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Pentheus’s palace. Home of the Theban ruler Pentheus, Dionysus’s cousin, in front of which the action of Euripides’ play takes place. The palace represents the social structure of Thebes and the power of its king. For this reason the god drives the women of Thebes, who had refused to accept Pentheus willingly, away from the palace. The women worship him in the countryside, that is, beyond the boundary of Thebes. This place provides a way for Aeschylus’s Greek audiences to connect with the plot of this exotic play. When Dionysus is captured and brought before the palace, Pentheus questions his divinity and imprisons him in the palace as a fraud. In retaliation, Dionysus demonstrates his power and divinity by destroying the palace and driving Pentheus insane. The destruction of the palace illustrates the ability of the god to dominate human civilization in general and Theban society in particular. The tension between the worlds of Pentheus and Dionysus is further emphasized by the place of Pentheus’s death, which occurs offstage. Savagely torn apart by the women of Thebes, including his own mother, the king dies not in his city but in Dionysus’s realm, the countryside.
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Greece in the 5th century B.C. was a collection of many small, independent city-states, each called a ‘‘polis.’’ While these tribal communities would occasionally band together in a common cause, as the Athenians and Spartans did to overthrow Persian control of Greek colonies early in the century, they remained, for the most part, separate, autonomous entities, constantly suspicious of each other and forever questing for greater wealth and control in the realm.
The 5th century B.C. has been called the ‘‘Golden Age’’ of Greece, and for most of the era, the polis of Athens was the centerpiece of a burgeoning culture that has left an indelible imprint on more than two thousand years of science, religion, philosophy, and the arts. Golden Age Athens produced the philosopher Socrates and his pupil, Plato. Phidias, the famous sculptor, lived in the same community as the great dramatists Sophocles and Euripides. Pythagoras, Protagoras, and Herodotus, some of the greatest scientists and thinkers of all time, lived in the shadow of the famous Parthenon, perched atop the city’s Acropolis.
Politically, Athens accomplished what has been called the world’s first democracy nearly 2,500 years ago. Beginning with the ‘‘tyrannos,’’ or popular leader Pisistratus, who fought against aristocratic power in the 6th century B.C., Athens was led by a series of governors who included its citizens in the creation and enforcement of its laws, even though those citizens did not include women, foreigners, or slaves, which the Athenians took from various wars and kept as household servants and tutors for their children. The democratic system established by the Athenians divided the society into ten tribes, each of which provided fifty men for the city’s ‘‘boule,’’ a legislative body that was on duty year round, night and day, with each tribe on duty for thirty-six days at a stretch, working three daily shifts. Additionally, all eligible Athenians were expected to participate in the ‘‘ekklesia,’’ a meeting of at least 6,000 citizens held about every nine days, during which the entire city would debate issues raised by the boule.
Between them, the boule and the ekklesia created laws, empowered a police force, established a law court, the Helaia, and developed a trial by jury system. Interested as they were in fair, impartial decisions, the Athenians demanded a minimum jury size of 201 citizens, with larger juries of 501, or even 1001 or 2001 not uncommon.
As presented in The Bacchae, ancient Greek religion was ‘‘polytheistic.’’ The Greeks believed in a ‘‘pantheon’’ of twelve main gods, along with a host of lesser deities, heroes, and local, household gods. Each of the gods represented a different facet of human knowledge and experience, though they were recognized as something superior, or at least different from, earthly mortals. Stories about the gods often depict them interfering in human affairs, though no god was ultimately viewed as entirely good or entirely bad. Each was capable of helping, or harming, humans.
Religious ritual was extremely important in the daily lives of the Greeks. Their cities were often set up around the various temples to Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Apollo, and the other immortals who were thought to live atop Mount Olympus; many days in the Greek calendar were set aside for the worship of these gods, which included prayer, sacri- fice, and divination.
Greek theatre emerged from the worship of one of the minor gods, Dionysus, who was thought to be the son of Zeus and Semele, a mortal, and was associated with wine, fertility, and celebration. Although Dionysus had been worshiped in Thrace and Asia Minor since at least 700 B.C., it wasn’t until the 6th century B.C. that his cult reached into Athens. Worshiping Dionysus involved the sacri- fice of animals and feasts, accompanied by wine drinking, dancing, and singing dithyrambs, ritual hymns honoring the god. Eventually, a contest for dancing and dithyramb singing evolved among the tribes of Athens and from this singing and dancing, it is believed, drama developed. The first contest for tragedies was held in Athens at the City Dionysia, an entire festival honoring Dionysus, in 534 B.C. During the next hundred years, through the playwriting careers of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, the great stone amphitheatres of Greece, some seating as many as 17,000 people, were built and production practices involving costuming, masks, and machinery evolved.
