The Bacchae: Wikis


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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 BCE
Setting Thebes

The Bacchae (Greek: Βάκχαι / Bakchai; also known as The Bacchantes) is an ancient Greek tragedy by the Athenian playwright Euripides, during his final years in Macedon, at the court of Archelaus I of Macedon. It premiered posthumously at the Theatre of Dionysus in 405 BCE as part of a tetralogy that also included Iphigeneia at Aulis, 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 mythological story of King Pentheus of Thebes and his mother Agavë, and their punishment by the god Dionysus (who is Pentheus' cousin) for refusing to worship him.



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, and while pregnant, she was killed because she looked upon Zeus in his divine form. Most of Semele's family, however, including her sisters Ino, Autonoe, and Agave, refused to believe that Dionysus was 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 (Bacchantes), and at the start of the play has returned to take revenge on the house of Cadmus, disguised as a stranger. He has driven the women of Thebes, including his aunts, into an ecstatic frenzy, sending them dancing and hunting on Mount Cithaeron, 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.


Dionysus first comes on stage to tell the audience who he is and why he decided to come to Thebes. He explains the story of his birth, how his mother Semele had enamoured the god Zeus, who had come down from Mount Olympus to lie with her. She becomes pregnant with a divine son; however none of her family believe her, thinking the illicit pregnancy of the more usual sort. Hera, angry at her husband Zeus' betrayal, convinces Semele to ask Zeus to appear to her in his true form. Zeus appears to Semele as a lightning bolt and kills her instantly. At the moment of her death however, Hermes swoops down and saves the unborn Dionysus. To hide the baby from Hera, Zeus has the fetus sewn up in his thigh until the baby is ready to be born. However, Semele's family—her sisters Agave, Autonoe, and Ino, and her father, Cadmus—still believe that Semele blasphemously lied about the identity of the baby's father and that she died as a result. Dionysus comes to Thebes to vindicate his mother Semele.

The old men Cadmus and Tiresias, though not under the same spell as the Theban women (who include Cadmus' daughters Ino, Autonoe and Agave, Pentheus' mother), have become enamored of the Bacchic rituals and are about to go out celebrating when Pentheus returns to the city and finds them dressed in festive garb. He scolds them harshly and orders his soldiers to arrest anyone else engaging in Dionysian worship.

The guards return with Dionysus himself, disguised as his priest and the leader of the Asian maenads. Pentheus questions him, still not believing that Dionysus is a god. However, his questions reveal that he is deeply interested in the Dionysiac rites, which the stranger refuses to reveal fully to him. This greatly angers Pentheus, who has Dionysus locked up. However, being a god, he is quickly able to break free and creates more havoc, razing the palace of Pentheus to the ground in a giant earthquake and fire. Word arrives via a herdsman that the Bacchae on Cithaeron are behaving especially strangely and performing incredible feats, putting snakes in their hair in reverie of their god, suckling wild wolves and gazelle, and making wine, milk, honey and water spring up from the ground. He tells that when they tried to capture the women, the women descended on a herd of cows, ripping them to shreds with their bare hands (Sparagmos). Those guards who attacked the women were unable to harm them with their weapons, while the women could defeat them with only sticks. Dionysus wishes to punish Pentheus for not worshipping him or paying him libations. He uses Pentheus' clear desire to see the ecstatic women to convince the king to dress as a female Maenad to avoid detection and go to the rites, as is shown in the dialogue:

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.[2]

Dionysus dresses Pentheus as a woman and gives him a thyrsus and fawn skins, then leads him out of the house. Pentheus begins to see double, perceiving two Thebes and two bulls (Dionysus often took the form of a bull) leading him.

The god's vengeance soon turns from mere humiliation to murder. A messenger arrives at the palace to report that once they reached Cithaeron, Pentheus wanted to climb up an evergreen tree to get a better view of the Bacchants. The blond stranger used his divine power to bend the tall tree and place the king at its highest branches. However, once he was safely at the top, Dionysus called out to his followers and showed the man sitting atop the tree. This, of course, drove the Bacchants wild, and they tore the trapped Pentheus down and ripped his body apart piece by piece.

After the messenger has relayed this news, Pentheus' mother, Agave, arrives carrying the head of her son. In her possessed state she believed it was the head of a mountain lion, and she killed him with her bare hands and pulled his head off. She proudly displays her son's head to her father, believing it to be a hunting trophy. She is confused when Cadmus does not delight in her trophy, his face contorting in horror. By that time, however, Dionysus' possession is beginning to wear off, and as Cadmus reels from the horror of his grandson's death, Agave slowly realizes what she has done. The family is destroyed, with Agave and her sisters sent into exile. Dionysus, in a final act of revenge, returns briefly to excoriate his family one more time for their impiety. Cadmus and his wife Harmonia are turned into snakes. Tiresias, the old, blind Theban prophet, is the only one not to suffer.

Modern interpretations

Binary divisions of the Self and the Other

In The Bacchae, Dionysus is the protagonist; furthermore, he embodies aspects of both, the Self (for example, part Greek god and male) and the Other (of Asian descent and effeminate in character). When Pentheus unknowingly talks of Dionysus, he describes him as ‘some Asian foreigner, masquerading as a priest…too womanish to be a proper man’. So he insults his ethnicity, appearance, manliness and even his higher godly status.

