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Copyright Notice

Drama Day 2000 : Mask Workshop
Held at the Open University, Milton Keynes, Saturday 30th September

Performing the Bacchae
[Text of a pre-perforformance talk given by Dr Ruth Hazel .]

As is appropriate for a play about Dionysus, the Bacchae is, I would suggest, the most shape-changing tragedy in the extant body of Greek drama. It is also the most metatheatrical, with its enactment of dressing up and of acting roles, its divine stage-manager, and its macabre example, in Pentheus’s death, of the most extreme form of audience participation,. The play’s reception, both critical and theatrical, has made pendulum swings, placing audience sympathy now with Pentheus, now with Dionysus (if one may be permitted to ‘sympathise’ with a god), now with Agave, now with Cadmus. It has been given the usual variety of theatre realisations - from outdoor, full chorus singing and dancing shows to studio venue, minimalist, small cast presentations. I don’t intend to attempt here an exhaustive stage history of the play, but hope merely to cover some of the major themes which have variously been brought to the fore in different productions of the play in English, and to indicate how the play and its perceived themes have given rise to versions or ‘spin-off’ works.

First, I’d like to suggest a few of the questions which a director must ask and answer when contemplating a production of the Bacchae - questions over and above the usual ones relating to production of Greek drama (about size of cast, use of masks, translation, chorus, and so on). These Bacchae-specific questions include, for example:

  • What do Dionysus and Pentheus represent for our age, our audience - and how are we to show that through the semiotics of theatre (design, acting styles, music, lighting, etc.)?
  • How to manage the chorus, and how to distinguish between the ‘true’ and ‘faux’ maenads?

How to convey ecstatic or horrific moments (the parodos, the fourth stasimon, the earthquake dialogue at 575-611, for example) without descending into bathos or causing alienation in the audience?

  • Do we want to show maenadic madness as liberating, or as dangerous to individuals and/or to society?
  • Where do we want audience sympathies to lie, at any point during the play? Is the grief of Cadmus or Agave greater?
  • What to do about the gaps in the text at the end of the play?
  • How to portray the god Dionysus of the prologue and of the final epiphany, as distinct from the human ‘exarchos’ form which he takes on in the body of the play?

Apollo and Dionysus

Late nineteenth-century and Edwardian reception of the play focused on what was perceived as the battle between Apollo and Dionysus: reason and divine madness. This reflected the contemporary deeply-rooted desire of a male-dominated, and in Britain, still Imperialist society, to find in classical literature validation of a self-image. How could the gentlemen scholar-actors who started to perform Greek plays for a select audience in the last years of the nineteenth century possibly allow that the god of wine and out-of-mind wildness had a case, and that the upholder of law and order, Pentheus, was deeply mistaken and psychologically flawed?

The myth of the ‘noble simplicity and quiet grandeur’ of Greek art, established by Winckelmann in the first half of the eighteenth century, had been challenged by Nietzsche in 1872 in his The Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche argued that, rather than ‘noble simplicity and quiet grandeur’, Dionysiac passion and a troubled pessimism were the key features of (at least) Greek literature. This dangerously unsettling view of an ancient heritage previously seen as epitomising divine, albeit pagan, order and self-control - supposedly ‘Apollonian’ traits - was still not accepted by the Edwardian period. Verrall, in 1910, suggested that Euripides’ Dionysus was perhaps being presented as the mortal prophet of a false religion, and Gilbert Norwood, in 1908, had considered Pentheus the ‘finest character in the play’, saying: ‘Arrogant he is, and impulsive, but most would rather lie beside his mangled body at the end than share the thoughts of the believers who stand around it’. As the current view of Greek tragedy was that it was ennobling in its portrayal of human suffering at the hands of fate, and positive in its assertion of a divine (again, albeit pagan) order, there was understandable resistance to the idea of finding fault with the apparent representative of Apollonian reason in the play, Pentheus, and to seeing the dangerously androgynous and subversive Dionysus as any kind of figure of moral authority.

When Nietzsche’s ideas started to inform productions of Greek drama, the pendulum swing made Dionysus - ‘the mad god’ who induces group-madness - an anarchic but despotic focus, and commentators of the 1930s were to recognise, in the mass hysteria of Fascist rallies, Dionysiac frenzy. The irony was that such mob madness was aroused and orchestrated by self-proclaimed exponents of the rule of law and opponents of cultural diversity. So the Bacchae was a tricky play to stage in times when order and the rule of reason seemed so vital to the security and happiness of nations. Was Pentheus a hero or a villain? Did Dionysus embody liberation or just another kind of despotism?