Throughout its Golden Age, Athens’s great rival was Sparta. While Athens assembled a confederacy of city-states in the North through peaceful agreements and trade negotiations, Sparta, known primarily for its military might, built a minor empire to the South out of smaller territories it conquered. While the two rivals found a common interest in defeating the Persians early in the 5th century B.C., old jealousies and new affronts stirred renewed animosity and led to the Peloponnesian War. This terrible series of battles between Spartan and Athenian forces lasted from 431 to 404 B.C., eventually destroying Athens and elevating Sparta to supremacy in mainland Greece. At the end of the war, to avoid having all their soldiers killed and their women and children sold into slavery, the Athenians agreed to Spartan terms of peace, which included government of Athens by thirty pro-Spartan aristocrats, who became known as the Thirty Tyrants. Athens’s democracy was dead, and though it would struggle to its feet again in the fourth century, the glory of Greece belonged next to the Thebans, the Macedonians, and, finally, the Romans.
It was in the historical context of Athens’s decline, just before its defeat at the hands of the Spartans, that Euripides chose to leave the city he had called home for so many years and journey into self-imposed exile to King Archelaus’s court in Macedonia. There, he wrote The Bacchae and, according to popular account, was accidentally killed by the king’s hunting dogs while walking in the woods—just two years before the fall of Athens.
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Climactic Plot Construction
Classical Greek tragedians were the creators of climactic plot construction, a form of playwriting that condenses the action of the story into the final hours or moments of the protagonist’s struggle and places the most emphasis on the play’s climax. This is quite different from an episodic plot, such as those created by Shakespeare or those used by most modern films, in which the protagonist, or hero, of the story encounters many harrowing episodes in a story that may take place across many days, months, or even years. Aristotle recognized the appeal of climactic plots in his Poetics when he suggested that ‘‘beauty depends on magnitude and order.’’ In the case of a climactic plot such as The Bacchae, magnitude and order emerge from the simple structure of the plot: One man struggles against one overwhelming force, a god, and is defeated in the course of a single day.
In a climactic plot, the ‘‘point of attack,’’ or starting point, of the play is relatively late in the entire story, requiring a great deal of exposition up front. In other words, a number of things have already occurred to propel the action to the point it is at when the play begins and all that is left is for the protagonist to make the fatal error that plunges him into tragedy. In The Bacchae, for example, Dionysus presents a prologue at the beginning of the play that sums up what has already taken place: He has been to Asia and successfully started his cult of worship there and now has returned to Greece to offer his homeland the rewards of his divinity. He has learned, however, that his own mother’s sisters have denied his origins, and King Pentheus refuses to worship him. In retaliation, he has already driven the women mad and sent them into the hills. Almost immediately, Pentheus returns from abroad to confront the new menace, and the play’s struggle begins in earnest. A few hours later, the battle has ended and, through his pride, Pentheus has suffered a grisly death.
One interesting convention of the Greek stage required playwrights to carefully structure their tragedies in short, distinct episodes and forced actors to be extremely versatile in approaching their parts. When Thespis, a dramatist and performer long credited with being the first ‘‘actor’’ (thus the term ‘‘thespian’’), won the award for the best tragedy at the City Dionysia in 534 B.C., he alone played all the parts in his plays. For at least the next sixty years, tragedies were limited to a chorus and one actor. According to Aristotle, Aeschylus introduced the second actor, sometime around 470 B.C., and Sophocles is credited with adding a third. By the time Euripides began writing plays, dramatists were limited to no more than three principal actors to play all the parts.
To the dramatist, this means the plot of the play must be divided into distinct episodes in which the important characters of the story can confront one another in groups of two or three, with the chorus standing near, observing the action. Playwrights manufactured reasons for characters to leave the stage, so other characters (played by the same performers) could appear. To accommodate scene and costume changes, the chorus provided interludes consisting of song and dance that usually commented on the action of the play. A quick glance at the episodes in The Bacchae will reveal that three separate actors must play the parts of Pentheus, Cadmus, and Tiresias, since these characters all appear on stage at the same time; but the actor playing Tiresias might also portray Dionysus and the Stranger, while the actor playing Pentheus may double as his mother, Agave, since these combinations are never seen together on the stage.
