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Greek Tragedy: The Bacchae of Euripides

Euripides wrote The Bacchae at the very end of his career and did not live long enough to see it produced.  In it he finally manages to achieve a happy balance between the classicism which bogged down the plots of some of his mid-career plays and the satire and social commentary that run through his earlier works.  The god in the play is an integral, developed character, not a stilted deus ex machina like Aphrodite in Hippolytus.

The Bacchae is fascinating partially because of its subject matter, Dionysus, whom Durant calls “the most troublesome, the most popular, the most difficult to classify of all Greek gods.”  Most of us have a passing acquaintance with Greco-Roman mythology, gained mainly from pop culture tropes inherited from Victorian writers.  If we know Dionysus at all, we probably picture him as the fat, tipsy Bacchus in Disney’s Fantasia.  After all, he’s just the god of wine.  How important can be be compared to the other Olympians?

The answer is, “incredibly important”.  Even though he was the last deity to be formally admitted to the Olympian pantheon, Dionysus was a popular god in the Greek world from Mycenaean times right up until the Christian domination of the Roman Empire.  He was a fertility god and, at times, an almost messiah-like figure who promised rebirth in the afterlife.  Unlike the other Olympians, who had been brought to Greece by conquerors and always maintained their associations with the ruling class, Dionysus was a god of the working class, women, and counter-cultures.  The cult of Dionysius played a similar role to later religions that originally evolved among oppressed minorities, such as Voodoo, Rastafarianism, and Primitive Christianity.  The orthodox elites were never able to stamp out Dionysianism, but they accepted its presence only grudgingly.  While it existed, though, it provided an important social “safety valve” for people who would otherwise have had little hope.

Dionysos [photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen, CC-BY 2.5 via Wikimedia]

Dionysos [photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen, CC-BY 2.5 via Wikimedia]

Many people have written about the parallels between the Dionysian cult (particularly its later off-shoot, the Cult of Orpheus) and Christianity.  Like Christ, Dionysus was the son of a father god (in this case Zeus) who had been killed and then rose from the dead.  Like Christians, Dionysians believed in a happy afterlife, in contrast to the usual Greek vision of a dim eternity as shades in Hades.  Much has been made of the importance of wine in both faiths, and of the superficial similarities between Dinonysus’ arrest and trial by Pentheus and Christ’s trial by Pilate.  All of these synchronicities are fairly cosmetic, however.  Christianity and Dionysianism had very different moral teachings and doctrines.  It is doubtful that Dionisianism influenced Christianity in any meaningful way.  They were simply two different faiths that occupied the same niche in different periods.  Many of the features that they have in common are also found in other mystery cults throughout the ecumene.

The primary mode of worship for the Dionysians was the bacchanal, in which groups of worshipers went into the country and made themselves incoherent with wild music and alcohol.  Usually, the climax of the bacchanal came when the bacchae tore a live animal apart with their bare hands, reenacting the god’s death at the hands of the Titans.  Usually the victim was a goat or bull, but it was not unknown for them to seize and kill innocent bystanders.

Euripides’ play is the story of Pentheus, king of Thebes.  Pentheus is worried about the growing influence of the Dionysian cult and has determined to suppress it.  He arrests a young man whom he believes to by a Dionysian rabble rouser, but who is actually an avatar of the god.  Dionysius has already determined to punish Pentheus for his impiety and make an example of him, thus removing any doubt about his god-head.  After giving Pentheus a chance to repent, Dionysius takes control of his mind, convincing him that it is a good idea to infiltrate the bacchae and spy on them, disguising himself as a maenad, or Dionysian priestess.

Dancing Maenad in a Roman relief [photo by Ana Belén Cantero Paz, CC BY 2.0 via Wikime

Dancing Maenad [photo by Ana Belén Cantero Paz, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia]. The Maenadae were full-time priestesses of Dionysus who traveled the countryside leading bacchanalia.

Of course, the bacchae immediately notice Pentheus, helped by the fact that Dionysus has placed him in a tree for a better view.  They tear the tree down, then rend Pentheus limb from limb, led by Pentheus’ own mother, whom Dionysus has enchanted to believe she is fighting a wild animal.

