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Classical Drama and Society


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SECTION 2: CLASSICAL GREEK TRAGEDY AND THEATRE

Reading 2: Classical Greek Tragedy


TEXT: Euripides, The Bacchae, selections


Questions to Ponder Concerning This Text:

• How was this drama produced in the Theatre of Dionysus? What role does spectacle play in this drama?

• How do text and performance interact to produce theatre in this case?

• What is the message of the play? How does its presentation enhance its message?

• What is the role of the chorus? the actors? What technical support (masks, set, props, crew) does this script seem to presuppose?


Introduction: The story of Euripides' play concerns the city Thebes (northern Greece) founded by the Greek mythological hero Cadmus. Born in Phoenicia (the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea), Cadmus came to Greece searching for his lost sister Europa. After failing to find her, he decided not to return home but to settle there. As one of the "labors" he had to perform in establishing the city of Thebes, he killed a dragon, extracted its teeth and planted them like grain into the soil. From these teeth grew armed men, the Spartoi ("Sown Men"), who joined him as allies in building Thebes.

Cadmus' triumph was, however, short-lived. He soon discovered that he was cursed for having killed the dragon, when his wife bore no sons, only daughters all of whom met terrible fates along with their children. For instance, while out hunting one day, Actaeon, the son of Cadmus' daughter Ino, stumbled across the virgin goddess Artemis, naked in her bath. Angry at this affront to her modesty, she turned him into a stag, and his own hunting dogs promptly ripped him into human venison. The Bacchae concerns the terrible fates of two of Cadmus' other daughters and their sons: Semele and Dionysus, and Agave and Pentheus.

Semele was the mother of Dionysus by no less than the king of the gods Zeus. Having been impregnated secretly, Semele told her father and family that she was carrying Zeus' child but, instead of believing her, they mocked and scorned her. Desolate and disconsolate, she prayed for divine aid, and in response Hera, the queen of the gods and the principal wife of Zeus, appeared disguised as an old woman. She advised the girl to demand proof from Zeus that he was truly the king of heaven, for instance, to show himself to her in all his majesty. It was, in fact, a ploy by the jealous goddess to murder her mortal rival, for Zeus in all his glory is a lightning bolt.

Not realizing this, Semele did as she was advised. She went to Zeus and begged him for a favor, making him promise on the River Styx—even a god cannot break an oath made on the Styx—that, no matter what she asked, he would do it. When he consented and swore as bidden, she demanded to see him in all his glory. Transformed into a lightning bolt, he incinerated her instantly but the baby survived since it was half-divine. Zeus in pity took the scorched fetus and sewed it into his own thigh. Then a few months later he gave birth to his son himself.

This baby grew up to be the god Dionysus. Raised in Asia Minor away from the eyes of the jealous Hera, he lived amidst the luxury of the East. When he reached adulthood, Dionysus began to spread his cult and gather followers, mainly women whom he called maenads or bacchae (after his alternate name, Bacchus). His cult was one of revelry and inspiration, its attraction the release from toil and tedium. In another aspect as Bromius (god of noise), the young deity preached wild dancing and loud enthusiasm. He led his followers out to the forests and dressed them in the skins of wild animals, where they indulged in ecstatic behaviors. He also gave them a magic wand called a thyrsus which could serve as both spear in combat and staff of plenty.

At long last, Dionysus decided to return home to Greece, but when he got to Thebes he was met not with joy as a god returning home but with disrespect and mockery. Suffering humiliation even at the hands of his own family, Dionysus in anger turned his power against them. Returning their abuse, he drove the women of Thebes mad—including Cadmus' daughters, his own aunts!—and inspired them to flee onto a nearby mountain named Cithaeron. There they lived like wild animals, eating uncooked flesh and wearing skins. When the men of Thebes saw this, they were horrified.

Their king at the time was a young man named Pentheus, the son of Cadmus' daughter Agave and one of the "Sown Men" (Echion), making Pentheus a grandson of Cadmus just like Dionysus. Thus, these cousins first met on the ideological battlefield, the war over whether or not to accept the new cult into the city. At the beginning of the tragedy, having disguised himself as a mortal, Dionysus tries to reason with Pentheus and help him see all the advantages of allowing the new deity into the city—sometimes it can be good having a god in the family—but when Pentheus starts asking questions and all he gets back from the mysterious "stranger" with long golden locks and flowing eastern robes is surly answers and cryptic threats, he throws him in jail. Bars and chains, however, cannot hold back a god.