One of the most unique and recognizable features of the construction of classical Greek tragedies is the use of a chorus. Some historians have speculated that the very origins of Greek tragedy lie in the appearance of the chorus on stage. Before there was actual dialogue and characters in conflict in drama, performances consisted of large groups of men, perhaps as many as fifty, representing each of the various tribes in the hills around Athens, who would gather at festivals honoring Dionysus and dance and sing hymns (or dithyrambs), honoring the god of wine, revelry, and the theatre. After 534 B.C., the year of the first competition for tragedies at the City Dionysia festival in Athens, the role of the chorus began to diminish as the individual characters in the plays became increasingly important.
By the time Sophocles wrote Oedipus the King in the late 5th century B.C., the conventional size of the chorus had been fixed at fifteen. The chorus continued to sing, chant, and dance and occasionally interacted with the principal characters, but most often, as in The Bacchae, they stand outside the action and provide the audience with important background information, sometimes commenting on what they see happening or even warning characters that their choices may prove dangerous. Typically, the singing and dancing of the chorus occur during choral interludes that divide the episodes of the play. These interludes may help suggest the passing of time, as when the Chorus of Dionysus’s followers in The Bacchae chant an appeal to the god for justice while Pentheus goes off to face his death. Practically speaking, they also may help delay the action in the play while scenery is replaced or actors change costumes to appear in other roles. Of the three Greek tragedians whose work has survived, Euripides used the chorus least, preferring instead to allow his individual characters more time to develop his themes.
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5th Century B.C.: The Athenian democracy which evolved during the 5th century B.C. is considered to be the first of its kind in the world. Matters of the state are decided by a vote of the citizen assembly, known as the ekklesia.
Today: The United States is considered the world’s leading democratic nation, though American democratic practices are quite different. Of- ficials of the state are elected to one of three branches of the government: the executive, the legislative, or the judicial. Each branch is given different responsibilities and authorities to act on behalf of the citizens of the country, all of whom, men, women, and naturalized citizens included, may vote, or choose to run for office, during periodic public elections.
5th Century B.C.: Education in Athenian society is reserved for boys, who learn reading, writing, arithmetic, and music. Once the boys reach age twelve, physical education becomes a priority, and they are taught gymnastics and sports such as wrestling, running, the discus and javelin toss, which will serve them well during their mandatory military service at age eighteen. Middle and upper class girls, expecting to marry well, may learn to read and write, and perhaps play the lyre, from a female tutor at home. They rarely, if ever, participate in physical education or sports.
Today: Equal education for women, in both academic subjects and sports, is recognized as important in a majority of the world’s industrialized nations. In the United States, some type of formal education is required of all children and public education is available for everyone from kindergarten through the twelfth grade. A limited amount of music and physical education may be required of students but intense training in these areas is largely elective. Military service is not mandatory for young men, though American boys must still register to be drafted when they turn eighteen.
5th Century B.C.: Theatre in Greece is associated with religious worship and the cult of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and revelry. Plays are produced each March during the Dionysia. Production of the plays is financed by rich and public-spirited citizens, known as choregoi, who are assigned a playwright and up to three actors and charged by the state with employing a chorus, hiring a trainer for the group, and providing costumes, scenery, and props.
Today: Most theatre is no longer associated with religious worship, though ‘‘Passion Plays,’’ commemorating the lives of Jesus and the saints, are common in American Christian churches. Plays are performed year-round, mainly for recreational and entertainment purposes. In the United States, professional play production is concentrated mainly in larger cities, such as New York, where individual financiers or groups of wealthy investors provide the funds necessary to pay large groups of performers and buy often extravagant sets, costumes, and lighting effects, which may cost millions of dollars.
5th Century B.C.: Many of the most popular Greek tragedies impart a lesson that is central to Athenian society: the gods are all-knowing and all-powerful and human beings should not allow hubris to let them think they are equal or superior to the deities.
Today: The European Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries encouraged exploration and experimentation in the fields of science, geography, philosophy, and the arts. As a result, in the twentieth century, a variety of mainly monotheistic religions offer the opportunity to worship at will, while individual human endeavors and accomplishments are regularly recognized for superior achievement, and pride in ability, within reason, is encouraged as an important feature of personal development.
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The Bacchae has inspired a handful of operas, including at least three that are available on CD: Szymanowski’s King Roger (1926) and Hans Werner Henze’s The Bassarids (1966), each available from the Koch Schwann label; and Harry Partch’s Revelation in the Courthouse Park (1961), available on the Tomato label. Other operatic versions include Egon Wellesz’s Die Bakchantinnen (1931); Daniel Bortz’s Backanterna (1991); and John Buller’s Bakxai (1992).
Italian director and writer Giorgio Ferroni produced a filmed adaptation of Euripides’s play in 1961 called Le Baccanti. The film stars Taina Elg as Dirce (a character Ferroni introduced to his version of the story), Pierre Brice as Dionysus, and Elberto Lupo as Pentheus. An English version, called Bacchantes is available on video.