The semiotics of this play are very rich, with each image connoting multiple levels of symbolism.  For example the scene where Dionysus helps Pentheus adjust his female clothing symbolizes not just how far he is in the God’s power, but probably also an inner jealousy of the bacchae and their freedom–on some level he wants to join in the bacchanal and forsake his kingly duties.  At the same time, it could be interpreted as Dionysus decorating and preparing a sacrifice.  It should also not be forgotten that the sacrifice in a bacchanal represents Dionysus himself.  On one level of meaning, he is helping Pentheus to be more Dionysus-like.  I’m sure you could find at least as many semiotic observations about the tree, the scene where Dionysus is bound and his hair is cut, the severed head of Pentheus, and many other symbols in the play.

When Euripides wrote The Bacchae, he was treating on a religious friction which still quite active in his day, even though the play is supposedly set in mythological times.  The cult of Dionysus was still quite active and making the ruling class uncomfortable.  Euripides was treading beyond the edge of political correctness to write a play about them, particularly one with such an ambiguous message.  Euripides, like most of the Athenian playwrights, was an educated man from an affluent citizen family.  If anything, we would expect him to denounce the cult.  He really doesn’t though.  What he does is create a work where the audience’s sympathies are divided between the two sides, and where the final message is open to multiple interpretations.  The Bacchae is “classic Euripides”, in every sense, the perfect play on which to end his career.

Greek Tragedy: Hippolytus of Euripides

I read Hippolytus and The Bacchae as part of a single volume, translated by Gilbert Murray, who also translated my copy of Medea.

Of the three plays, I found Hippolytus to be the most forgettable.  I’m not really sure what makes it a Great Book.  Phaedra, the young wife of Theseus, has fallen in love with Hippolytus, Theseus’ bastard son.  She first attempts to stay loyal to Theseus but then gives up and tries to make advances to Hippolytus.  Hippolytus, who has chosen a life of voluntary celibacy, is horrified at the idea of an affair with his father’s wife and chastises her at length.  Phaedra then commits suicide, leaving  note that falsely accuses Hippolytus of raping her.  The enraged Theseus banishes Hippolytus and calls down a curse on him which results in his death.  A plot with this much human interest would have been a fertile field for any tragedian, but Euripides’ efforts are underwhelming.

The two most important characters, Phaedra and Hippolytus, are underdeveloped.  Phaedra only falls in love with Hippolytus through the powers of Aphrodite, which is convenient but adds much less plot interest than a less arbitrary romance would. There is no foreshadowing of Phaedra’s suicide note; none of her dialogue indicates that she blames him for the situation or wishes to punish him.  Until the point where she writes the note and hangs herself, she is a completely passive character, little more than a tool in the real conflict, which is between Aphrodite and Hippolytus.

Phaedra in a fresco at Pompeii [photo byFinn Bjørklid, CC BY-SA 3.0  via Wikimedia]

Phaedra in a fresco at Pompeii [photo by Finn Bjørklid, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia]

As for Hippolytus, none of his motivations are developed.  Why is he celibate?  The only reason we are given is that he is a follower of Artemis, who was a patron goddess of virgins, but did not normally demand celibacy of her followers.  He would be a more interesting character if he showed that he was at least a little bit tempted by Phaedra, but he clearly isn’t.  Alternately, the author could have given him a back-story about why he is distrustful of women, or why he has chosen to worship Artemis in this particular way.  Again, there is no depth and the the character seems unresolved.

And speaking of Artemis, if Hippolytus is so devout, why can’t she protect him from Aphrodite?  Artemis’ explanation, when she finally does take the stage to comfort the dying Hippolytus, seems a bit weak:

...'Twas the will
  Of Cypris that these evil things should be,
  Sating her wrath. And this immutably
  Hath Zeus ordained in heaven: no God may thwart
  A God's fixed will; we grieve but stand apart.
  Else, but for fear of the Great Father's blame,
  Never had I to such extreme of shame
  Bowed me, be sure, as here to stand and see
  Slain him I loved best of mortality!

After all, Aphrodite is already interfering with Artemis. Why isn’t she standing up for herself or appealing to Zeus?

The device of using Aphrodite at all seems like lazy plotting. Granted, the core theme of Greek Tragedy is man’s final helplessness in the face of destiny. Aphrodite is used more as the embodiment of a universal force than a character. The characters are destined to be destroyed by Love, and there is no escape. But the script doesn’t quite work, and a playwright of Euripides’ stature should have found a way to fix it.

