If you were to attend a writing workshop these days, one of the first cliché instructions that the professor or your fellow workshop attendees would trot out is the old “show, don’t tell” maxim. The idea is that it’s more exciting for readers or audience members to witness the actions themselves rather than have someone recount the whole thing in the past tense. This is apparently not the advice that the writers of Ancient Greece traded with one another. Like many plays of its day, Euripides’ version of The Bacchae
relies heavily on storytelling to reveal the most gruesome and horrifying moments of the tale. And in many ways, it’s that fact alone that makes this work so contemporary.
"Bacchae" is the plural of bacchant, which is the name of the devotees of Dionysus, the god of wine and theater. Most people think of Dionysus in relation to drink and sex and costume and carnival. But the real Dionysus is not a fat, happy old codger spilling wine from his glass, and his worshipers did far more than get drunk and slut it up. Sure the bacchants were famous for their dancing and their orgies, but they were also known for their savagery, their murderous tendencies, and for often being in hallucinatory trances.
As a young god, Dionysus ran away to Asia after his mortal family rejected him. When he returned to Greece years later, he and his worshippers were seen as foreigners. They represented the “other” in the eyes of the Greeks—think of the worst delusions of Orientalism or blaxploitation, think of the lies about health care, the lies about weapons of mass destruction, the fear and hate-mongering that we all know too well. That’s where this play starts—the outsider and his wicked ways are threatening the hearth and homeland.
It’s also important to note that the bacchae (who are the Greek chorus in this play) are all women in this version. Here you need to start thinking about the Salem witch trials, about the way in which women are used as pawns both by the Americans arguing against Islamic fundamentalism and also by the fundamentalists themselves. It’s worth pushing that a little bit further even and to think about the ways that any fundamentalist or orthodox religion treats women and uses gender roles as a means of control, and the way in which religions react to those who don’t share their beliefs.
So here we are, the “other” has infiltrated our city and brought a bunch of screaming banshees with him. Unlucky, or lucky, for you, we don’t really get to witness any of the much-talked-about depravity of these women or their god. Mostly we hear about it in testimonies from different witnesses. The audience becomes the jury. We are the ones sitting in judgment as the tale of Dionysus seeking revenge for the wrongs he feels his family has done against him unfolds. Think of how much we rely on second and third-hand accounts to help us understand what’s really happening in a war or a conflict.
This is a pretty loaded text in the 21st century, to say the least. And it requires real guts on the part of all involved in order to make it work. It’s the kind of show that ought to hold no prisoners, everyone should be eviscerated. Unfortunately, this production just didn’t get there—too often it felt like hokey bombast instead of a drama with real implications.
Joanne Akalaitis is a much reputed director who has done great work in her career, but this show is not her best. It’s not helped by the fact that the acting is generally weak. The primary problem is likely in the casting of Dionysus. He is, after all, a god not only of pleasure, but also of vengeance and chaos—like a bottle of wine or a dose of drugs, he can turn from a pleasant diversion into a destructive force rather quickly. Dionysus has to drip sex and sin and temptation and murder. The soft, T-shirt and jeans-clad Jonathan Groff, better known for his role in Spring Awakening
, just looks young and overblown. Not the kind of guy that everyone would want to fuck at the same time that we’re afraid he might eat us alive.
Another odd acting choice is the fact that Agave and the Messenger both speak with hints of a British accent. Seriously? From what I gather Joan Macintosh (Agave) is from New Jersey and Rocco Sisto (the Messenger) was born in Italy and has played in a couple episodes of The Sopranos
. Those accents are a silly put-on. Are we still in a place where we think that imitating Brits makes theater legit? It’s a lame choice. Watching people gesture and emote in grandiose ways when the story is so real and contemporary just makes the whole thing seem laughable when it should be disturbing.
All that said, Akalaitis did make some great decisions. The way she handles the chorus, making them the real driving force in the drama, is very effective and highlights the unique choice that Euripides made in using women. The music of Philip Glass is perfect for this play—the repetition and swirling soundscapes that he creates are ideal for heightening the tension between what’s comfortable and what we fear. And the acting of Anthony Mackie in the role of Pentheus is some of the best in the show. Pentheus is your Eliot Spitzer, your Strom Thurmond, your Larry Craig—he’s the self-righteous prick who is passing laws and screaming to the hills about moral corruption all the while debauching himself behind the scenes. Unfortunately, Akalaitis doesn’t give us time to really see and experience that critical switch when Pentheus is lured by Dionysus into admitting to his secret desires, the turn that brings about his brutal end. That’s the switch that the audience should experience as well—we should be entranced by Dionysus, tempted into entering a new realm of pleasure and ecstasy that quickly turns into something dark, because we too have been swept up into a belief system that perpetuates horrific violence in the world.
The relationship between belief and violence is at the center of this play. Dionysus is a powerful god, but the bacchants choose to follow him instead of other gods. We choose to drink, to take drugs, to put ourselves under the influence of other forces, and so we have to ask if it’s fair to blame those other forces entirely when we commit evil acts? The climax of the play comes when Agave kills her own son without realizing it. But in our day and age she’d get off without question on temporary insanity—she was in a cult, she was drunk, or high, or both, and her god told her to do it. That’s right, he told her to kill her own son, to literally rip him apart—he was standing behind her, egging her on, or so we’re told—we didn’t see what happened ourselves, the Messenger told us. And there’s the rub. We have to figure this one out for ourselves. Euripides, in Nicholas Rudall’s clear and simple translation, doesn’t
give us any easy ways out.
Because of the content, because it is so intimately connected to the world we live in right now, this is a show worth seeing. If you can get tickets, and you can get past some of the hokier elements in the production, you won’t have spent the evening poorly.
As a sidenote, even though the virtual line seems like a more convenient way to get tickets to the show, rather than standing in line for hours, from what I hear, you’re very unlikely to actually get tickets by that lottery system. You’ll fare much better the old fashioned way.
(photo credit: Joan Marcus)