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.