Essays and Criticism

The title of Rites is taken from the play The Bacchae, written shortly before 406 B.C.E. by the ancient Greek dramatist Euripides. In addition to the title, there are parallels in plot and theme between Rites and The Bacchae, as well as some allusions and reversals. Duffy takes care to point out in her introduction to the play that Rites is not a version of The Bacchae, and that ‘‘no attempt was made to make it conform to that play.’’ But she adds that the ancient text does add another layer of meaning to her own play, and makes it less likely that people will dismiss Rites as merely shocking or no more consequential than a dream.

The Bacchae revolves around a conflict between Dionysus, the god of wine, revelry and ecstasy, and Pentheus, the king of Thebes. When Dionysus begins to attract many followers in Thebes, Pentheus tries to stamp out the worship of this new god. He imprisons all the women whom he catches carrying the symbols of the god: wine, an ivy wreath, and a staff. Pentheus also captures Dionysus, who takes human form as a handsome young man. Miraculously, all the women who had been imprisoned suddenly find themselves free, and they continue their Bacchic worship in a glen just outside the city.

Pentheus then imprisons Dionysus, who warns the king that he will bring destruction on himself. Soon after his imprisonment, Dionysus conjures up an earthquake, and Pentheus's palace is reduced to ruins. Astonished, Pentheus interrogates the freed Dionysus, but a herdsman interrupts him. The herdsman tells Pentheus that Agave, Pentheus's mother, and a group of her fellow bacchantes are on a nearby mountain, celebrating the god. Dionysus, who seeks revenge on Pentheus, asks the king if he wishes to see the women at their secret rites. When Pentheus says that he does, Dionysus takes control of his mind and tricks him into disguising himself by dressing in women's clothes.

On the mountain, Pentheus sits in a tall tree to observe the women, but he is easily spotted by the bacchantes, who have been warned by Dionysus that an enemy is at hand. Led by Agave, the women attack Pentheus in a wild frenzy, tearing him limb from limb. Agave is so blinded by her frenzy that she thinks Pentheus is a mountain lion. After Pentheus's dismembered body is returned to Thebes, Agave recovers from her mad frenzy and is horrified at her murderous deed. Dionysus returns and exiles Agave and her sisters from the city.

The central conflict in The Bacchae is between two aspects of human nature. On the one side is the desire for order, rationality, law, decorum, restraint, and morality. All these qualities are represented by Pentheus, the king of Thebes. He feels that it is his duty to preserve the city from what he sees as the disruptive influence of the bacchantes. The other side of human nature is the nonrational dimension. It includes sensuality, the abandonment of limits, a sense of oneness with nature, spontaneity, joy, celebration, and intoxication through wine and dance. This is represented by Dionysus.

The Bacchae shows what happens when this primordial, ecstatic Dionysian energy, which is an essential component of the human condition, is ignored or suppressed. The play also shows the harm that results when it is pursued to excess. In The Bacchae, there is no happy medium, no path of moderation.

In Rites, the equivalent of the Bacchic rites of the women of Thebes are the activities of the women in the public lavatory. The lavatory is a female space that men are not allowed to penetrate, just as the bacchantes act out their ritual worship of Dionysus in an exclusively female group on the mountain. In Rites, the equivalent of Pentheus, who claims to abhor what the women are doing but nonetheless jumps at the chance to see their secret rites for himself, is not any of the characters but rather the audience. There is, as Duffy points out in her introduction, a voyeur in everyone: "We should all like to be able to eavesdrop, to know how people behave alone or in groups when they can really be themselves. ... Like Pentheus, we want to be shocked and pained.’’

There is, needless to say, a marked contrast between the rites of the bacchantes and the rites of this group of working class women in 1960s Britain. As Elizabeth Hale Winkler, in "Three Recent Versions of The Bacchae,’’ comments:

Instead of the ecstatic night-time dances on the mountains . . . we find only women engaging in empty, trivial secular rituals such as putting on their make-up in the morning, gossiping about unsatisfactory sex with their boyfriends and singing snatches of banal popular love songs.

If the bacchantes are full of life and a kind of divine madness (not all of which is destructive), the...

(The entire section is 2000 words.)