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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2000

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.

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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 women in Rites are condemned to live stunted lives in settings that are defined for them by men. Their "rites'' are exemplified at the beginning and end of the play, when Ada engages in her daily ritual of putting on her make-up with great vulgarity—she repeatedly spits into her pot of mascara and then puts her finger in it—and vainly admiring herself.

It is Ada who is the central figure in Rites; she is the equivalent of Agave in The Bacchae (although in that play Pentheus and Dionysus are the central characters; Agave does not appear directly until near the end). Just as Agave is the priestess of the bacchantes, so the strong-minded Ada is the "priestess" of the public lavatory. As the manager of the facility, she is the one in charge; she decides what is permitted there and what is not. Meg, the attendant and cleaner, treats her with deference.

In The Bacchae, it is Agave who initiates the murderous attack on Pentheus, and so in Rites it is Ada who incites the women in the lavatory to kill the masculine-looking person they assume is a male spy. Of course, there are differences between the two incidents. In The Bacchae, Pentheus really does intend to spy on the women, but the figure who is killed in Rites has no such intention. In The Bacchae, a man is dressed as a woman; in the ironic reversal in Rites, the victim is a woman who dresses like a man. In both cases, however, the situation is one of mistaken identity, and the result is a crazed mob killing. Ada is blinded by her own hatred of men, just as Agave and the bacchantes are blinded by their mad, reason-obliterating frenzy.

There is another parallel between Agave and Ada that goes to the heart of Duffy's purpose. They are both, as Duffy points out in her introduction, deniers of life. Although Agave is a reveling bacchante, celebrating the god, she has been made so by Dionysus as a punishment for her earlier refusal to acknowledge him as a god. Agave refused to accept that Semele, her sister, had conceived Dionysus as a result of a visitation by the god Zeus. Seen in this light, Pentheus, who also denies that Dionysus is a god, is only repeating an attitude that at first was shared by his mother.

Ada, who is a more developed character than Agave, denies life by reducing sex, the life force itself, to a matter of money. Her contempt for men (whatever men may do to deserve it notwithstanding) has distorted her perceptions and given her a desire for revenge. During the course of the play, her statements about men become increasingly savage and cynical, and her anger is also directed at the women who accept the unacceptable: ‘‘I'll tell you about your kind of love: a few moments pleasure and then a lifetime kidding yourself. Caught, bound, even if you don't know it.’’ After the girl who has cut her wrists breaks down in tears, Ada shouts with venom "B— men!" a cry she will repeat twice more before the end of the play, and launches into her bitterest tirade yet. At this point, Ada is boiling with a rage that makes her, like Agave, quite mad. She is like a volcano about to explode, and her words after the murder, as she gazes at the corpse, are chilling: ‘‘Look at it! I've seen prettier in the butcher's shop. Animals. B—men."

Ada escapes the fate of Agave, who is exiled for her crime, but there is no doubt that she is culpable. Her hatred and rage lead her into the killing of an innocent. But this is not to deny that the play is also an indictment of a patriarchal society that oppresses women, pushing them into a limited range of roles, and so creating the kind of frustration which builds up until violence results.

This pervasive sense of female oppression by men finds a parallel in The Bacchae. The bacchantes are mostly women. Their actions in leaving the city and celebrating Dionysus in the forests and mountains are acts of freedom committed in rebellion against a male-dominated society. This society is exemplified by Pentheus. Not only is he intolerant, authoritarian, and dictatorial, he is also a misogynist. His reaction to anyone who opposes him is to imprison them. He has already imprisoned many women, literally tying their hands. He threatens that when he catches the other bacchantes who are threatening his idea of ideal social order (and his power), he will sell them into slavery or make them work the looms in his palace.

In Rites, this is translated into modern terms. Women such as Nellie and Dot tell how they were confined to domestic chores throughout their marriage, and the other women are in a prison of limited opportunities that confines them to low-status jobs that amount to a kind of slavery. On the evidence of the play, the only freedom available for a woman of their social class is to transgress commonly accepted sexual mores and become a prostitute, like Ada. Ada claims that she is independent and free, largely because she ensures that it is she, not the man, who sets the terms of their sexual encounters. But by anyone's standards, that is a poor definition of freedom, not even coming close to the liberating joy of the bacchantes in the positive aspects of their Dionysian celebrations.

There is one more parallel between Rites and The Bacchae and one significant departure. Dionysus, who plays such a large role in The Bacchae, appears in Rites only as the toddler doll. Duffy explains in her introduction: "I would not have used a real child for Dionysus if I could have had one. A doll is at once more terrifying, more enigmatic and more appropriate, artistically, to the dream idiom.’’ Dionysus in The Bacchae has long curly hair and an androgynous appearance, and this is also true of the doll in Rites. The women cannot tell whether he is a boy or a girl until they undress him and examine his genitals.

Finally, in ancient Greek drama violence is never shown on stage. The conclusion of The Bacchae is therefore reported by a character who witnessed it. The audience does not see it directly. However, dramatic conventions have changed since that time, and Duffy presents the violence in full view of the audience. It is meant to be disturbing, as the stage directions, referring to a "tattered and broken figure wrapped in bloody clothing,'' clearly suggest. Rites, then, may be more shocking than its ancient original, and not only for its violence. It presents an indictment of patriarchy but offers no way beyond it, pointing only to the resulting female rage that harms women and accomplishes nothing. Significantly, the play ends where it began, the mundane "rites" go on—but something terrible has happened in the meantime, and who is to say that it may not happen again?

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on Rites, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

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