Since the end of the Second World War, however, as Pat Easterling says (in The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy, 36): ‘the Bacchae seemed to actors, directors and audiences to need [ ... ] little mediation as a play for the times, in which drug culture, rock music, sex and violence, the many varieties of modern ecstatic cult, and even football hysteria all [found] recognisable analogues’.

In the following survey of a few of the many productions of the play (and versions of it) from the second half of the twentieth century, I hope to indicate ways in which directors have tried to answer some of those Bacchae-specific questions which I listed earlier. I have selected two productions from the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, and consider (as representing the Nineties) some large- and small-screen manifestations of Bacchic echoes.

‘Turn on and drop out’

In 1969, two versions of the play appeared, which, in their different ways, reflected both the youth activism of ‘les événements’ in 1968 and the opting out of a hippie, drug culture generation.

Dionysus in ‘69 (1969 - Database no. 128), was an alternative version of the story, devised by Richard Schechner and performed by The Performance Group, Broadway. In its defiance of convention, it followed the rock musical Hair (1968) - which might itself be seen as an expression of the opposition implicit in the Bacchae. Like Hair, it attacked the materialistic and militarist society of the Vietnam ‘60s, and set out deliberately to outrage - because to outrage conventional values was, in the ‘60s, perceived as one of the functions, and, indeed, duties, of theatre. Audience members were separated from their partners and companions on arrival and led off by actors to explore the performance space. The very form of the show expressed Dionysiac disruption of norms, transgression of boundaries and denial of expectations.

In Britain in 1969, John Bowen’s The Disorderly Women (Database no. 120) showed the Dionysiac out-of-mind and out-of body experiences of the characters as being drug induced. Unlike Schechner, Bowen kept pretty closely to the narrative of Euripides’ play, but set the story in a more-or-less modern context, replacing Cadmus with a First Minister figure. Writing about his play, Bowen said: ‘I have attempted to make explicit what may be implicit in Euripides’ play, that the myth of the Bacchae is primarily about the fight between Apollo and Dionysus, in which Dionysus wins. Put this to someone born after 1945, and he may tell you, ‘Quite right. Dionysus ought to win. Instinctive behaviour is what life is for’ If my 1969 self were to return to 1945, it could only say ‘I have seen the future and it doesn’t work’. The Disorderly Women is, then, a work of pessimism’.

Liberation now!

The late 1960s and early ‘70s saw the influence of liberationist movements in the theatre, and the two examples I have chosen reflect this. The first is Maureen Duffy’s play, Rites (1969 - Database no. 121). As one of the ‘questions a director must answer’ suggested, a distinction should be made between the true bacchae of the chorus and the maenads or mad women of whom Agave is the representative - the Theban women who have been made mad by Dionysus as a punishment for not recognising his divinity.

Written at the start of the Women’s Movement, the emphasis in Rites was on the thiasos and the community of women. In Duffy’s play, which is set in a women’s toilet, no distinction is made between real and false maenads, although the superintendent of the convenience, Ada, does equate to Agave. The cast of ordinary women visit, meet, talk, use the facilities, enacting the small ‘rites’ of female existence. Two lesser moments of crisis - a woman trying to slash her wrists because of a love affair gone wrong, and the entrance of a small boy into the protected female sanctum - prepare for the final climax where the women tear apart a suspected male interloper only to find that ‘he’ was a woman. Ada incites the sparagmos and then organises the disposal of the body in the incinerator, and it seems that through her guilt this Agave figure is being punished for her own exploitation and hatred of men. However, the overall message is that the feminist movement is potentially self-destructive. Accordingly, there is no Pentheus in the play.

In 1973, Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka’s The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite (Db no. 118) - commissioned for the National Theatre - used the Bacchae as (in Paul Cartledge’s 1993 description) a hymn of ‘counter-cultural liberationist rebellion’. Soyinka’s version, which incorporates and adds to Euripides’ text, was about the liberation of a slave population, but also tried to be the enactment of a fertility myth. It ends with Agave and the chorus drinking wine/blood which spouts from the head of Pentheus. In terms of theatre, it was an experimental play, since it exploded audience expectations about ‘Greek tragedy’, and it included a liberationist message. (In this, it contributed to a line of anti-canonical readings of ‘classics’ - such as, for example, Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête.)

Soyinka’s production note called for ‘as [racially] mixed a cast as is possible’ for the Slaves and the Bacchantes, and a ‘fully negroid’ actor for the Slave Leader, but in the National Theatre’s production all the other named characters were played by white actors. Martin Shaw, as Dionysus, was not an androgynous figure. Bare-chested and in a small loincloth, with only slightly longer hair than one might then have expected from one’s bank manager, he was a clearly male leader of rebellion; the chorus of maenads became a predominantly male chorus of slaves, only some of whom were female. Whereas in Euripides’ play Pentheus is a young man (cousin, and potential mirror image of Dionysus), in this production John Shrapnel seemed old enough to be a father figure, and thereby a generational difference was introduced.

