of gods and men. Writing the play in exile, while watching the glory of Athens disintegrate near the end of the Peloponnesian War, Euripides explores the disintegration of old systems of belief and the creation of new ones. He questions the boundaries between intellect and emotion, reality and imagination, reason and madness. At the end of it all, however, it is not quite clear whether the tragic events were meant to glorify the gods and reinforce their power and worship among the Greeks, or condemn the immortals for their fiendishness, their petty jealousies, and the myriad sufferings they inflict on humankind.