Rosie Wyles on a late masterpiece by Euripides.

Euripides’ Bacchae offers a devastating dramatization of the power of the gods. First produced in fifth-century Athens, most likely in 405 BC, this tragedy shows its protagonist Pentheus experience a complete peripeteia (reversal of fortune).  At the outset he is the powerful ruler of Thebes but by the end his dismembered body parts are being carried onto stage. The cause of all this is Dionysus, god of wine and theatre. Pentheus, Dionysus’ cousin, has denied his kinsman’s divinity and outspokenly rejected his worship. Enraged by this, Dionysus sets out to punish Thebes. He informs the audience of this intention in the prologue and by the end the god has accomplished his plan in spectacular fashion. Appearing triumphantly on the mechane (stage crane), he shows no remorse when his grandfather, Cadmus, chastises him for being like a mortal in his rage. Dionysus responds by coolly announcing that his father Zeus had agreed to this long ago.  While there are textual difficulties to the end of the play (the surviving manuscript suffers from a significant lacuna (gap) before Dionysus’ final epiphany), it is nevertheless clear from this ending that the tragedy’s dramatic force comes from Pentheus’ complete destruction and its accompanying display of divine power.

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Stamnos with maenads and totem of Dionysos, attributed to the Dinos Painter, Attic, c. 430-420 BC, red-figure ceramic - Princeton University Art Museum (Wikimedia Commons)

Yet this ending does not simply present the demonstration of divine power in general. Pentheus’ undoing is carefully construed to offer a display of this particular god’s power. It is now well established in scholarship that Euripides presents Dionysus as god of drama directing a ‘play-within-a-play’ in the Bacchae ending with Pentheus’ demise.[1] The metatheatrical signals are prominent from the play’s opening. Dionysus delivers the prologue and explicitly references his use of disguise. By ‘playing the part’ of the priest for the internal audience (i.e. the characters in the playworld), Dionysus invites the external audience (in the theatre) to reflect on the nature of acting. Euripides could depend on the audience’s experience of previous performances that had established this trope, ensuring that they were alert to the cue (see, for example, Dicaeopolis in Aristophanes’ Acharnians). For those audience members requiring further priming to recognise the metatheatrical invitation issued by the prologue, a further prompt soon emerges as Dionysus directs the chorus of Lydian maenads (female followers of Dionysus) on how to perform their parodos (choreographed entry song). Such cues continue through the play’s action, resulting in one of the most striking elements to this tragedy being Euripides’ ability to maintain a sustained sub-dialogue on the nature of theatre without detracting from the tragic impact of Pentheus’ destruction.

In fact, the discourse on theatre rather than competing with the tragic effect contributes to it.  This can be seen clearly in the presentation of Pentheus dressed as a maenad. This scene takes place as the culmination of a series of battles between Pentheus and Dionysus. In each encounter, Dionysus gets the upper hand. This is prominently manifested, for example, by Dionysus’ escape from the palace after Pentheus had attempted to lock him up. Pentheus is outplayed by the god and yet is blind to the implications. He continues to resist the worship of Dionysus, touting the possibility of taking up arms against his followers. But as soon as he accepts the plan to disguise himself as a maenad with the intention of spying on the worshippers of Dionysus, the audience understands that the god has exerted complete control over him. Pentheus, dressed up as a woman, is now under the sway of Dionysus.

The audience is aware that the trope of disguise invites metatheatrical reflection in general (as at the play’s opening). But Euripides does not allow this to undermine the power of the moment. Instead he enhances the dramatic effect through creating a specific allusion to, extraordinarily, comedy.  Pentheus’ cross-dressing evokes a comic scene from Aristophanes’ Women at the Thesmophoria, performed six years earlier. The similarity of the general scenario (a male character disguising himself as a woman to infiltrate an all-female festival) coupled with a directly paralleled concern over the pleat on the disguised male character’s dress (Ar. Thesmo. 256 cf. Eur. Bacchae 935-6) secures the allusion. The comparison prompts reflection on the difference of settings. The Aristophanic scene playfully explores the idea of dressing up, and pursues it later, with hilarious consequences, through a series of elaborate parodies of Euripidean tragedy. Pentheus’ costume and the play-within-a-play that he is set to star in, however, is far from playful or comic. It is emphatically tragic. This is not parody. This is ‘real’ and the outcome for Pentheus will be fatal. Inviting the audience to think about Pentheus’ costume change through the filter of the Women at the Thesmophoria risked mediating its effect, distancing the audience from the emotional punch of understanding the clothing’s significance. Yet the pay-off is worth it, since the emotional impact of the scene is intensified by the comparison as the audience process what they see with the painful awareness of how far removed it is from the comic action of six years before.