As we pick up the play, Dionysus dressed up in human guise has been incarcerated but is in the process of freeing himself from Pentheus' prison—actually not even a prison, but a horse stall!—by invoking an earthquake, another of this god's powers, he shakes Pentheus' palace violently. The chorus on stage, comprised of bacchae, who have accompanied him from Asia Minor, sing about what has just happened inside the palace.


CHORUS (of Bacchae from Asia)
(singing) Where on Mount Nysa, mother of beasts,
do you wave your magic thyrsus
over your sacred bands, Dionysus? Or
on the heights of Corycia?
Is it in the deep forests and
groves of Olympus, where
Orpheus once plucked his lyre
and the trees followed his music
and the wild animals, too.
O blessed Pieria, home of the Muses,
Dionysus honors you. He will come
and dance with you,
bacchaeing, and crossing
the sharp-roaring Axius river
he will drive his whirling maenads
across Father Lydias, too,
the river, bestower of joy to
mortals, who, so I hear,
waters the land rich in horses
with the purest of streams.

DIONYSUS
(from inside the palace) Listen!
Hear me! Hear my shouts!
O Bacchae! My Bacchae!

CHORUS
Who is that? Who is that? Where did that cry
reach my ears from? Was it from Dionysus?

DIONYSUS
Listen! Listen! I call you again,
Semele's child, the son of Zeus!

CHORUS
Listen! Listen! O master, master!
Come now to our sacred band,
O Bromius, Bromius!

DIONYSUS
Shatter the floor of the earth, sovereign Earth-shaker!

CHORUS
Ah! Ah!
The palace of Pentheus is going to fall
in rushing torrents.
Dionysus is in the palace!
Honor him! We honor him. O!
Do you see how the stone on the columns, the lintel-posts
move apart, those over there? Bromius resounds
in the chambers within.

DIONYSUS
Light lightning, thunder's raging face!
Burn down, burn down the houses of Pentheus!

CHORUS
Ah! Ah!
The fire! Do you see it? Can you see
blazing round the holy tomb of Semele
the flame of Zeus' lightning which
she once left behind her thunderstruck?
Throw to the ground your trembling bodies,
Throw, maenads! Your lord,
tossing up and down, assaults
the palace here! The son of god!

[At this point the text changes to a non-lyric (i.e. less musical) mode. The poetic meter now used (trochaic tetrameter) suggests physical activity and frenetic movement on stage, but not singing.]

DIONYSUS
(appearing in the doorway of the palace) Barbarian women! So, struck with fear, you fell to earth? You saw, it seemed, Dionysus shatter the palace of Pentheus. Come now, lift up your bodies and take heart, setting aside your shivering shapes!

CHORUS
O finest light to us of sacred shaking! How I thrilled to see you, from my lonely desolation!

DIONYSUS
Did you fall to hopelessness, when I was taken in the palace to be thrown in the gloomy dungeons of this Pentheus?

CHORUS
Of course, we did! Who would be my protector, if you should happen on misfortune? But how did you happen to free yourself from that impious man?

DIONYSUS
On my own I saved myself. It was easy. No problem.

CHORUS
But he put your hands in snares of chain!

DIONYSUS
Yes, but I had the last laugh on him. He thought he chained me up but in fact he never laid a hand, a finger on me. He fed only on his dreams. In a horse stall, the prison where he took me, he found a bull and lassoed it around the knees and hooves, his heart panting and sweat dripping off his body, his teeth grinding into his lip. I stood by quietly watching. After a while Bacchus came and shook the house and on his mother's grave he lit a flame. And Pentheus, when he saw that, he thought his palace was on fire and went rushing back and forth, yelling to the servants to bring water, a whole river, and every slave was hard at work, laboring at nothing. Finally, abandoning that task, afraid I might escape, he drew his dusky sword and rushed into the palace. And there Bromius—or so I thought, it's only my opinion—created a vision in the doorway. Pentheus, enraged at this, attacked and stabbed the shining air, thinking he was killing me. And that's not all; Bacchus drove him mad in other ways as well. He sank the palace in the ground. He shattered once and for all these my chains, these daggers to the eyes. Wasted by his excess, Pentheus finally dropped his sword. Against a god and being but a man, he had dared to go into battle. I calmly exited the palace and came out to you, thinking not a thought of Pentheus.


