The Bacchae: The World’s Greatest Play

by Karen Malpede


            The Bacchae, playing now in Central Park, is the greatest of all Greek plays, perhaps the greatest play of all. Euripides wrote it at the end of his life while in exile living in his cave in Macedonia. I like to think of him, an old, disgruntled man, sitting alone with thoughts of death, watching from the shade of his stone arch while herds of sun-whipped women spun and turned in dappled light, looking like drunken fawns.  Women were let loose from confinement regularly but only for religious purposes.  He knew this; still, up close the antics of the freed females must have come as quite a shock to the citified man. Who knows what he saw them do?  

            Euripides would be thinking, too, of Athens, this city he’d left in scorn, which had betrayed its promised rectitude through imperial adventure after adventure, and was soon to dash its own democracy to death upon the shores of Sicily, grown over-extended militarily, cruel to its captives, narrow-minded in its market place and public life.

Tragedy had been invented to honor Dionysus, god of ecstasy and of the grape; his alter burned in the center of the orchestra, the dancing place.  Many of the gods appear fittingly in Greek tragedies, in the pro or epilogues and from their place apart on the roof of the stage house.  Euripides’ genius was to send Dionysus smashing into public life. No longer an imagined god around whose alter the chorus danced, nor a voice from above, but a living presence in the midst of the action, demanding recognition from the city that dishonors itself by refusing to honor him and exacting vengeance when recognition is denied. 

Recognition had been denied Euripides too many times in Athens, winning third prizes when clearly he deserved the first because Medea and other of his plays unsettled and disturbed.  Was he a feminist or a woman-hater?  Either way, he understood the Athenian fear of women, but more, of womanly ways, would bring them down.  A nation-state cannot simply be bent on conquering, on military adventure; it has to save itself for passion, and by passion, too.  But passion for what?  It’s easy, and correct, to say, man must honor all the gods—experience all emotional inevitabilities of life, also, of death.  Hyppolutus had been dragged to death by his horses for scorning Aphrodite, refusing the love of women.  Actaeon, too, was ripped apart by his own hunting dogs for denying Artemis, the virgin goddess of animals and the hunt and it happened in those same hills of Cithaeron, where his cousin Pentheus soon would perish, torn apart by his own mother.  Men deny their female selves at their peril.   Nations bent on war deny something, too.  

The women have danced upon and despoiled earth.  The god has also come to tell them this.  The women have made the land give milk and honey, but they have dishonored it, as well, by demanding too much, stealing too many resources, becoming drunk on their own bounty and beneficence.  They’ve forgotten someone, something, controls nature beyond themselves, that their work is to live in harmony, not excess. 

What is it Dionysus wants of Thebes?  Surely, he wishes honor for his mother, Semele.  He wants recognition that she was his mother. From her womb he was ripped by lightening sent by jealous Hera.  Semele was beloved of Zeus.  What can any of this mean?  Nice to love one’s mother.  Terrible to ruin a city over unrecognized mother-love, yet that is what he does.  He brings everyone, men and women, Pentheus’ mother Agave, his grandfather Cadmus, to their knees.  He smiles while they realize they have been capable of the vilest deeds.  Agave in a fit of madness dismembers her son, the only heir to the city.  She beheads him, possessed by a vision that he is a mountain lion and she the conqueror of the mighty beast. She tortures the son she loves by denying him even while he cries out to her, “mother, mother.” It is the primal dream of horror, dreamt equally by ravenous infant and stunned primipara.   How can anyone ever adequately care for another?  How can any mortal woman sate the child’s greedy maw?  Euripides reaches back to touch the psychological core.

Dionysus may be a god of vengeance let loose upon us, but he is something else—a progenitor of Christ, he is half-mortal.  He walks among us because he is also us.  We deny our similarity to the god with terrible consequences not for him but for Pentheus and for the city.  Pentheus is crucified in Dionysus’ stead, the god merely steps aside.  He escapes earthquake, fire; he bewitches the mortal man to commit sacrilege and he smiles.  We are not doomed to everlasting hell for denying Dionysus, only to suffer more than we can bear while we remain alive. But what does Dionysus want?  What does he expect from humankind?

  Euripides wanted recognition. In the most personal sense this is a bitter and self-serving play.  You drove me out by dishonoring my works; now look at what you’ve done to yourselves by denying the dramatic truths I brought.  He did not live to see this play produced.  It was taken to Athens by his son.  After the poet’s death his city could tolerate his poetry, the familiar story, only then. But by then it was too late for the city to save itself. 

Euripides is not Dionysus, of course, nor is he Pentheus. But they, his antagonists, are two halves of one another.  They’ve been torn, ripped in half before the play begins, we  watch self battling unrecognized self—and watch the ruination of the public life such ignorance of the self-same must bring.   The other is us and in us; ignore these facts at your civic peril.  The other is divine, as well.

