Bacchae, Euripides’ last gift

In Greek ancient history 406 B.C. is remembered for the battle of Arginusae and the consequent fretly taken death sentence issued against six Athenian generals who, albeit having won the combat, did not rescue the crews of some ships hit during the fight – allegedly because of the adverse weather conditions; a brutal and unreasonable episode that symbolises a remarkable change, the descending fate of the Attic overestimated supremacy and consequently the early days of the sunset of the ancient Greek civilisation. In my opinion though, the year 406 B.C. coincidentally marks one of the most important events of antiquity, impacting the future development of the western thought, as both Aeschylus and Euripides died and with them the Attic tragedy.

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The death of Euripides, a true and profound thinker, an incredibly deep analyser of human nature, capable to discover the anxieties of man’s soul, an acute and often obscure witness of the changing times, coincides perhaps with the beginning of our own era. The dawn of a new function attributed to drama – and, maybe, art in general – the birth of a new theatre conceived and considered as pure aesthetic experience, just like a seeming Spiegel of life. What is represented on stage is not aiming at any profound touching, conversion or reflection but to mere pleasure: art as aesthetic per se.

Yet in 405 B.C. Euripides’ echo still lingers on his contemporaries in a tragedy represented abroad, in Amphipolis, where he had found refuge under the protection of King Archelaus: Bacchae.

Bacchae is to be considered the very last message of an exhausted and old Euripides, misapprehended and undervalued by his generation, and discomforted by the events he had witnessed and by being misunderstood when he so generously had tried to give us clues to interpret our human condition, to enlighten us by tossing us a key to endure the sense of life. Euripides acknowledges the precariousness and uncertainty of being and firmly admonishes all those that are either unaware or disregard their status of being human and consequently frail and not at all faultless. He condemns the spreading excess of self-confidence of mankind and consequently discourages those ambitions that overestimate human abilities, both as individuals and even worse when gathered in a crowd; the same crowd that had sentenced to death the generals of Arginusae, and the very same assembly that will shortly afterwards sentence to death Socrates.

In Bacchae, Dionysus, arrives in Thebe in disguise, in order to affirm his questioned status of God and to prevent the sacrilegious abolition his rituals and ceremonies:

Behold, God’s Son is come unto this land
Of heaven’s hot splendour lit to life, when she
Of Thebes, even I, Dionysus, whom the brand
Who bore me, Cadmus’ daughter Semele,
Died here. So, changed in shape from God to man,
I walk again by Dirce’s streams and scan
Ismenus’ shore. There by the castle side
I see her place, the Tomb of the Lightning’s Bride,
The wreck of smouldering chambers, and the great
Faint wreaths of fire undying–as the hate
Dies not, that Hera held for Semele
.

Dionysus allows himself to be captured and chained by King Pentheus who is determined to stop the God’s lascivious cult in his πολις, notwithstanding the admonishing wise words of Teiresias, that sounds like a preach coming from Euripides himself:

ταν λβ τις τν λγων νρ σοφς
καλς φορμς, ο μγ ργον ε λγειν·
σ δ ετροχον μν γλσσαν ς φρονν χεις,
ν τος λγοισι δ οκ νεισ σοι φρνες.
θρσει δ δυνατς κα λγειν οἷός τ νρ
κακς πολτης γγνεται νον οκ χων.

[Good words my son, come easily, when he
That speaks is wise, and speaks but for the right.
Else come they never! Swift are thine, and bright
As though with thought, yet have no thought at all]

Pentheus saturated by his over-confidence also doubts about Dionysus divine origins, and therefore he blasphemously dares to ill-treat him and at times he even mocks him:

Marry, a fair shape for a woman’s eye,
Sir stranger! And thou seek’st no more, I ween!
Long curls, withal! That shows thou ne’er hast been
A wrestler!–down both cheeks so softly tossed
And winsome! And a white skin! It hath cost
Thee pains, to please thy damsels with this white
And red of cheeks that never face the light!
(omissis…)
First, shear that delicate curl that dangles there.