[Pentheus enters from the palace. Exhausted but still enraged, he confronts the stranger again. A messenger interrupts from Mount Cithaeron and tells Pentheus about the bacchae, women from Thebes, up there and all the miracles they have performed, but to no avail. Pentheus, only further angered, vows to move the bacchae off the mountain with force. As he is about to march an army out against them, the god steps forward. In what is the most puzzling but also somehow appropriate moment of the play, he seems to break open Pentheus' mind: "So, you want to see those women on the mountain, huddling together?" "Oh yes! I'd give a thousand pounds of gold for that." All Pentheus' repressed desires spill out and now, instead of marching against the women, he conspires with the god to spy on them. Dionysus notes that Pentheus cannot go there dressed like a man, for if he did, the women would spot him as an intruder and kill him. He says that Pentheus must dress up in women's clothes, like a maenad, if he wants to spy on the women. Pentheus balks at this suggestion but does not reject the idea wholesale. They go inside the palace. The chorus sings an ode, while Pentheus decides what to do. After the ode, Dionysus emerges.]


DIONYSUS
(speaking back inside the palace) You! The one so eager to taste forbidden fruits, to seize on things unseasonable, you, Pentheus, I'm talking to you. Come out here, in front of the palace, let yourself be seen to me, wearing your new clothes, you woman, you maenad, you bacchante, all so you can spy on your mother and her troops.

(Pentheus emerges slowly from the palace. He is dressed a maenad, with a long linen dress covered by a fawnskin, a thyrsus in his hand, a long blond wing bound with a ribbon on his head. He has a look of distraction and displacement, as if he does not fully realize where he is or what he is doing.)

DIONYSUS (con't.)
Why, you are the spitting image of Cadmus' daughters, any one of them!

PENTHEUS
(looking up in utter amazement) There are two suns in the sky, I think. And Thebes looks doubled, all her seven gates. (to Dionysus) And you, you are a bull walking in front of me, I think, and on your head horns have been growing. Has this happened to you before, turning into a beast? You are certainly a bull now.

DIONYSUS
The god is with us. He was not happy before, but now he is at accord with us. Now you see what you should be seeing.

PENTHEUS
(showing himself off) How do I look? Like Ino, maybe, or Agave. (whispering and giggling) She's my mother.

DIONYSUS
I see those women, I think, when I look at you. But a curl has fallen from your headband on this side. That's not the way I arranged your hair.

PENTHEUS
(sheepishly) It must have shaken loose when I was dancing like a maenad inside the palace.

DIONYSUS
Alright, I'll put it back. That's my job, after all.

(Dionysus tries to replace the curl under the headband, but Pentheus starts dancing again.)

DIONYSUS (con't.)
Oh, hold your head straight.

PENTHEUS
(standing still) Okay, you take care of me. I lay myself at your feet.

DIONYSUS
Look at you. What a mess! Your girdle's slipped, your pleats are uneven and your hem is on your ankles.

PENTHEUS
(looking at the right side of his dress, giggling) You're right. This side's a mess. (looking at the left side) But this side's fine over here.

DIONYSUS
I'm your best friend. You'll know that when you see those bacchae on the mountain, lying there sober, chaste, no matter what you think.

PENTHEUS
(ignoring him) Should I carry my thyrsus in my right hand? Or in this hand? What do bacchae do?

DIONYSUS
The right hand, and lift it at the same time as your right foot.

(Pentheus stumbles around trying to raise his foot and his thyrsus at the same time.)

DIONYSUS (con't.)
Good, good! That's what sane people do.

PENTHEUS
I want to pick up Mount Cithaeron, cliffs and bacchae and all, and put them on my shoulders. Can I?

DIONYSUS
Certainly, if that's what you want. Your mind before was not sound, but now it is.