The influential theatre practitioner and theorist, Jan Kott, took another view of the idea of liberation (in Eating the Gods, 1974), and talked of the similarity between the ecstatic cult shown in the play and the current wave of evangelical Christian religious movements. Talking of evangelical black churches in particular, he says: ‘god is praised in rhythms that are the signs and symbols of sex’. The physicality of worship in such movements (which were often led by charismatic leaders) chimed well with the influence on performance generally of the physical theatre of, for example, Jerzy Grotowski and Peter Brook. Even productions of straightforward translations of Greek tragedies were being affected, and the stereotypical idea of a Greek tragic chorus as ladies in white nighties intoning in unison was becoming unacceptable, and Winkelmannesque static, elegant, columnar white draped figures were a thing of the past. Choreography and voice work were becoming much more important, and both in large-scale productions with a full chorus of 12 or 15 and in minimalist productions with a cast of five or six actors doubling and trebling roles, the Bacchae offered scope for inventive theatricality. Kott, for example, felt that the much debated stage effect of the palace earthquake would best be conveyed by the Chorus’s enactment of it through voice and movement, rather than by elaborate stage machinery, lighting and sound effects..

Disrupting boundaries

From the 1980s, I have selected two examples of productions by women directors. That there are two such examples to be found illustrates the growing female challenge at that time to male domination of theatre direction. These examples might also be said to defy convention in that, although they were staged in conventional theatre venues for non-specialist audiences, they were not ‘safe’ box office bets, and were viewed by some critics as unsuccessful.

In A Mouthful of Birds (1986 - Db no. 116), Caryl Churchill presented a deliberate disruption of expectations, with regard to form, to theatre styles, and to audience expectations. The title’s acronym, AMOB, misleads, since the piece traces narratives about six separate characters going through disordering, traumatic experiences, rather than exploring the element of mass-hysteria which other versions had centred on. The conflict between control and licence exemplified by Euripides in the agon between Pentheus and Dionysus, was absent, but in the final section of the play the individual characters reflected on their personal experiences of psychic and emotional disruption, dismemberment and reconstitution. The form of the piece included dance and mime as well as realistic acting, with Dionysus figures, bare-chested and wearing Minoan-style flounced skirts, flitting through the shell of a modern multi-storied house.

In 1988, Nancy Meckler directed the ‘Shared Experience’ company in a small-scale, touring production - which nonetheless had five Bacchae (Db no. 113). (This play is one in which you really can’t get away with a one- or two-woman chorus.) On a black-draped studio stage, benches, an ivy-draped shrine, a scattering of sand, and five large glass bowls suggested the setting and the elemental aspects of the play. Costume was neutrally non-period, with Pentheus in studded black leathers and Dionysus in a floppy linen suit. The chorus mimed birth and orgasm, splashing water and smearing each other with oatmeal in what one critic described as ‘an orgy of sensual sisterhood which would have been beyond the compass of a British company 25 years ago’. However, Alex Renton’s damning criticism found ‘the Bacchic revels come over as an over-enthusiastic pyjama party’. Joyce McMillan reviewed the performance of the show at The Edinburgh Festival more sympathetically, but not without reservations:

it is to Nancy Meckler’s credit that she has sought to avoid a simplistic feminist reading of the play, which the text, in any case, would hardly bear. But in facing up unflinchingly to the dark underside of the cult of Dionysus and the Bacchae, she has produced instead a dark, ugly and strangely reactionary set of images, which leaves us with the feeling that women have liberated themselves too far in pursuit of a false god, and that the Dionysian forces in the personality are not morally neutral, but fundamentally deluding and evil.

Like Maureen Duffy’s Rites, then, this production of Euripides’ play seemed to indicate a woman theatre practitioner’s unease about the impact of radical feminism.

Sparagmos: tearing apart the body public and personal

One of the obstacles to acceptance of the idea of Bacchic rites must be the sparagmos. However, late 20th-century theatre rediscovered both myth and the function of theatre in exposing, exercising and exorcising raw emotions. One can point to echoes of the Maenadic bloodletting and tearing of bodies in other works of the late 20th century - for example, in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, where, at ‘particution’, women, reduced to breeding pods by a male autocracy, are sanctioned in their dismemberment of an (alleged) rapist. In theatre, the influence of Antonin Artaud’s theories about the need for a ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ was not seen until the 1960s, when much else was happening to change the nature of theatre. Two plays which specifically use the idea of dismemberment (both written by David Rudkin) are Afore Night Come (1960) and The Sons of Light (1976). In both plays, killings are sanctioned by the community for the purposes of ensuring its fertility or its safety, and its continuation.