The punishment of Pentheus’ arrogance and overriding self-confidence undergoes a long gestation, a stratagem used surely to enhance the taste of vengeance of Dionysus – who plays like the cat with the mouse – but mainly this ploy is used by the author to divulge how useless can be any human design and planning if one ponders and realises how many are the uncontrollable variables that characterise any event and action in our life. To add drama Dionysus prefers to have Pentheus own mother, Agave, to unintentionally perform his revenge: during the Baccahe ritual the God induces Pentheus to disguise himself in woman attire and spy the forbidden lubricous ceremony: the poor semi-unconscious mother slays Pentheus thinking he is a lion and triumphantly will show her son’s head. Dionysus will lead the epilogue explaining and stating his supremacy and how feeble and disillusioned humans can be.

Wise words are spoken by Euripides who borrows again old Teiresias’ voice and perfectly stigmatised the human limits that should never be forgotten:

οδν σοφιζμεσθα τοσι δαμοσιν.
πατρους παραδοχς, ς θ μλικας χρν
κεκτμεθ, οδες ατ καταβαλε λγος,
οδ ε δι κρων τ σοφν ηρηται φρενν.
ρε τις ς τ γρας οκ ασχνομαι,
μλλων χορεειν κρτα κισσσας μν;
ο γρ διρηχ θες, οτε τν νον
ε χρ χορεειν οτε τν γερατερον,
λλ ξ πντων βολεται τιμς χειν
κοινς, διαριθμν δ οδν αξεσθαι θλει

[Or prove our wit on Heaven's high mysteries?
Not thou and I! That heritage sublime
Our sires have left us, wisdom old as time,
No word of man, how deep soe'er his thought
And won of subtlest toil, may bring to naught.
Aye, men will rail that I forgot my years,
To dance and wreath with ivy these white hairs;
What recks it? Seeing the God no line hath told
To mark what man shall dance, or young or old;
But craves his honours from mortality
All, no man marked apart; and great shall be!]

Thus Euripides opens the gates to the beginning of a rather inglorious age – which perhaps is still ours –where actual values, sense of balance and true dimensions have become inhuman, out of reach, and steady refuge in the past cannot be answer. The unleashed overconfidence in human possibilities is of course the key of progress and has undoubtedly brought many technical and medical achievements, nevertheless it is undeniable that has also contaminated the human relationship with the environment and continuously impacts several – if not all – the actual aspects that pertain to the sense of living itself. Euripides unquestionably performed a comprehensive analysis and achieved a bright and lucid precocious diagnosis of both the essence and the discomforts of being, but unfortunately he left us without any therapy…

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12 comments on “Bacchae, Euripides’ last gift

  1. Ana de La Robla says:

    Para Nietzsche, Eurípides no era un trágico loable porque con sus obras cuestionaba la función tradicional del mito y acarreaba así con ello una crisis en la sabiduría natural de la tragedia. En efecto, en cierto modo Eurípides fue el responsable de un proceso de disolución de la funcionalidad mítica que tuvo, no obstante, unos efectos sobre la tragedia no precisamente reprobables. Gracias a Eurípides la tragedia se humaniza y crece. Y se torna más trágica si cabe. Así supo verlo Aristóteles, más lúcido en esto que el alemán mostachudo, al calificar a Eurípides como “el más trágico de los trágicos”, el autor que retrataba a los hombres “como son”, frente a Sófocles, que los dibujaba “como debían ser”.
    Es innegable que el teatro clásico comme il faut, con sus tramas y sus personajes al servicio de la religión, supone una obvia coerción para el escritor y para los caracteres que dibuja. Apartarse parcialmente de las reglas convencionales del género implica una ventana abierta a la fantasía creadora y a la perfección en los logros de la obra. Decía Reinhardt que cuanto más tradicionales son los dioses, tanto más oscuros –menos definidos, menos capaces– aparecen los seres humanos; es lógico. Con Eurípides no es necesario recurrir a las plantillas trazadas por la divinidad para denunciar y hasta encauzar los tormentosos vericuetos de la ética; semejantes conflictos se desenmascaran y se resuelven, en el curso de la más hondamente trágica de las humanidades. Sin embargo, y a pesar de todo esto, el teatro euripideo nunca gozó de excesiva aceptación entre sus coetáneos, y de hecho no obtuvo más de cinco victorias en los certámenes literarios al uso.
    Pero, ¿qué ocurre con Las Bacantes? Es la última obra de Eurípides… y no precisamente la más representativa entre las suyas. Las obras de Eurípides siempre presentan claramente a un héroe –o heroína– inmerso en ese conflicto que termina por solventarse, al precio que sea. ¿Y aquí? No hay héroe. Penteo es un tirano mucho más bobo que Creón; Agave es una insensata enloquecida. Las Bacantes supone una loa a la naturaleza desenfrenada, la manifestación más desmesurada de la physis derrotando al nómos. El mundo demasiado al revés, incluso para Eurípides. Extraño, ¿no?

