The Bacchae

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For the 2002 film, see The Bacchae (film).
The Bacchae
Death Pentheus Louvre G445.jpg
Pentheus being torn apart by Agave and Ino, Attic red-figure vase.
Written by Euripides
Chorus Bacchae, female followers of Dionysus
Characters Dionysus
Second Messenger
Date premiered 405 BC
Place premiered Athens
Original language Ancient Greek
Genre Tragedy
Setting Thebes

The Bacchae (/ˈbæk/; Greek: Βάκχαι, Bakchai; also known as The Bacchantes /ˈbækənts, bəˈkænts, -ˈkɑːnts/) is an ancient Greek tragedy, written by the Athenian playwright Euripides during his final years in Macedonia, at the court of Archelaus I of Macedon. It premiered posthumously at the Theatre of Dionysus in 405 BC as part of a tetralogy that also included Iphigeneia at Aulis and Alcmaeon in Corinth, and which Euripides' son or nephew probably directed.[1] It won first prize in the City Dionysia festival competition.

The tragedy is based on the Greek myth of King Pentheus of Thebes and his mother Agave, and their punishment by the god Dionysus (who is Pentheus' cousin). The punishment occurs because Pentheus is fighting against the gods and outlaws worship of Dionysus, and to show Pentheus and all of Thebes that Dionysus is indeed a god. [2]


The Dionysus in Euripides' tale is a young god, angry that his mortal family, the royal house of Cadmus, has denied him a place of honor as a deity. His mortal mother, Semele, was a mistress of Zeus; while pregnant she was killed, through trickery, by Hera, who was jealous of her husband's affair. When Semele died, her sisters said it was Zeus' will and accused her of lying; they also accused their father, Cadmus, of using Zeus as a coverup. Most of Semele's family refuse to believe Dionysus is the son of Zeus, and the young god is spurned in his home. He has traveled throughout Asia and other foreign lands, gathering a cult of female worshipers (Maenads or Bacchantes). At the play's start he has returned, disguised as a stranger, to take revenge on the house of Cadmus. He has also driven the women of Thebes, including his aunts, into an ecstatic frenzy, sending them dancing and hunting on Mount Kithaeron, much to the horror of their families. Complicating matters, his cousin, the young king Pentheus, has declared a ban on the worship of Dionysus throughout Thebes.


The play begins in front of the palace of Thebes, with Dionysus telling the story of his origin and his reasons for visiting the city. Dionysus explains that he was born prematurely, when Hera made Zeus send down a lightning bolt, killing the pregnant Semele and causing the birth. Some in Thebes, he notes, don’t believe this story. In fact, Semele’s sisters — Autonoe, Agave, and Ino – claim it is a lie intended to cover up the fact that Semele became pregnant by some mortal; they say Zeus' lightning was a punishment for the lie. Dionysus reveals that he has driven the women of the city mad, including his three aunts, and has led them into the mountains to observe his ritual festivities. He explains that while he is appearing, at the moment, disguised as a mortal, he will vindicate his mother by appearing before all of Thebes as a god, the son of Zeus, and establishing his permanent cult of followers.[3]

Dionysus exits to go into the mountains, and the chorus enters. They dance and sing, celebrating Dionysus and adding details of his birth and the Dionysian rites. Then Tiresias, the blind and elderly seer, appears. He knocks on the palace doors and calls for Cadmus, the founder and former king of Thebes. The two venerable old men are planning to join the revelry in the mountains when Cadmus’ grandson Pentheus, the current king, enters. Disgusted to find the two old men in festival dress, he scolds them and orders his soldiers to arrest anyone engaging in Dionysian worship.[4]

The guards soon return with Dionysus himself, disguised as his priest and the leader of the Asian Maenads. Pentheus questions him, his words showing his skepticism. He feigns interest in the Dionysian rites, seeking to discredit them and trap the priest, but Dionysus' answers keep the meaning hidden, only hinting at the truth Pentheus cannot see. Infuriated, Pentheus has him locked up. But being a god, Dionysus quickly breaks free and creates more havoc, razing the palace with an earthquake and fire. A herdsman arrives, reporting that the women on Kithaeron are behaving strangely and performing incredible feats -- putting snakes in their hair, suckling wild wolves and gazelles, and making water, wine, milk and honey spring up from the ground. He says the women also fell upon a herd of cows, ripping them to shreds with their bare hands. When armed guards arrived, the women drove them off using only their ceremonial staffs of fennel.

