Euripides, The Bacchae and Other Plays

The Bacchae and Other Plays (Penguin Classics)The Bacchae and Other Plays by Euripides

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wanted to read The Bacchae because I had a sense that it had something to do with Dostoevsky’s Demons, which I recently finished. It did, in that both works tell the story of a city visited by Dionysian frenzy. In Euripides’s drama, the frenzy is Dionysus’s revenge on the women of Thebes for insulting his mother by claiming that she lied when she said that Zeus was his father. The dramatic conflict centers on Pentheus, king of the city and grandson of its founder, who wants to suppress the outbreak of Bacchic worship among the city’s women. This draws him into combat with a disguised Dionysus himself, who eventually leads the proud puritan to his doom. Disguised as a female worshiper, ostensibly to spy on the reveling women, he is torn to pieces by the frenzied women, including finally his own mother. The play reads like a mysterious rite that should have an official mythological title—The Sacrifice of the Stern King. The locus of the audience’s sympathy is exactly nowhere. The raving puritanical leader, driven to increasing displays of power that only reveal his impotence, is always a dangerous political type, while the vindictive god and his manipulated worshipers, who go by degrees from utopian anarchy (freedom and play in nature) to dystopian anarchy (violence without limit), offer a painful reminder of revolution’s checkered career in human history.

In the translator’s preface to this volume, Philip Vellacott offers a Freudian reading of the play. Euripides is warning us, Vellacott persuasively claims, that if we deny the Dionysian impulses to play and drunkenness—i.e., if we become puritanical—these repressed urges will return with a vengeance and destroy us. Writing after both monotheism and the Enlightenment, Dostoevsky can’t explicitly credit the Dionysian urges themselves—the necessity for relief from order, for a bit of creative destruction—because history offers them to him only under the sign of universalist secular political ideologies (communism, anarchism, socialism) to which he counterposes Christianity. Maybe Euripides had the better poetic opportunity in being able to start from the polytheistic premise that the different dimensions of human thought and feeling should each be honored with autonomy. Then again, his tragedy moves with grim inevitability toward its violent end, so perhaps the translator’s 20th-century optimism is misplaced because, whether in 5th-century Athens or 19th-century Russia, the rite must happen in full, including the bloodshed.

I’ve owned this book, which contains three other plays, for almost 15 years, having bought it for a Greek civilization class in which we were assigned The Women of Troy. I only skimmed that play this time around, revisiting my undergraduate annotations, but it remains a remarkable work, less a drama than a series of lamentations by the eponymous women as they are pressed into Greek slavery after the Trojan War. But the play is ironic—dramatically ironic, in fact—because the Greeks have by their desecration of Troy’s temples earned the gods’ displeasure after their victory and are themselves about to be scattered over the seas, subject to the same violence from on high as the women they prey upon.

Helen is a strange comedy—a self-parody, acceding to the scholars, possibly first performed for an all-female audience at a festival honoring Demeter and Persephone. Fast-moving and uneven in tone, it posits (in an idea apparently derived from Herodotus) that the Helen taken by Paris to Troy was just an illusion generated by Hera to revenge herself on Athena, which means, as our translator points out, that the Trojan War was fought for literally nothing. This play finds Helen in Egyptian exile and dramatizes her reunion and escape with Menelaus.

The first and earliest play in the volume, Ion, is a bitterly and grotesquely funny story of paternity in which the title character, Apollo’s son conceived in rape of a mortal woman, is reunited with his mother. Both are convinced by the gods to pretend to go along with the idea that he is the illegitimate child of another man entirely, his mother’s current husband, so that he can go on to found Greek settlements in Asia. This is Euripides at his most corrosive, with the gods as rapacious schemers and mortals as their changeable pawns; by the “happy ending,” everybody stands accused.

Speaking of Dionysus and women, irony and intellectual reactionaries, as we have been: I am reminded that Nietzsche hated Euripides for his subjection of the gods to ironic portrayal and criticism and for his sympathetic depiction of women and slaves and other Untermenschen. For Nietzsche, Euripides was the Ibsen of antiquity, a Socratic Enlightener dispelling the ritual quality of tragedy by forcing reason onto the stage’s magic circle. But what makes Euripides great, sublime because not in spite of his pervasive mockery, is that his irony is so total—it encompasses the universe, so that we sympathize with the victims of history without imagining that much can be done about their plight, even as we also see that their tormentors and rulers are caught in the same capricious machinations of the amoral and immoral gods. If this is Ibsenite, it is more like The Wild Duck than like The Doll’s House: a dramatic world in where there are no answers, where truth does not console, and where the innocent and the guilty alike pay the price.