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Why we need to listen to the words of Euripides September 8, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Hellenic Light Europe.

David Greig, whose new version of The Bacchae swept the Edinburgh festival, explains why we need to listen to the words of Euripides now more than ever

I hadn’t been working on my new version of The Bacchae for long when I came across some lines that resonated very strongly with me. In the chorus, the Bacchae sing a hymn to the good things that come of accepting Dionysus and warn of what happens to those who don’t. In the middle of this song, they sing: “To sophon d’ou sophia.” It’s a piece of Euripidean wordplay that Ian Ruffell, in the literal translation I adapted for the National Theatre of Scotland production, rendered as: “Wisdom is not cleverness.”

Throughout The Bacchae, Euripides contrasts the two different ways of experiencing knowledge. One is the intellectual, rational, linguistic knowledge we might call “cleverness”; the other is a more organic knowledge born of physicality, instinct and custom, which we might call “wisdom”. So wisdom is not cleverness. In fact, though, even the terms “cleverness” and “wisdom” seem too simplistic for the opposition that forms the spine of this great play. It is best brought out in the long, witty scenes between Pentheus and Dionysus. Pentheus is “a clever and persuasive man”, but he is not “wise”. He comes to embody a cluster of attributes that are held in opposition to Dionysus, the god, hero of the play. Pentheus is wholly male. Dionysus is both male and female. Pentheus is Greek. Dionysus is foreign. Pentheus is “rational”. Dionysus is “playful”.

Dionysus was the last god to arrive in the Greek pantheon. It has been suggested that his assimilation to Olympus came with the arrival of wine in Greece. Wine originated from Persia, and the Greeks felt unsatisfied that a substance central to their culture should be foreign. So they devised their own god of wine, Dionysus, who, although born in Greece, was not recognised by his family and hence was exiled to Persia. There he converted the foreign barbarians to his religion. Finally, he returned to Greece at the head of a band of foreign women worshippers, the Bacchae, and claimed his rightful place among the gods.

The cult of Dionysus quickly became one of the most important in Greece and spread throughout the ancient world. As well as being the god of wine, he also became the god of dance, of music, of “otherness” and, most crucially for The Bacchae, of “release”. One of the god’s key names is Bromius, which is usually translated as The Roarer. I found that the word “roarer” sat badly in an actor’s mouth, and I don’t feel the English word “roar” conjures the right sense of ecstatic release, so I chose to call him The Scream. With this word I wanted to capture the fearful power of “release” and also its strength. It brought to mind, for me, Arthur Janov’s Primal Therapy or the screams of teenage girls at Beatles concerts. It also had connotations of effeminacy that seemed to connect with Dionysus’s crossing of gender boundaries.

Dionysian “release” comes when worshippers gather and take part in sacred dances in the wildness of the mountains. In the play, Pentheus associates these secret dances with sexual orgies. He worries that the women of Thebes, his women, are being corrupted by the new cults. His old adviser, Tiresias, contradicts him:

Dionysus doesn’t force women to have sex, Pentheus, no, when the women dance their bodies are, for once, their own. God’s gift to do with as they please.

Tiresias makes the point that Dionysian release, whether it be through wine, sex or dancing, is a release from the constricting bonds of our own selfhood. Dance worshippers transcend the boundaries of their own bodies and become one with the god, one with each other and with nature. In this moment of ecstatic release they become part of The Scream.

Like all Greek tragedies, The Bacchae was written to be performed in Athens, at the festival of Dionysus. Dionysus was also the god of theatre, after all, and the performance of plays was an important part of his worship. The festival playwrights would create works to compete for prizes in just the same way as ancient Greek athletes would compete at the early Olympic games.

As I worked on Euripides, I came to realise that he was using a very new technology when he wrote for the stage. He was inventing the rules of this new medium and breaking them as he went along. Compared with the complex stagecraft we have available to us today, The Bacchae might seem simple, primitive and sometimes even crude: the action happens offstage, the choruses do not “move the action on”, and scenes remain as static dialogues. But the basic storytelling is full of drive and energy, and in every scene there is a moment when we get a real sense of the playwright’s delight in his own stagecraft. A good example of this is the scene where Dionysus persuades Pentheus that he should put on a dress to go and spy on the women dancing on the mountain.

Pentheus is desperate to see what happens on the hillside when the Bacchae worship their new god, but he refuses to experience the dance himself. He wants to gain access to Dionysian sexual mystery, “to see everything”, but he is afraid of losing himself. Dionysus suggests that the best way to see the mysteries without losing himself would be for Pentheus to dress up as a woman. The prince is worried: “Dress up as a woman? But, I’m a man!” Eventually, his desire to see overcomes his fear and he goes offstage, into the palace, to look for a dress.

Greek tragedies would be performed in the daytime, in the open air, to an audience of up to 15,000 men. By all accounts these audiences were noisy and participative. Fifteen thousand men, that’s basically a football match. Imagine 15,000 men, on a hot afternoon in Athens, watching this new play called The Bacchae written by the most senior writer of his day. The play is reaching its climax when Dionysus, who has had all the comedy so far, calls for Pentheus, a straight man in every sense of the word, to re-enter for the climactic dialogue. At last Pentheus enters, dressed like a princess, with the plaintive, eager line: “How do I look?”

Pentheus, dressed as a woman, is being humiliated on his way to a horrible denouement, all because he refuses to lose himself in the dance. How many of those 15,000 men would see themselves in Pentheus? How many would feel uneasy about seeing this parody of masculinity and femininity played out in front of them, blurring boundaries?

This moment, for me, holds the key to the contemporary meaning of The Bacchae. It is a play by a man, about men, for men. Throughout, Euripides shows that the values associated with masculinity, rationality, logic, control and articulacy, do not cancel out the “female” Dionysian forces of emotion, instinct and physicality. Pentheus constantly associates Dionysian attributes with women and foreigners. “Greek men know better,” he says. He believes real men can and must defeat these Dionysian forces. But Pentheus is wrong. The chorus warn him: “Intellect must always submit to the power of the scream.” Pentheus cannot defeat the Dionysian because it is already within him. Euripides shows that if you do not recognise the Dionysian spirit within yourself, or in your society, then it will surely return and destroy you in ways more horrible than you can imagine.

As a drama student at Bristol University in the late 1980s, I was a little late to belong to ecstasy culture, but I do believe that for a brief moment sometime around 1990 there was something truly Dionysian abroad in Britain. Illegal dances held in the open air, in nature; strange new songs that encouraged the participants to lose themselves in each other; and a culture in which masculinity and femininity evaporated into something much more ambiguous, open and strange. Of course, that culture quickly degenerated into a horrible consumer parody of itself. But there was a moment, I think, when something transcendent, something sacred even, something Dionysian, was part of popular culture.

Whenever a Greek tragedy is revived today, the question is asked: “Why now?” For me, Euripides’s concerns remain as relevant as they were 2,000 years ago. There are still men who would control women in order to bolster their shaky sense of self. There are still men who are lost because they refuse to lose themselves in dance. And so we still live with the psychotic and uncontrolled violence that will appear whenever a repressed Dionysian force reasserts itself, as it always will.

The Bacchae is at the Lyric Hammersmith, London W6, until September 22. Box office: 08700 500 511.

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