Is there balm in this story?  Is there a position to be taken?  Is there lesson learned?  Are we to exalt in the “indomitableness of the human spirit?”  No, there is no such cant.  Euripides shows us human beings superior to gods only in our ability to mourn our losses, to love and grieve our dead.  The gods know nothing of this. They destroy with impunity. They gather up the pieces of no corpses. They kill us, no, worse, far worse, they loose in us the fatal rage that insists we kill our own, our nearest and our dearest, our youngest. We send them off, full of ideas of grandeur, to fight our wars, and only after they’ve been torn apart do we pause to mourn.  

There is no god of healing in this story.  Reconciliation is beyond us utterly; we may grieve our losses, decry our destructiveness, but to suffer we are doomed.  Thank you, Euripides for leaping past doctrine, reaching through sheer force of poetry beyond any idea of what is right or wrong, what might save us, for slaying ideology utterly.  For asking us to stand and be.  Sway in the wind. Rationality will kill us.  Irrationality will do the same.  Sit in a cave and watch the women dancing with abandon.  Feel terrified.    Absent yourself from the human struggle.  In this sense the play is profoundly Buddhist, Zen.  It would be good to take a break from conquest.  To listen, absorb, allow the poetry to enliven without anger, to let the adrenaline rush come from taking in the terrible beauty of the spectacle that is The Bacchae.  Not to need to control.  


© 2009 by Karen Malpede.  All rights reserved.  Reprinted by permission of the author.   



(Karen Malpede, M.F.A., is a playwright in the theater of war and witness tradition.  Her recent plays are:  “I Will Bear Witness” a stage adaptation of the Victor Klemperer diaries which won two Obies and toured internationally; “The Beekeeper’s Daughter” about a survivor of a rape camp during the war in Bosnia which had productions in Italy, Australia, and off-Broadway and won for the playwright the McKnight National Playwright’s Fellowship and is currently under development in Europe as a motion picture, “End of the Century.”   “Prophecy,” about the legacies of the Vietnam and Iraq wars, was produced to critical acclaim in London; featuring Maria Tucci or Kathleen Chalfant in the lead role, the play has been presented as a rehearsed reading at: The Kennedy Center, the Makor/Steinhardt Center of the 92nd St. Y, the Public Theater, the Cherry Lane Theater and New York Theater Workshop.  She has written essays published in anthologies and journals in the US and UK about theater of witness and her earlier contributions to theater history include one of the first books on women in theater, Women in Theatre: Compassion & Hope. Contact: 718-789-5404; kmalpede@earthlink.net; kmalpede@gmail.com.)


Shakespeare in the Park


Original Music by PHILIP GLASS

With April Armstrong, George Bartenieff, Sullivan Corey, André De Shields, Marisa Echeverría, Jonathan Groff, Tara Hugo, Jennifer Ikeda, Karen Kandel, Jennifer Nikki Kidwell, Alexa Kryzaniwsky, Vella Lovell, Joan MacIntosh, Anthony Mackie, Nana Mensah, Steven Rishard, Ereni Sevasti, Elena Shaddow, Rocco Sisto, Han Tang


Performances of The Bacchae will be Tuesday through Sunday at 8pm
Added perf (No distribution/Stand-by line only): August 24
No perf: August 25

JoAnne Akalaitis returns to The Public Theater to present Greek tragedy as it was always meant to be seen – in the open air of the city. This visionary interpretation, featuring a lush choral score by Philip Glass, re-imagines the classic story about what happens when a government attempts to outlaw desire.

Artistic Staff for THE BACCHAE:

Scenic Design: JOHN CONKLIN
Costume Design: KAYE VOYCE
Lighting Design: JENNIFER TIPTON


Soundscape:  DARRON L. WEST


Music Director:  MICK ROSSI

Choreographer:  DAVID NEUMANN

Production Stage Manager:  MARTHA DONALDSON


More information, visit:  http://www.publictheater.org/content/view/126/219/


Delacorte Theatre

The outdoor Delacorte Theatre is the summer home of the annual "Shakespeare in the Park" production. Begun in 1957 by Joseph Papp as part of the Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival the annual productions draw thousands to the open air theater at the heart of Central Park. Originally built as a temporary structure in 1962, the Delacorte Theater is the setting for the continuing series.

The theater is semi-circular in shape and the audience is treated to the sight the lovely summer landscape forming a backdrop to the stage. This includes Turtle Pond, and the almost dreamlike vista of Belvedere Castle looking down from above, waiting for its close up

Location: Mid-Park at 80th Street

Details: Southwest corner of the Great Lawn

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