Euripides’ Bacchae: A Method to the Madness
Ken Kwek traces why Euripides' own aesthetic only appears to reverse course
By Ken Kwek
When the production of the Orestes ended in the spring of 408 BC, Euripides left Athens for good. He had accepted the invitation of Archelaus, king of the semi-barbarous Macedonians, who was eager to 'Hellenize' his court and make it a center of Greek culture. It was here in Macedonia, where (if we are to believe Plutarch) the Dionysiac cult was still sufficiently orgiastic and primitive to include such rites as snake-handling, and where Euripides is thought to have written the Bacchae. This does not mean the play was composed primarily for a Macedonian audience; Teiresias' declaration that 'We have no use for theological subtleties. The beliefs we have inherited, as old as time, cannot be overthrown by any argument, not by the most inventive ingenuity' (Bacchae, ll.201-3) reflects two major aspects of the contemporary Athenian sensibility: anxiety over the unintelligibility of the gods; and the concomitant strains of living under a political and philosophical system aspiring towards pure reason. Some classical scholars have suggested that Dionysus had been tamed only on the surface; the Dionysiac temper had not vanished in Athens, and there is evidence that especially during the Peloponnesian War – probably as a result of the social stress which it generated – religion of the orgiastic type began to emerge again under other names. But what about Euripides' own religious and aesthetic convictions? Hitherto a tireless innovator, and a key proponent of man's need to be self-reliant (as opposed to depending on divine blessings or intervention), why was his final legacy a topical, yet deeply traditional 'miracle play', 'old-fashioned' in style and structure?
As E.R Dodds has pointed out in his Introduction to Euripides' Bacchae (1960), the play follows an archaic form to a greater degree than any other of his previous works. There are prominent aspects of this adherence to archaic form: first, the role of the chorus; second, the primacy of plot expressed in narrative; third, the choice of diction. Unlike in many of his previous works, what befalls the Chorus of Oriental Devotees (i.e of Dionysus) in the Bacchae is intimately bound up with the action of the play. Furthermore, the presentation of the miracle play relies heavily on narrative: the psychological miracle of Pentheus' conversion is placed at the centre of stage action, but the physical miracles that lead to his destruction must be reported. Hence the Bacchae reverts to the oldest dramatic model: not only are there two formal messenger speeches, each over a hundred lines long, but also we have in addition the narratives of the soldier (ll.434-50) and Stranger (ll.616-37), all of which describe miraculous events that could not be shown on stage. In terms of diction, Euripides introduces an unusually high proportion of 'new' words, a number of which, like θιασώτης and καταβακχιούσθαι, belong to the language of the Dionysiac religion. He also employs the refrain, which belongs to a tradition of the cult hymn and emphasizes the religious fervour expressed in chanting, singing and dancing. At the twilight of his artistic career, Euripides' severity of form evinces power derived from the tension between the 'conservatism' of style and structure and the miraculous religious experiences it depicts. As Coleridge said (in Biographia Literaria), the creative imagination shows itself most intensely in 'the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities', especially by combining 'a more than usual state of emotion with more than usual order'. This 'discordant harmony' is achieved in the Bacchae and gives it a disturbing resonance.
The 'taming of language' by the imposition of form runs parallel with a central theme of the play: the taming of the primal impulses in man through a kind of dramatized religious dialogue. Euripides' portrayal of a particular divine presence – the rejection of which leads to the most uncompromising divine punishment – has evoked a variety of responses. Since the play exhibits the power of Dionysus and the dreadful fate of those who resist him, the first explanation which occurred to scholars was that the poet had experienced, or thought it expedient to feign, a deathbed conversion: the Bacchae was a 'palinode', a recantation of the 'atheism' for which Aristophanes had accused its author of embracing. In other words, the play was written, if not to defend Euripides against the charge of impiety, then possibly from a genuine conviction that 'religion should not be exposed to the subtleties of reasoning' since 'he had found no satisfaction in his unbelief' (Dodds). Other nineteenth century scholars, namely Wilamowitz, Bruhm, Decharme and Weil, interpreted the play according to a different set of prejudices. Pointing out that Cadmus and Teiresias are poor representatives of orthodoxy, and that Dionysus behaves with pitiless cruelty not only to his opponents Pentheus and Agaue but also to his supporter Cadmus, they concluded that the real moral of the play was 'tantum religio potuit suadere malorum' – 'to so many evils religion has persuaded men' – a phrase taken from Lucretius' De Rerum Natura (dated around 60 BC). Conflating both arguments – the first which insists on the necessity of religion; the second asserting the destructiveness of religion – into a simultaneous discourse on origin and morality, is Friedrich Nietzsche. He wrote in The Birth of Tragedy: 'In the evening of his life Euripides confronted his contemporaries very forcefully with a question [...] Can the Dionysiac be permitted to exist at all? Should it not be eradicated forcibly from Hellenic soil?' It sounds a reasonable enough suggestion – the Bacchae might be seen as unfolding from these two questions – but his certainty about the playwright's answers to these questions is somewhat hasty:
For Nietzsche, the Bacchae is Euripides' recantation, but not necessarily of 'atheism'; it is an artistic expression of the god's fundamental presence in men's nature and life, but one which comes too late in an age where the new 'god' of Socratic reason and morality had already gained primacy: '...by the time the poet recanted, his tendency [towards morality] was already victorious. Dionysos had already been chased from the tragic stage, and, what is more, by a daemonic power speaking out of the mouth of Euripides... an altogether newborn daemon called Socrates.' Nietzsche may be right in detecting, across the wide spectrum of Euripides' extant plays, a palpable shift from ritual and worship to a kind of self-governance or self-reliance through exercise of human reason. Yet by presuming 'the judgment of the two old men, Cadmus and Tiresias' to be also 'the judgment of the aged poet', he may be over-stating Euripides' role as a philosopher, and under-rating his method as a playwright. Euripides does not explicitly exult 'for' or 'against' Dionysus, he merely constructs a sequence of events that suggests that if we ignore the demand of the human spirit for Dionysiac experience, we do so at our peril. He is perhaps, in the Bacchae, more engaged in considering the primal and irrational in man than Nietzsche is willing to concede. And he does this by dramatically separating, quite completely, the two sides of human nature and pitting them against each other. The rational and civilized side, on which a large community or city depends on for its stability, is embodied by Pentheus. But by resisting the instinctive side – embraced by the Stranger – Pentheus suppresses his humanity and suffers the destructive rebellion of its primal energies. That Dionysus appears in tangible human form is dramatic instrumentality; but it serves also to demonstrate his (literal) presence and direct influence in human life.
This 'presence' and 'influence' of the Dionysiac is perhaps the chief concern of the Bacchae. Philip Vellacott, in his Introduction to Euripides: The Bacchae and Other Plays (1973), accepts the play simply as a '"condemnation" [...] of intolerance, violence, and cruelty, all of which are generated when humanity tries to deny either of the two sides of its nature'. But this is incomplete. What is more potent is the contradictory power of the Dionysiac: the knowledge that man's instinct to enjoy the life of the senses without the compulsion to analyse it contains, ironically, a conscious – or subconscious – unity with the animal. And it is this unity with the animal that can provoke behaviour in man that is violent and bestial. For example, the manner in which Dionysus eventually punishes Pentheus is not altogether incommensurate with the latter's initial plans to massacre the Maenads: 'I'll sacrifice, yes – blood of women, massacred wholesale, as they deserve, among Cithaeron's glens.' His self-defeating sacrifice is intended to preserve an intransigent belief in the institutions of human law; but this is less an illustration of how reason may be perverted by renouncing the animal impulses, than it is an sign that Pentheus' crude puritanism is but a half-conscious suppression of his Dionysiac nature. His weakness, concealed by a stubborn and flawed intellect, is mocked by Dionysus' ironic declaration, 'It's a wise man's part to practise a smooth-tempered self-control' (ll.640); Pentheus is exposed when the god seizes upon 'reason' as a means by which he will finally subjugate the king: 'Do you wish to see those women, where they sit together, up in the hills?' (ll.820-1). Dionysus' emphasis on the verb 'to see' is contiguous to the play's design to mark both his presence and his influence as Pentheus finally succumbs to the prospect of a kind of sensory gratification. It should be observed, however, that the king's 'weakness' is not a 'flaw' per se but a shortcoming natural to the overtly reasonable mind. His punishment is not so much a moral resolution as it is an assertion of the god's potentially savage powers:
The overriding message is 'do not take up arms against a god' (ll.810) like Dionysus, or you will be waging war against your own nature and your own kin(d). The animal impulses, if respected and addressed, can be gently gratified, as portrayed by the Maenads' quiet gathering on the hills. But if they are denied or condemned, they have the potential to unleash a bestial energy that is also the revelation of divine wrath. Those who repress the demand for Dionysiac experience in themselves, or refuse its satisfaction to others, transform it by their act into a conversely powerful force of disintegration, a blind natural force that sweeps away the innocent with the guilty in its moral indifference. As Dodds explains, when such disaster prevails, 'it is too late to reason or to plead: in man's justice there is room for pity, but there is none in the justice of Nature; to our "Ought" its sufficient reply the simple "Must"'. Dionysus is the god that represents irrepressible excess and fecundity; he embodies the tragic contradictions of joy and horror, insight and madness, innocent gaiety and dark cruelty (the latter of these pairs always only an impulse away from the former). Euripides cannot be seen, as Nietzsche seems to suggest, to be 'against' Dionysus in his depiction of the god's brutality. In fact, whether Euripides is 'for' or 'against' the cult or its god is a flat-footed question that admits no answer because Dionysus is, to borrow Nietzsche's expression, beyond good and evil. He is, as Teiresias says, only 'what we make of him.' (ll.314-18)QLRS Vol. 7 No. 1 Jan 2008
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