Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1106

While the original productions of classical Greek tragedies were not reviewed for potential audiences the way theatrical performances are today, some measure of their critical success may be determined by the awards they received (or did not receive) during the festivals at which they were produced, and by the subsequent number of times the plays were revived over the years.

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Euripides spent most of his playwriting career pursuing the elusive top prize at the City Dionysia, Athens’s famous annual festival honoring Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and revelry. While Aeschylus, Sophocles, and dozens of other tragedians whose work has not even survived the ages received many honors and a great deal of popular acclaim, Euripides took only four first prizes during his lifetime and, as often as not, his plays came in last. Whether it was his own death in 406 B.C. or the radical departure in subject matter from his earlier plays, he achieved a new level of fame and appreciation by the time The Bacchae was produced in Athens in 405 B.C. The avant-garde playwright was posthumously awarded the top prize for that year’s festival.

Scattered references to the play suggest that it was revived continuously on Athens’s stages for the next hundred years and that it continued its popularity during the period of the Roman Empire, when it was translated into Latin and performed across Italy. There is evidence that the work was familiar to Horace, Virgil, and Ovid. During the Middle Ages, it is commonly known, Euripides received more attention than either Aeschylus or Sophocles as a first-rate tragedian and brilliant writer of spoken Greek. The Bacchae and other plays by Euripides were among the first to be translated into Latin prose and Italian during the Renaissance and seventeenth and eighteenth century writers from Milton to Goethe praised the play’s singular purpose and intense depiction of man’s conflict with his god.

In the modern era, criticism of The Bacchae has largely been divided between scholarly commentary on the text and history of the play and popular reviews of occasional performances. In Dramatic Lectures, a collection of his scholarly analyses of dramatists and their plays, the nineteenth century German critic August W. Schlegel wrote, ‘‘In the composition of this piece, I cannot help admiring a harmony and unity, which we seldom meet with in Euripides, as well as abstinence from every foreign matter, so that all the motives and effects flow from one source, and concur towards a common end. After the Hippolytus, I should be inclined to assign to this play the first place among all the extant works of Euripides.’’

In his autobiographical Life of Macaulay, the famous English historian G. M. Trevelyan praised Euripides, writing, ’’The Bacchae is a glorious play. I doubt whether it be not superior to the Medea, it is often very obscure; and I am not sure that I fully understand its general scope. But, as a piece of language, it is hardly equaled in the world. And, whether it was intended to encourage or to discourage fanaticism, the picture of fanatical excitement which it exhibits has never been rivaled.’’

Twentieth century productions of The Bacchae are not as common as stagings of Euripides’s other masterpiece, Medea, and they tend to meet with mixed or unfavorable reaction. In his review of Michael Cacoyannis’s adaptation of the play, which Cacoyannis himself directed for Broadway in 1980, New York magazine critic John Simon wrote, ‘‘There is serious doubt in my mind about whether Greek drama can be performed today.’’ Simon complained about the artificial, melodramatic qualities of classical tragedies, Cacoyannis’s translation of the play, which he deemed embarrassing and accidentally comic, and the problems inherent in staging plays that were originally meant to be performed in enormous outdoor amphitheatres before crowds of several thousand.

In his review of the same production for Newsweek magazine, critic Jack Kroll observed that mounting modern productions of classical tragedies is a difficult feat, requiring immense creativity and, often, radical reinterpretation for contemporary audiences. ‘‘Euripides’s The Bacchae is a stupendous, searing play,’’ Kroll noted, ‘‘but like most productions of Greek tragedy, Michael Cacoyannis’s staging at Broadway’s Circle in the Square can’t really break through the centuries-old crust to the whitehot life beneath. Directors have gone to great lengths to solve this problem. In America, Peter Arnott used marionettes instead of actors. In Italy, Luca Ronconi used one actress . . . to speak the entire play as the audience moved with her through a series of rooms and spaces. In Germany, Klaus Michael Gruber used nudity, horses, glass walls and 100,000 watts of neon lights.’’

In the Nation, reviewer Julius Novick echoed Kroll’s comments, and asked, ‘‘Am I alone in having difficulty with the elaborate passages of woe in which the Greek and Elizabethan tragic playwrights so frequently indulged themselves? If my sensibilities are typical at all, modern audiences are conditioned to be moved obliquely, by irony, or poignant understatement, rather than by lines like ‘O Misery! O grief beyond all measure!’’’

At least part of the reason The Bacchae has been applauded as a literary text and dismissed in performance during the twentieth century may lie in Greek tragedy’s original purpose: religious ritual. Several critics have observed that, since modern audiences do not feel the same ritual impulses as the ancient Greeks, their plays do not have the same effect on us in performance. In 1969, the avantgarde theatre producer Richard Schechner assembled a group of performers and created a modern version of The Bacchae they called Dionysus in 69. In his collection of criticism called God on the Gymnasium Floor, Walter Kerr explained his objections to the production this way:

Mr. Schechner has gone all the way back—as far as our literary history permits—in his search for a religious impulse capable of breeding a fresh form of drama. He really does wish us to act on the impulse he has attempted to borrow: to get up from our places on the floor and to enter, to feel, the interior Dionysiac pressure toward abandon that the Greeks felt and that exists as a record in Euripides’s play. We do not in fact feel this specific religious impulse today, however; we do not bring it into the theatre with us as a deposit or guarantee. The specific religious impulse is dead. It has been dead for a very long time. Because it is dead, the gesture dependent upon it must, for the most part, be empty, effortful, artificial. We can try to let ourselves go, but there is nothing genuine pushing us.

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