Euripides’ technique in this respect is not restricted to exploiting comedy. One of the most arresting moments, visually and emotionally, of the tragedy is the appearance onstage of Pentheus’ mother, Agave, carrying the head of her son. The audience already knows from the messenger speech that Agave and her sisters have dismembered Pentheus in a bacchic frenzy and perverse enactment of sparagmos (tearing apart a ritual victim, usually an animal). Agave, however, is yet to realise what she has done. She thinks that she is carrying the head of a lion cub or bull. It is only through her exchange with her father Cadmus that she comes out of her bacchic state and understands that she is holding her son’s decapitated head in her hands. Her horror is captured in her exclamation, ἔα (1280), usually translated ‘Ah!’ or, in performance, conveyed by a scream.  Even in this moment, however, the metatheatrical strand to the action persists, since the head of Pentheus was mostly likely represented by the mask that the actor had worn when playing the role of the king. So that when Agave suggests nailing this trophy from the hunt up on the front of the palace, the audience may reflect on the Athenian custom of displaying masks from theatre productions as dedications on the sanctuary of Dionysus.[2] This marks the end of the play-within-a-play and signals Dionysus’ triumph, as Pentheus’ palace is transformed into the god’s sanctuary

Here, again, a specific allusion to a previous performance saves this metatheatrical sub-dialogue from becoming too disruptive to the emotional force of the dramatic moment. This time Euripides turns to satyr drama (a genre of comic mythological drama composed by tragedians and performed after the set of three tragedies). Aeschylus’ satyr drama, Theoroi or Isthmiastae (The Sacred Delegation or At the Isthmian Games), is of uncertain date but must have been composed before the playwright’s death in 456 BC. In this play, Aeschylus presented the chorus of satyrs, semi-bestial male followers of Dionysus (see the Pronomos vase, Naples 81673, H3240, for the costuming of such choruses), onstage holding masks that were identical to the masks the performers were wearing.

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The Pronomos Vase (Greek vases 800-300 BC: key pieces (ox.ac.uk))

In one of the surviving fragments from that play (fr. 78a), the chorus reflect that the similarity of these masks to themselves would cause their mother to cry out in horror thinking that it was the child she had raised.  The chorus leader then instructs the chorus to nail these masks up on the temple of Poseidon as a dedication. The echoes between this fragment and the Bacchae scene will have become clear but a further aspect to the allusion is worth highlighting. In the Bacchae, before Pentheus goes up to the mountain to spy on the women, there is deliberate emphasis on how much alike to his mother or aunt he looks. We can conclude, therefore, that there is a marked similarity between Agave’s mask and the mask, representing Pentheus’ head, that she holds in her hand. The first point of allusion to Aeschylus’ play, therefore, is the visual echo of an arresting stage image – the masked performer holding a mask of striking similarity to the one he wears.

This is not mere playfulness on the part of Euripides or a display of virtuosity (alluding to both comedy and satyr drama within the frame of his tragedy) for its own sake. The allusion heightens the emotional intensity and effect of the scene. The satyr chorus speculate on the maternal reaction to seeing a mask and mistaking it for a child’s decapitated head. In the Bacchae this hypothetical is realised – Agave cries out in horror as she looks at the mask and understands that it is the head of her son. The audience’s pathos for Agave at this moment is deepened by the awareness that in the tragic frame, there is not the ‘get out’ offered in satyr drama; the grim reality is inescapable. The difference in framing has already been foregrounded by the perversity of the proposed dedication of the mask. The innocent play on the custom in the satyr drama (where the deviance from the norm is only that the dedication is to Poseidon rather than Dionysus) is transformed. Agave suggests nailing the head of the decapitated king to the front of the palace in a perverse travesty of the custom that underlines the grimness of the Bacchae’s play-within-a-play.  

How are we to contextualise the exceptional balancing act of this tragedy with its interplay of genres, reflection on the nature of theatre, and prevailing tragic effect? A touchstone might be provided by a play performed in the very same year as the Bacchae. Aristophanes’ Frogs, performed at the Lenaea festival (a few months before the assumed performance of the Bacchae at the City Dionysia), presents an irresistible point of comparison.  In this comedy, Aristophanes presents the god Dionysus as comic protagonist and vehicle through which the nature of theatre is explored. The discourse becomes most explicit in the comedy’s agon (contest) between the tragic playwrights Euripides and Aeschylus, but reflection on the subject pervades the action and is cued from the outset by the god’s use of disguise. Euripides had died before the Bacchae was performed and so it is difficult to know if he was aware of Aristophanes’ plans for Frogs, but the audience’s experience of watching this comedy at the Lenaea and then seeing the Bacchae at the Dionysia will only have intensified their appreciation of Euripides’ technique. Euripides, who is not chosen as the playwright to be brought back from the underworld at the end of Frogs, wins out nevertheless. The dramatic power of the Bacchae lies not only in the tragic effect of the way in which the action unfolds but in the masterful exploitation of all types of drama along the way.  

Dr Rosie Wyles is lecturer in Classical History and Literature at the University of Kent. Last year she published Theatre Props and Civic Identity in Athens 458-405 BC (Bloomsbury) - you can listen to a podcast about it here (with thanks to the 'Ancient World Breakfast Club'): in 2011 she published Costume in Greek Tragedy (Bristol Classical Press) and was this year a guest expert on Radio 4’s ‘In Our Time’ discussing Euripides' Bacchae.

[1] See, above all, H. Foley (1985) Ritual Irony. Ithaca, NY and C. Segal (1997, 2nd edition) Dionysiac Poetics and Euripides' Bacchae. Princeton.

[2] J.R. Green (1982) 'Dedications of masks' Revue Archéologique 2, 237-48.