PENTHEUS
Then I think we'll need crowbars. Or maybe I can rip the peaks up with my hands if I use my shoulder or my arm.

DIONYSUS
The nymphs won't like it if you destroy their groves, not to mention Pan. That's where he plays his flute.

PENTHEUS
Good point! And it's not nice to hurt a lady. (he has a sudden thought) The trees! I'll hide myself in the trees.

DIONYSUS
(scolding) You'll hide in a hiding-place that's right for you to hide in. A place where you can spy on maenads.

PENTHEUS
I can see them already, in the bushes, like birds caught in the labors of love.

DIONYSUS
Well then, you will be our watchdog against that. And you might just catch them by surprise, if they don't catch you first.

PENTHEUS
Let's go. Lead me, right through downtown Thebes! I'm the only man around here who would dare to do this.

DIONYSUS
The only man in this whole city who will bear the burden, you alone. For you the struggle waits, a struggle you deserve. So follow me. I will be your guide and savior. Someone else will bring you home.

PENTHEUS
Mother?

DIONYSUS
You will be a beacon to all people.

PENTHEUS
That's why I'm going.

DIONYSUS
Carried aloft, you will come . . .

PENTHEUS
You're pampering me.

DIONYSUS
. . . cradled in your mother's arms.

PENTHEUS
You will make me spoiled.

DIONYSUS
And what spoils you will be!

PENTHEUS
I'll finally get what I deserve.

DIONYSUS
Strange man, you are a strange man. And even stranger is the fate you go to meet. As everlasting as the stars will be your glory.

(Pentheus rushes off stage ahead of Dionysus to the mountain. Dionysus holds out his hands to the mountain.)

DIONYSUS (con't.)
Open your arms, Agave and your blood sisters, daughters of Cadmus! I bring you this boy here for a great struggle, though I will be the victor. And Bromius, too! What follows, history will tell.


[What follows is a choral ode, and then a messenger who reports the following. When Pentheus and Dionysus reached the mountain, Dionysus miraculously lifted Pentheus to the top of tree from which he could spy on the maenads. The god then disappeared. But instead of Pentheus spying on them, the bacchae spied him. They rushed up to the base of the tree he was hiding in and surrounded it. Unable to force him out of the tree, in a frenzy of magical power they ripped the tree up by its roots and sent the hapless Pentheus tumbling to the ground. His legs broken, he screamed for help as the maenads, possessed and convinced they had trapped a wild lion cub, moved in for the kill. He begged his mother Agave not to kill him, but in vain. She and her sisters shredded Pentheus still alive, limb from limb, and then played catch with his parts. The text of the messenger's speech seems to suggest that they even ate bits of him raw. As we return to the play, Agave has come back to Thebes and is carrying Pentheus' dismembered head like a hunting trophy though she thinks it is the head of a lion cub.]


AGAVE
(singing) Asian Bacchae!

CHORUS
Who addresses me? (turning and seeing Agave with Pentheus' head) Oh!

AGAVE
I bring from the mountain
a fresh-cut sprig for the palace,
a blessed beast.

CHORUS
I see. Welcome then to our revels.

AGAVE
I trapped this thing without a net,
A wilderness lion's newborn whelp.
Look at him!

CHORUS
What part of the forest?

AGAVE
Mount Cithaeron.

CHORUS
Cithaeron?

AGAVE
Cithaeron slaughtered him.

CHORUS
But who cast the spear?

AGAVE
First prize goes to me.
Blessed Agave they call me up there.

CHORUS
Who else?

AGAVE
Those of Cadmus.

CHORUS
Who of Cadmus?

AGAVE
His stock
after me, after me on this beast
laid their hands. Blessed the hunt!
Come, share now in our feast!

CHORUS
What? Share with you, wretch?

AGAVE
Young is the calf.
Look how his cheek here beneath his soft curls
is just now sprouting hair.

CHORUS
He looks like a beast wild with fear.

AGAVE
The hunter of Bacchus
wise with wisdom has sent on his foe,
this foe, his maenads.

CHORUS
The lord is a hunter.

AGAVE
Will you give praise?

CHORUS
I will give praise.

