LOOKING AT BACCHAE

Ed. by David Stuttard

Bloomsbury (2016) p/b 235pp £18.99 (ISBN 9781474221474)

Behind the twelve essays that form the meat of this collection lies S.’s translation, written for actors of dionysus’s (aod) touring production in 2000 (revived in 2003). It was this production that saw the company move towards physical theatre, and it spawned the extraordinary aerial adaptation as Bacchic (2008). In the dialogue, the translation is free, yet maintains the essential meaning. No suitably attired in leather boots, head of a traveller, but natural English. To offer a brief taste of the way it works, here are two relatively unremarkable lines which how S. converts Greek idiom into easy to speak English. A version close to the Greek might be:

Pentheus: Very much so, giving an immense weight of gold.
Dionysus: Why have you fallen into a great desire for this? (812-3)

But in S.’s version it becomes:

Pentheus: Yes! Yes I do! I’d give a lot to see that!
Dionysus: Why such desire?

Note the repeated ‘yes’, giving the actor a good opportunity to express Pentheus’ enthusiasm. For performance, this style has much to offer while the radical translations of the choral odes with their repetitive phrasing are distinguished by a more musical treatment.

Since their inception aod have had the support of many scholars who have contributed pre-performance talks that were initially published in aod’s journal Dionysus, and later as separate aod books. Essays on Bacchae appeared in 2003 and included essays by three of the contributors to this new volume, one of which has offered almost the same topic, but in a much expanded form. Bacchae, as Edith Hall points out, defies any attempt at finding a single ‘meaning’. It is a play of numerous paradoxes, as discussed here by Alex Garvie, and the god himself has different natures, brought succinctly together in l.861 (a god of terror and a god of gentle comfort in S.’s version). Attention is given to the play as part of a trilogy, to the myth and earlier tragic versions, to the staging (Semele’s tomb is prominent), to the costume (especially the cross dressing). Richard Seaford looks at the collective experience of the mysteries opposed to the isolated tyrant and examines Pentheus’ obsession with money, while James Morwood looks at laughter in the play and Hannah Roisman at revenge.

This list gives a glimpse of the variety of approach on offer. The essays may be more complex and less informal than the talks at performances, yet they are still written in an accessible style that makes the volume useful and stimulating for a wide range of readers.

Alan Beale

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