We could argue that in films like The Silence of the Lambs and Seven, with their appeal to an audience’s horror-fascination with cannibalism and mutilation, taboos are broken by individuals in a ‘society like ours’, and the sparagmos or omophagia are not sanctioned by the community. In Bacchae, that which, when sanctioned by true Dionysiac devotion is acceptable, becomes perverted by the false maenads into a terrible travesty of ritual sacrifice.

Dionysus and Pentheus: Clothes make the man

Dionysus’ androgynous appearance is one of the triggers for Pentheus’s attacks on him. Yet he is attractive to women. He is the embodiment of transgressive behaviour and his appearance signals a disruption of boundaries, a confusion in gender-role order. Hence, the way Dionysus looks is important. Although disguised, as he tells us in the prologue, as a human exarchos of the thiasos, he should be obviously different from the humans. The text gives clear instructions to the designer about his hair, his face, and what, typically, his followers wear - animal skins, ivy garlands, the thyrsus. However, a modern production might eschew something which looks like fancy dress in favour of (as in the Shared Experience production) black leathers and a linen suit. A more telling parallel might be the Eddie Izzard look, where ‘female’ make-up, skirt and jewellery are juxtaposed with a decidedly masculine face and hair. Izzard takes a delight in wrong-footing his audience’s expectations, and provocatively describes himself as a lesbian transvestite. Exactly the same kind of destabilising of Pentheus’s expectations is what goes on in the agon between the man and the god. (Another solution is seen in the Actors of Dionysus’ production where Dionysus is played by a female actor.)

The turning point in this agon - the point at which Dionysus decides he has given Pentheus enough chances, and will now embark on destroying him - is the line ‘Ahh’/ ‘Wait’ - which leads into Dionysus’ seduction of Pentheus to become, in appearance, a travesty: a man-woman Bacchante. (This may be Euripides’ own contribution or twist to the story, since vase paintings show Pentheus dressed in armour when he encounters the maenads.) Surrounded by female lookalikes, Pentheus appears to be the only man on stage at this point, and his transformation into a ‘woman’ signals both Dionysus’ possession over his mind and (as psychoanalytical studies of the play have explained) the realisation of a previously sublimated feminine in his nature. Ultimately, he will be stripped, not only of his assumed female garments, but also of his actual male flesh. All that will be left for the audience to see will be his head - represented, surely, in Greek theatre, by the mask which the Pentheus actor wore. Even the remaining recognisable part of his body is a fake; a synecdochic icon of the role.

I would like to suggest that in Peter Cattaneo’s amazingly successful film, The Full Monty (1997), in one TV play (The Bare Necessities, 1994), and in a number of TV documentaries in the late 1990s about male strippers, we were seeing an echo of the Bacchae. In the documentaries about real-life strippers, many of the male strip shows were introduced by a drag act compère - a man-woman; a parodic Dionysus mistress-of-ceremonies. The audiences were anticipated to be all-female. ‘Hen parties’, in which the bride-to-be was singled out for the particular attentions of the stripper, suggested a rite of passage from child to woman, in which, as in Bacchic rites, respectable women were allowed licence within a male-controlled ritual. The very idea of a group of women commanding virile, beautiful males as objects of sexual gratification suggests Dionysiac role-reversal, but in the documentaries the real-life strippers were actually shown to keep firm control on their audiences and, while appearing to be ‘at the ladies’ service’, orchestrated the audience response, even, at times, using the licence of performance to embarrass or humiliate individual women. In real life, Dionysus is both the master-of-ceremonies and the lead performer.

In the fictional accounts of play and film (which were scripted and directed by men), the story-line followed men who stripped in order to earn a living and to prove themselves ‘real men’ in their ability to provide for their families - thereby also revealing their ‘feminine’ or caring side. They were amateur strippers who, having been deprived of work in typically ‘male’ professions (mining and steelworking), emblematically asserted their manhood by trying to ‘realise’ it in financial terms. In exposing their naked, vulnerable bodies to an audience, they risked derision; moreover, if they failed to please they risked (and this was an idea which cropped up in several of these presentations) being ‘torn apart’ by the women. Although this seemed a long way from Iron John male-bonding in forest glade saunas, it did, surely, represent the assertion of a late twentieth-century liberation of men to explore their male/female identities. In terms of performing the Bacchae, it means that the spotlight was back on Pentheus, and his testing out of what it means to be a ‘real man’.

This brief and rapid survey of some late twentieth-century manifestations of the Bacchae will, I hope, have indicated what a rich text it is for all kinds of performers to work on.

More information on these, and many other productions of the play, can be found on The Open University’s Reception of the texts and images of ancient Greece in late twentieth-century drama and poetry in English database. Details of Actors of Dionysus productions may be found on their website.