Dionysus, still in disguise, persuades Pentheus to forgo his plan to defeat the women with military force. He says it would be better to spy first, dressed as a female Maenad to avoid detection.

Stranger: Ah! Would you like to see them in their gatherings upon the mountain?
Pentheus: Very much. Ay, and pay uncounted gold for the pleasure.
Stranger: Why have you conceived so strong a desire?
Pentheus: Though it would pain me to see them drunk with wine -
Stranger: Yet you would like to see them, pain and all.[5]

Dionysus dresses Pentheus as a woman, giving him a thyrsus and fawn skins, and leads him out of the house. At this point, Pentheus appears not wholly sane, as he thinks he sees two suns in the sky, and believes he now has the strength to rip up mountains with his bare hands. He has also begun to see through Dionysus' mortal disguise, perceiving horns coming out of the god's head. They exit.

A messenger arrives to report that once they reached Kithaeron, Pentheus wanted to climb an evergreen tree to get a better view and the blond stranger used divine power to bend down the tall tree and place the king in its highest branches. Then Dionysus, revealing himself, called out to his followers and pointed out the man in the tree. This drove the Maenads wild. Led by Agave, his mother, they tore the trapped Pentheus down, ripped off his head, and tore his body into pieces.

After the messenger has relayed this news, Agave arrives, carrying her son's head. In her possessed state, she believes it is the head of a mountain lion. She proudly displays it to her father, Cadmus, and is confused when he does not delight in her trophy and his face instead contorts in horror. Agave then calls out for Pentheus to come marvel at her feat and nail the head above her door so she can show it to all of Thebes. But Dionysus' possession begins to wear off, and Cadmus forces her too recognize what she's done. As the play ends, the royal family is completely destroyed. Agave and her sisters are sent into exile, and Dionysus decrees that Cadmus and his wife Harmonia will be turned into snakes and lead an army against Greece.

Modern interpretations[edit]

Dramatic versions[edit]

  • Joe Orton's play The Erpingham Camp (television broadcast 27 June 1966; opened at the Royal Court Theatre on 6 June 1967) relocates The Bacchae to a British holiday camp. An author's note states: "No attempt must be made to reproduce the various locales in a naturalistic manner. A small, permanent set of Erpingham's office is set on a high level. The rest of the stage is an unlocalised area. Changes of scene are suggested by lighting and banners after the manner of the Royal Shakespeare Company's productions of Shakespeare's histories."[6]
  • Wole Soyinka adapted the play as The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite with the British Royal National Theatre in London in 1973, incorporating a second chorus of slaves to mirror the civil unrest in his native Nigeria.[8]
  • Swedish director Ingmar Bergman directed The Bacchae three times: as an opera (1991) for the Royal Swedish Opera, as a film (1993) for Sveriges Television, and on stage (1996) for the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm. These three versions received great acclaim amidst some mixed reviews.[10]
Ramona Reeves and Lynn Odell in director Brad Mays' stage production of Euripides' The Bacchae, 1997, Los Angeles.
  • Luigi Lo Cascio's multimedia adaptation La Caccia (The Hunt) won the Biglietto d' Oro del Teatro prize in 2008. The free adaptation combines live theater with animations by Nicola Console and Desideria Rayner's video projections. A revised 2009 version went on tour with original music by Andrea Rocca.

Operatic versions[edit]

  • In 1941–1944, Giorgio Federico Ghedini composed an opera in Italian based on The Bacchae and called Le Baccanti, with libretto by playwright and screenwriter Tullio Pinelli. It debuted at La Scala in Milan on February 22, 1948. It was revived in Milan in 1972.[18]
  • John Buller composed an opera Bakxai (The Bacchae) which was produced at the English National Opera in London in 1992.[19]

Musical versions[edit]

  • Gustav Holst's "Hymn to Dionysus" (Op. 31, No.2) is a setting for female voices and orchestra of the parodos from The Bacchae in the translation by Gilbert Murray. It was composed in 1913 and premiered in 1914.[20]
  • In Summer 2009, the Public Theater (of New York City) produced a version of The Bacchae' with music by Philip Glass.

Significant quotations[edit]

Dionysus: "It's a wise man's part to practise a smooth-tempered self-control."
Dionysus: "Your [Pentheus'] name points to calamity. It fits you well." (The name "Pentheus" derives from πένθος, pénthos, grief)
Messenger: "Dionysus' powers are manifold; he gave to men the vine to cure their sorrows."
Dionysus: "Can you, a mortal, measure your strength against a god?"

