The review at the NYT of the production of The Bacchae was predictably cute. The production played as part of the Next Wave Festival in a new translation from Aaron Poochigian. Maybe we’re supposed to like Dionysius, especially this one played up as a bad-ass woman rocker of a certain age, dressed in red leather and mugging like Mick Jagger to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s I Put a Spell on You. She’s full of sass. We are supposed to like the picture of the women of Thebes dancing barefoot in full riot, breast-feeding wolf cubs, disemboweling cows, wearing belts made of snakes, giving the lie to patriarchal authority.
That’s all well and good, but not so simple. Even in this modern production, the chorus of the god’s maenads are armed and they carry themselves with determinate menace. Their god is a jealous god without an iota of mercy. At the high pitch of the drama, I remembered the part by Aristotle in the Poetics where he talks about how Tragedy excites shared emotions of pity and terror. I took my off eye off the actors onstage and looked across, up and down at the audience from my own vantage point. No one was laughing now. At least that’s what I saw. All you could see from the audience, lined up in rows watching, was horror at the action onstage when Agave, at first celebrating and then screaming in Japanese as she comes to realization, brings out the severed head and bodily remains of the son she has just torn into shreds, her son Pentheus, the tragic hero of the drama, who refused the god and the madness the god represents when denied.
Wisdom is the key to the play. Is that why Nietzsche in the Birth of Tragedy despised Euripides, saw in him the death of tragedy and the beginning of the Socratic spirit in philosophy? What’s wise, we learn, would have been to welcome the god. As put with disgust by the soldier who delivers the dire news about Pentheus, “As for me, I’m leaving this disaster, before Agave gets back home again. The best thing is to keep one’s mind controlled, and worship all that comes down from the gods. That, in my view, is the wisest custom, for those who can conduct their lives that way.” And then finally, after the god is revealed, after the tragedy is revealed in full, these are the concluding words of the play by the leader of the chorus, “The gods appear in many forms, carrying with them unwelcome things. What people thought would happen never did. What they did not expect, the gods made happen. That’s what this story has revealed.”
For a modern audience, the lesson might be this. Madness looks fun and you can dress it up, until you see it in the havoc and unwelcome things wrought by an angry and unforgiving god. It was that horrific.