The Bacchae can be said to enact a clash between two opposing ethnic groups; Greek and Asian. Cadmus tries to dissuade Pentheus from his quest into the unknown, urging him to not to stray from the safe sanctuary that is home: ‘Dwell within the temple of our beliefs, not in the wilderness that lies beyond’. Pentheus is adamant on hunting the impostor, who is actually Dionysus in disguise, declaring: ‘He’ll soon regret the day he brought his filthy foreign practices to our city in the West’. He later interrogates Dionysus: ‘Where are you from?’; ‘Why then bring your practices to my home?’ These foreign practices are especially threatening as they threaten to corrupt all the womenfolk, sending them into frenzied worship practices; Pentheus: ‘…this foreigner who dares infect our women's minds and bodies and our beds’. Bacchae is an occasion when some women revolted against male authority and broke the bonds tying them to their clear and narrowly defined domestic sphere within a patriarchal society.

The Theater as the Other

To be gazed upon by the mask of Dionysus is to cross the threshold between sanity and madness, between the real and unreal. When an actor put on his mask at the festival of Dionysus he marked an irruption into the heart of public life of a mode of being totally alien to the everyday world of the city. In The Bacchae an actor must assume the mask of Dionysus himself; the god himself is the protagonist. Both actors and audiences must join their fate with Dionysus and allow themselves to be taken into the imaginative world of ‘the other’ in theatrical illusion. When Dionysus goes against such accepted polarizations, he is questioning human perceptions of reality and what we see in the world; namely, a fundamentally empirical method is a weak tool, when compared to the unlimited illusion of the theater. He subverts these binaries and turns hierarchy on its head – he allows women to question the supremacy of men, but then punishes them by sending them mad - he contradicts himself, as he himself is contradictory in his nature (he is symbolized by giant phallus but his masculinity is compromised by his long hair, delicate beauty and decorative clothing; he is worshiped in the wild hillside but is central to an important and organized cult in the heart of the city; he blurs the division between comedy and tragedy).

Dramatic versions

  • 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 Butlin's-style holiday camp. An author's note at the beginning of the text of the play states that: "[n]o 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."[3]
  • Wole Soyinka adapted the play as The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite with the British Royal National Theatre in London in 1972, incorporating a second chorus of slaves to mirror the civil unrest in his native Nigeria.
  • Brad Mays directed his own adaptation of the play at the Complex in Los Angeles in 1997, where it broke all box office records and was nominated for three LA Weekly Theater Awards[5] : for Best Direction, Best Musical Score and Best Production Design. Because the production featured several scenes with levels of violence and nudity rare for even the most experimental of theater pieces, it was widely discussed in print[6], and even videotaped for the Lincoln Center's Billy Rose Theatre Collection in NYC[7]. The production was eventually fashioned into an independent feature film [8] which, interestingly, featured Will Shepherd[9] — the Pentheus of Richard Schechner's Dionysus in '69 — in the role of Cadmus.
  • Wole Soyinka, Richard Schechner, Alan Cumming and Brad Mays were all interviewed about The Bacchae as part of an up-coming series An Invitation to World Literature, which will launch on Annenberg Media's educational website in September, 2010. [10] The series is also intended for national airing on PBS through WGBH Boston sometime in 2010.
  • The Bacchae 2.1, a theatrical adaptation set in modern times, was written by Charles Mee and first performed in 1993.[11]
  • 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 is currently on tour and features original music by Andrea Rocca.
  • In May 2008 BBC Radio 7 broadcast Dionysos, a ninety-minute drama based on The Bacchae written by Andrew Rissik and starring Paul Scofield as "Cadmus" and Diana Rigg as "Agave".

Operatic versions

  • Harry Partch composed an opera based on The Bacchae titled Revelation in the Courthouse Park. It was first performed in 1960, and a recording was released in 1987.

Musical versions

In Summer 2009, the Public Theater (of New York City) produced a version of "The Bacchae" with music by Philip Glass.

Significant quotations

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?"

Dramatic Structure

In a play that follows a climatic plot construction, Dionysus the Protagonist, instigates the unfolding action by simultaneously emulating the play's author, costume designer, choreographer and artistic director. [13] Helen P. Foley wrote of the links between the importance of Dionysus as the central character and his effect on the play's structure, she writes: "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."[14] At the start of the play, Dionysus gives us the exposition and from which we can highlight the play's central conflict; the invasion of Greece by an Asian religion.[15]

Critical Review

Up until the late nineteenth century the play's themes were considered far too gruesome to be studied and appreciated. It was Nietzsche's "Birth of Tragedy" in 1872 that reposed the question of Dionysus's relation with the theatre that elevated interest in The Bacchae. In the twentieth century performances of The Bacchae had become quite fashionable, particularly so in the opera due to the dramatic choruses found throughout the story.[16] R.P Winnington-Ingrams review in 1948 praises the work of Euripides, he writes: "On its poetical and dramatic beauties he writes with charm and insight; on more complex themes he shows equal mastery."[17]


See also


  1. ^ Rehm (1992, 23).
  2. ^ Euripides. Ten Plays by Euripides. Trans. Moses Hadas and John Mclean. New York: Bantam Books, 1981, p.299
  3. ^ Orton, Joe. 1976. The Complete Plays. London: Methuen. p.278. ISBN 0413346102.
  4. ^ Dionysus in '69 at the Internet Movie Database
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ The Bacchae 2.1 on the web.
  12. ^ "A Greek God and His Groupies are Dressed to Kill", New York Times theater review by Charles Isherwood, July 5, 2008
  13. ^ Teevan (2001, 4)
  14. ^ Scully (1987, 321)
  15. ^ Johnston (2001)
  16. ^ Morwood (2008, x-xi))
  17. ^ Norwood (1949, 317)


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