Religious significance[edit]

Plays such as The Bacchae existed primarily for the purpose of religious practice and worship. Religion was connected closely with everyday life, and cities and local communities would come together to celebrate the worship of different deities.[21] Through plays, gods such as Dionysus could be celebrated. The Bacchae re-enacts how Dionysus had come to be a god and in ancient Greek theatre, "role-playing is a well-known feature of ritual liminality." [22] The play also highlights what Dionysus represents: he is the god of wine, and of creative nature.[23] For an actor, religious worship would have been a direct ecstatic experience, as he "stepped out" of himself to become a representation of Dionysus. For a spectator, the experience would have come indirectly, as what was acted onstage aroused emotions of sympathy with Dionysus. Collectively, this achieved a reintegration of the "other" into the "self," as Dionysus was accepted and worshipped by the Greek people through theatre.[22]

Dramatic structure[edit]

In the play's climactic plot construction, Dionysus the protagonist instigates the unfolding action by simultaneously emulating the play's author, costume designer, choreographer and artistic director.[24] Helen P. Foley, writing of the importance of Dionysus as the central character and his effect on the play's structure, observes: "The poet uses the ritual crisis to explore simultaneously god, man, society, and his own tragic art. In this protodrama Dionysus, the god of the theatre, stage-directs the play."[25]

At the play's start, Dionysus' exposition highlights the play's central conflict; the invasion of Greece by an Asian religion.[26]

Critical review[edit]

Until the late 19th century, the play's themes were considered too gruesome to be studied and appreciated. It was Nietzsche's "Birth of Tragedy" in 1872 that re-posed the question of Dionysus's relation with the theatre and awakened interest in The Bacchae. In the 20th century, performances became quite fashionable -- particularly in opera, due in part to the dramatic choruses found throughout the story.[27] In 1948, R.P Winnington-Ingram said of Euripides' handling of the play: "On its poetical and dramatic beauties, he writes with charm and insight; on more complex themes, he shows equal mastery."[28]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Rehm (1992, 23).
  2. ^ Euripides. Vellacott, Philip, translator. The Bacchae and Other Plays. Penguin Books. 1954. ISBN 0 14 044 044 5. Page 193.
  3. ^ Euripides. Vellacott, Philip, translator. The Bacchae and Other Plays. Penguin Books. 1954. ISBN 0 14 044 044 5. Page 193.
  4. ^ Euripides. Vellacott, Philip, translator. The Bacchae and Other Plays. Penguin Books. 1954. ISBN 0 14 044 044 5. Page 198.
  5. ^ Euripides. Ten Plays by Euripides. Trans. Moses Hadas and John Mclean. New York: Bantam Books, 1981, p.299
  6. ^ Orton, Joe. 1976. The Complete Plays. London: Methuen. p.278. ISBN 0-413-34610-2.
  7. ^ Dionysus in '69 at the Internet Movie Database
  8. ^ "Performing the Bacchae", The Open University.
  9. ^ The Bacchae 2.1 on the web.
  10. ^ See: Rolandsson, Ottiliana, Pure Artistry: Ingmar Bergman, the Face as Portal and the Performance of the Soul, PhD dissertation, University of California, Santa Barbara, 2010; especially Chapter 4: "The Embodiment of Ritual and Myth as Text and as Performance."
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^ "A Greek God and His Groupies are Dressed to Kill", New York Times theater review by Charles Isherwood, July 5, 2008
  18. ^ Waterhouse, John C.G. "Baccanti, Le". Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Retrieved February 28, 2011. 
  19. ^
  20. ^ Taylor, Kenric. "Compositions: The Music of Gustav Holst". The Gustav Holst Website. Kenric Taylor. Retrieved March 1, 2011. 
  21. ^ "Religion." Oxford University Press, 2011. Web. 25 October 2011.
  22. ^ a b Lada-Richards, Ismene. Initiating Dionysus: Ritual and Theatre in Aristophanes' Frogs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. 159-164. Print.
  23. ^ Henrichs, Albert. Dionysus. Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth. Oxford University Press, 1998. Web. 25 October 2011.
  24. ^ Teevan (2001, 4)
  25. ^ Scully (1987, 321)
  26. ^ Johnston (2001)
  27. ^ Morwood (2008, x-xi)
  28. ^ Norwood (1949, 317)
  29. ^ Bryn Mawr Classical Review


External links[edit]