BACCHAE

I love the classics. I spent two years translating Virgil’s Aeneid from Latin to English when I was in high school and then continued with the Greeks and the Romans at university. Last night I had the enormous good fortune of seeing Euripides’s Bacchae at The Getty Villa, a play which imagines how the worship of Dionysus, god of wine and theater, developed in Thebes, his Greek birthplace. The god arrives with a chorus of Asian women who perform the festive and ecstatic music and dance associated with his rites. Angry with his aunts who deny that his father is Zeus, Dionysus bewitches the Theban women and sends them into the mountains to worship him. Pentheus, the young king of Thebes, tries to repress the rites, but he becomes increasingly fascinated and frustrated by Dionysus, who has disguised himself as a beautiful, androgynous cult leader. Dionysus eventually persuades Pentheus to dress in female garb and spy on the Theban women, then leads the spellbound king to the mountains. Once they sense an intruder, the possessed women tear Pentheus apart. Among them is Agave, Pentheus’s mother and one of Dionysus’s aunts, who returns to the city not realizing that the head she is carrying is her son’s. Her father, Cadmus, brings her back to her senses. Parts of the ending of Bacchae’s manuscript are damaged, but the play certainly exiled the royal family and established Dionysus’s cult.

Euripides wrote Bacchae in Macedonia following a period of social unrest in Athens. After his death, the play was performed with two other tragedies in Athens in 405 BC and was awarded a first prize in the city’s theatrical contests. The worship of Dionysus, which included the performance of tragedy and comedy, was central to the life of Athenian democracy. Although the god of this play promises all the festivities that were later instituted in his honor at Athens, he is also cruel to those who resist him. Euripides spent his life composing tragedies in Dionysus’s honor, and critics have wondered why the play so powerfully dramatizes the terrifying as well as alluring sides of the god. Bacchae became enormously popular in the late 1960s and ’70s, when the play was interpreted as dramatizing a populist uprising, an ecstatic reunion with nature, and an assertion of gender fluidity and liberation from conventional social roles. It continues to be performed and adapted across the globe.

Read more about how Ann Bogart, the director of Bacchae and several other Greek plays produced by The Getty, made a play from 405 BC relevant in the age of Trump. The Getty Villa is glorious no matter the circumstances, but on a cool September evening with coastal fog enveloping the stage it made me even more grateful to be sitting in that amphitheatre, enjoying all the talent and wisdom converging before my eyes.