  2. Ruth says:

    I was intrigued by this post and I’ve tried to read the tragedy but I couldn’t go much further because this is very very hard for me to understand, Ruth

  3. Karen says:

    Very inspiring post, it makes me think to all the bad things men are doing in the name of progress and destroying nature day by day, Karen

  4. stoa says:

    Ana, you are absolutely right; if not only strange this is rather controversial and somewhat even contradictory.
    Maybe Euripides in his old years was disappointed and disillusioned by his contemporaries and thus realised that he had overestimated his audience and polis; or probably to a certain extent he took a step behind in being the master of scepticism and a sort of educator, slightly revising his convictions; or perhaps – but less likely, though – he felt defeated in his creed and traded his strong rationalism for a more fatalistic and traditional religious rescue from pain and suffering on earth. Or more likely Euripides wishes to represent that any rationale can always easily be tainted by irrationalism, and this can happen anytime and to anyone. A sort of warning to human beings in order to remind them that nothing can be absolutely and totally under their control, that irrationality with its tricks and traps is always lurking ready to take advantage of any weakness we might disclose.
    Pentheus for instance may somehow represent the obstinate fighter of irrationality who counts on his strengths and beliefs; additionally he also fights against the tradition disregarding the advice of elderly Cadmus and Teiresias representing the old generation. Yet even this sort of “proto-illuminist” or “positivist” character fails; and he fails because in spite of his convinced rationality he lets loose his instincts for a few hours, and this is enough to remit his life in the hands of fate.

  5. stoa says:

    Dear Ruth,
    Greek tragedy is probably one of the densest and most difficult expressions of western culture, therefore it is not at all easy to “metabolise” it. I myself oftentimes have problems in deeply interpreting some compositions.
    I can assure you though, that it only takes time and patience and things will become more familiar and comprehensible, so do not give up.

  6. stoa says:

    Hello Karen! You hit a very delicate point: unfortunately overconfidence too often generates disrespect and thus easily it turns into pure vanity and show.
    The results are under everyone’s eye, alas!

  7. Emily says:

    I think that whatever faults may be found with The Bacchae, it remains unquestionably one of the most engaging, if enigmatic, plays of all times, and Euripides has to be regarded as Sutherland wrote “the greatest emotional colorist of the classical world” and also I agree with Caldwell as the first psychologist. Emily

  8. stoa says:

    Dear Emily,
    You are very welcome to my blog. Thank you for your very interesting and erudite comment and also your kind and largely detailed email: I will surely seek for the publications you have gently suggested me and hopefully soon read them so that we shall be able to comment them.
    As to your comment, I wish to add that most certainly Euripides’ qualities as interpreter of human nature and feelings are undeniable, albeit sometimes he seems quite obscure to me, I assume that he is less unintelligible to a specialist like you. Nevertheless this characteristic makes him even more appealing and I’ve got to admit that every time I happen to re-read it I still find new hints and perspectives: he never finishes enlightening me.