AGAVE
Soon the children of Cadmus . . .

CHORUS
And the boy Pentheus, too?

AGAVE
. . . will praise his mother,
who returns with a wild thing, the lion cub.

CHORUS
It is beyond belief.

AGAVE
Yes. Beyond belief.

CHORUS
Happy, are you?

AGAVE
I exult!
Great things, things great and
glorious are done in the hunt.


[The old king Cadmus, Agave's father, returns from the mountain, where he had stumbled upon the aftermath of Pentheus' slaughter. In the play's finale, having gathered what he could of his grandson's mangled remains, Cadmus brings them on stage in a wagon. There he confronts his daughter Agave rejoicing and still carrying around her son's dismembered head. As soon as he speaks with her, he realizes that she is mad and believes the head is that of a lion cub. It becomes his unenviable task to bring her back to earth and a sanity crueler than madness.]


CADMUS
(aside) Oh god, oh god! Once these women have seen what they've done, they will ache with a terrible ache. If only forever you could remain in this state you're in now, though not lucky, you would seem not unlucky.

AGAVE
What is not good, what is troubling you here?

CADMUS
(pointing to the sky) First turn your eye to the heavens.

AGAVE
Alright. (looking up) Why do you want me to look off at this?

CADMUS
Still the same? Or does it seem to you to have changed?

AGAVE
It's brighter than before, like a fog is lifting.

CADMUS
The dismay in your heart, is it still there?

AGAVE
What do you mean? I feel like I've returned somehow. My mind is different.

CADMUS
Can you hear me, and can you answer clearly?

AGAVE
I've forgotten what we were talking about, father.

CADMUS
Whose house did you go to, after you were married?

AGAVE
To the Sown Man. You gave me, they say, to Echion.

CADMUS
And what child of this house was born to your husband?

AGAVE
Pentheus, a son shared by me and his father.

CADMUS
Whose face is it then that you hold in your arms?

AGAVE
A lion's. Or so they said, the huntresses.

CADMUS
Look right at it. It's an easy thing to see.

AGAVE
Oh, no! What do I see? What is this thing in my hands?

CADMUS
Look at it closely! Learn it more carefully!

AGAVE
I see a terrible pain. God save me!

CADMUS
So does it look like a lion to you anymore?

AGAVE
No, but Pentheus! Oh god, I'm holding his head! (she shrieks with grief)

CADMUS
He was bewailed before you recognized him.

AGAVE
Who killed him? How did he end up in my hands?

CADMUS
The truth is terrible and inopportune.

AGAVE
Tell me. My heart is pounding at the things to come.

CADMUS
You killed him, with the help of your sisters.

AGAVE
Where did he die? At whose house? In what place?

CADMUS
In the same place where his cousin Actaeon died.

AGAVE
Cithaeron? Why did the poor boy go there?

CADMUS
He went to jeer at the god and his maenads.

AGAVE
How did we end up in a place like that?

CADMUS
You were mad. The whole city went Bacchus.

AGAVE
Dionysus destroyed us? (Cadmus nods) Now I know.

CADMUS
He was wronged a great wrong. You did not see his godhood.

AGAVE
And the dearest body of my son, father?

CADMUS
I have it, though I scarcely found it all.

AGAVE
How much of him? Is he laid out nicely?

CADMUS
[A line is missing here. Probably something along the lines of: "His head is missing, and some other parts (i.e. what was eaten)."]

AGAVE
Why Pentheus? Why punish him for my misdeeds?

CADMUS
He proved to be like you. He failed to honor the god. And so Dionysus punished us all in one blow: you and him, to destroy this house, and me too who is now childless of male offspring. This branch from your womb, poor child, is most wretchedly, cruelly cut down, now I see.


[The next section of the play is missing. In it Agave probably assembled the shattered pieces of Pentheus and over them sang a lament. In the last scene of the play (which is preserved), Dionysus appears in his full godhood and pronounces the fates of both Cadmus and Agave, that the whole family is to be banished from Thebes. The play ends as they say their tearful goodbyes and the god, smiling as he always is, watches over them silently from above.]


Course Description
Class Grading and Projects
Chapters
Syllabus
Slides
A Guide to Writing in History and Classics

 

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