Venus and Amor, Hans Balung [public domain via Wikimedia]

Venus and Amor, Hans Balung [public domain via Wikimedia]

This play was written towards the middle of Euripides’ career.  Possibly, we are just seeing an example of mid-career burn-out.  Maybe he needed a play for the festival that year and didn’t have any good ideas, so he dusted off a script from the slush pile.  There is no way to know.

I don’t hate this play, but it doesn’t seem to belong with the other fifteen tragedies I’ve read so far in this project.  I suppose I’m probably missing something.  Hippolytus shows up on many Great Books lists, so others must have seen something in it that I don’t.

Luckily, I do not have the same objections to the next play on my list, The Bacchae.

Greek Tragedy: Aeschylus

This month I continue my survey of the Great Books by reading the theatrical works of Aeschylus, earliest of the three great Greek tragedians.  Seven of Aeschylus’ plays have come down to us, although four of them are parts of now lost trilogies and the authorship of one of those, Prometheus Bound, is often questioned.  When I read these plays in order I realized what a powerful transformative influence Aeschylus must have been on the art form by seeing how much his own work changed over time.

Amphitheater at Delphi [user Luarvick, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

Amphitheater at Delphi [user Luarvick, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

At the beginning of Aeschylus’ career, Greek tragedy was already at least a couple of generations old.  It grew out of an older tradition of bards called rhapsodies reciting religious poetry at festivals.  The first Greek playwright, Thespis had created an entirely new genre when he started writing pieces in which the Rhapsody played actual characters instead of just narrating.  He also backed him up with a chorus which could interact with the character, giving the audience cues about how they should react, and probably also enriching the piece with dance, chanting, and simple sound effects.

Greek playwrights didn’t use stage directions.  However, in his earlier plays like The Supplicant Maidens and The Persians there is the definitive sense that the actors spend much of their time standing in one place talking to the chorus, much as they must have done in Thespis’ plays.  Aeschylus is famous for being the first to have multiple actors in his plays, but in the early works he seems to still be working out the possibilities.  The dialogue between actors is limited, and there is no physical interaction between the characters.  The emphasis is on the language in their speeches.  In point of fact, Aeschylus is usually considered to be the best straight-up poet among the big three tragic playwrights.

By Prometheus Bound, one of the latest plays, he has overcome any inhibitions about interactions between the characters.  The first scene is a masterfully written three-way dialogue between the gods Prometheus, Hephaestus, and Kratos (Strength) while Hephaestus chains Prometheus and rivets him to the side of a mountain.   Not only is there plenty more expository dialogue as the play goes on, there are enough (implied) special effects to keep a modern CGI studio busy for weeks: the chorus arriving in winged cars and hovering before dismounting, a god riding a Hippogriff, a woman who has been turned half-way into a cow, and of course the entire mountain collapsing at the end of the play after it has been struck by a thunderbolt.  One can only imagine the look on the stage manager’s face when Aeschylus showed him the script.

Hephaestus, Bia and Crato Securing Prometheus on Mount Caucasus, Henry Fuseli [Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

Hephaestus, Bia and Crato Securing Prometheus on Mount Caucasus, Henry Fuseli [Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

As I said earlier, many scholars debate whether Aeschylus actually wrote Prometheus Bound.  However, the actual writer was probably either his son or another of his close associates, who would have been trained and influenced by him; the work represents an evolutionary end point of his art, whether or not he penned it personally.  The fact that the play contains so much more interaction and visual interest than the earlier works is particularly noteworthy when we recall that the main character spends his time chained to a rock and can’t move.

Aeschylus was a writer who spent his career pushing to enlarge and improve his art.  We modern writers would do well to adopt him as a role model.  The reason Aeschylus is remembered after 25 centuries is he wasn’t afraid to push the envelope in his genre and “break the rules” if it would improve the end product.  And he was successful enough at it that other writers began imitating him.

These days I think many authors, particularly new authors, are afraid to take creative risks.  Following established formats and creating a mystery novel or epic fantasy (or what have you) that is just like all the others on the market is a recipe for forgettable writing.  If you want to be like Aeschylus, you need to come up with a way to innovate and do something to make it your own, not just follow the established conventions of your chosen genre.