  9. CamArchGrad says:

    One of the most enlightening analysis of message of the Bacchae. I thank you for opening my eye’s to this new perspective.

  10. stoa says:

    Thank you very much, indeed.
    I hope you will like also my other older and future posts.
    You are always welcome.

  11. BACCHAE
    CASTING REGARDING THE CHORUS OF AN ANCIENT GREEK TRAGEDY

    The world tour of a Greek theatre production with the staging of the classical tragedy “BACCHAE” (VAKHES) by Euripides from the Theatre Scheme of Leonidas Leozides in direction of the pioneering and innovative director Leonidas Loizides- under the auspices of 4 ministries including the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs Is seeking 5 actresses or dancers, between the ages of 25-35, for all performances. The theatrical production “BACCHAE” will be presented in several states within the U.S., under the auspices of the WORLD COUNCIL OF HELLENES ABROAD (SAE U.S.A. REGION)

    For further information please contact Anna at 312.627.1821 of email at saeusa@sbcglobal.net, http://www.loizides.gr or http://www.myspace.com/leonidasloizides

  12. THEATRE RESEARCHER-THEATRE REVIEWER
    ANDREAS MAVRAKAKIS

    After waiting several months, with successive “waves” of advertisement, and a lot of rumours and mystery to hover regarding the performance “BACCHAE” of Euripides directed by Mr. Leonidas Loizides, under the auspices of 4 Ministries (!) and with the “crazy” ambition to tour worldwide, I had the honour to watch the said performance in Ios. Yes, it was an honour for me to be there and live this unique experience as a spectator in the exquisite theater of Ios, which experience was one of the ones that the theatergoing audience, unfortunately has rarely the luck to live in Greece and all the more so, watching a Greek production.
    First, I will commence referring to the novelty of Mr. Loizides, that is all the roles of the Ancient Tragedy of Euripidis (inclusive of the male roles) to be interpreted by actresses and this had been one of the major reasons that they prompted me as a theatre researcher, to watch the said performance of “BACCHAE” and not any other of the remaining three (I think), which are staged at the same time by other theatre schemes this summer. I admit that I did not regret it…not only because the interpretation-view of Mr. Loizides was a challenge, from which he emerges as the winner according to my point of view, but also because the entire conception of the performance from the point of view of the direction, was excellent, from the entry of the actresses into the stage until the last word. He selected to direct “BACCHAE” on the basis of the energy theatre (one genre of theatre, perhaps not so widespread with origins in Japan), making discernible the position of each role and transposing the center of gravity of the interpretation to the energy of the speech and the emotions transferring in a uniquely possible manner this energy to the spectator, using very austere means.
    The esthetic apprehension and direction line for the setup of the play, which was followed with exactness and harmony and was imprinted in the costumes as well as in the music of the play, was, very masterfully and cleverly, the Byzantine period. And this, not only because it is about a profoundly religious play of Euripides, with unbelievable diachronic symbolisms, but also because a part of the text of the specific ancient tragedy has been used almost selfsame in texts of the Church.
    The ten young and debutante actresses that were played the demanding parts of the play were very good and dealt deservingly with the difficult and heavy load that was assigned to them. Of course with great latitudes for improvement, but at a very good acting level, they were worthy of the trust of the director.
    All the contributors of the performance did their best, each one in its part, supporting the direction line, thus contributing in a perfect and harmonious result.
    Leonidas Loizides had to do a complete proposal and this is the most important thing for me, because we have to learn in this field, that an artistic work is not performed only for the sake of its performance, as well as a novelty is not be made just to say we have made a novelty, without the existence of a corresponding theoretical background and reasoning, and it is not performed if the rise of art one step higher is not the objective of these attempts.
    Finally, I would also like to congratulate the Greek State, that supported the said attempt, although it does not usually support such attempts, and to declare my conviction that the imminent tourney outside Greece, will present an artistic work, which will be a deserving representative of the quality Greek theatre abroad.

    ANDREAS MAVRAKAKIS
    THEATRE RESEARCHER-THEATRE REVIEWER

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