In 1968 the avant-garde American theatre producer Richard Schechner formed his own company called the Performance Group. Their first production, staged in a converted garage, was Dionysus in 69, a reworking of The Bacchae that explored sexuality, freedom, and societal repression through a series of ritual vignettes.
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Kerr, Walter. God on the Gymnasium Floor, Simon and Schuster, 1971, p. 42.
Kroll, Jack. Review of The Bacchae in Newsweek, October 13, 1980, p. 135.
Muller, K. O. A History of the Literature of Ancient Greece: Volume I, Parker, 1858, p. 499.
Novick, Julius. Review of The Bacchae in the Nation, October 25, 1980, pp. 417-18.
Sandys, John Edwin. The Bacchae of Euripides, Cambridge University Press, 1880.
Schlegel, Augustus Wilhelm. A Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, translated by John Black, H. G. Bohn, 1861.
Simon, John. Review of The Bacchae in New York, October 20, 1980, p. 101-02.
Arnott, Peter. The Ancient Greek and Roman Theatre, Random House, 1971. An accessible, basic introduction to the drama and stagecraft of the classical Greeks and Romans that includes theories about the origins of tragedy, suggestions about the evolution of the Greek performance space, a handful of illustrations, and a helpful bibliography.
Bieber, Margarete. The History of the Greek and Roman Theatre, Princeton University Press, 1961. An in-depth, scholarly look at the evolution of the classical Greek and Roman theatres, including many photographs, illustrations, and conjectural drawings.
Foley, Helene P. ‘‘The Bacchae’’ in her Ritual Irony: Poetry and Sacrifice in Euripides, Cornell University Press, 1985. In this essay, Helene suggests one of the things Euripides accomplished with The Bacchae was an investigation of the relationship between ritual and theatre and between the spirit of festival and the society that creates it.
Grube, G. M. A. ‘‘The Bacchants’’ in his The Drama of Euripides, Barnes and Noble, 1961. A careful episode-by-episode examination of the plot of The Bacchae, with running commentary by Grube explaining terminology and the possible historical and cultural significance of words and deeds in the play.
Hamilton, Edith. The Greek Way, W. W. Norton, 1993. Hamilton’s research and writing about the minds and culture of the ancient Greeks have been popular reading for decades. This relatively slim volume includes references to Euripides.
Segal, Charles. Dionysiac Poetics and Euripides’s Bacchae, Princeton University Press, 1982. In this exhaustive, scholarly tome, Segal examines many of the popular questions about The Bacchae, including whether or not Euripides approved of Dionysus’s worship himself, the importance of the Dionysiac cult to Greek society, and sex roles in the plays of Euripides.
Stapleton, Michael. The Illustrated Dictionary of Greek and Roman Mythology, Peter Bedrick Books, New York, 1986. A helpful collection of brief descriptions of some of the most famous Greek gods, heroes and myths, arranged alphabetically.
Winnington-Ingram, R. P. Euripides and Dionysus: An Interpretation of the Bacchae, Cambridge University Press, 1948. A careful examination of The Bacchae that explores each action of the play, setting it in its literary and historical context, with special emphasis on Euripides’s possibly negative opinion of Dionysus and the Greek gods.
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Euripides. The Bacchae of Euripides. Translated by Geoffrey S. Kirk. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979. Provides a translation and notes that are useful to anyone new to Euripides’ last complete play. Kirk provides a notable comparative text to other classic and ground-breaking versions of Euripides’ play.
Euripides. The Bacchae of Euripides. Translated by C. K. Williams. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1990. This version of the play is useful primarily for Martha Nussbaum’s introduction, which presents an alternative view of the play and sets it in relief against another Greek tragedy.
Grene, David, and Richmond Lattimore, ed. Greek Tragedies. Vol. 3. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1960. Richmond Lattimore is a scholar known for his work on Euripides. Arguably the most faithful translation and introduction to The Bacchae published to date. Includes contextual notes and a clear view to an understanding of Euripides at the end of his career.
Segal, Charles. Dionysiac Poetics and Euripides’ “Bacchae.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983. Provides contextual background for The Bacchae and explains why it is such a radical text. Also discusses other works that deal with Dionysus and speculates on Euripides’ response to those texts.
Soyinka, Wole. The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite. New York: W. W. Norton, 1974. Nobel Prize-winning African author Wole Soyinka provides a new interpretation of The Bacchae, which brings to the fore important questions in the original text. Soyinka uses a communion rite to explain the death of Pentheus and the need to strew his body across the countryside.