Revel with a Cause

Bakkhai (Oberon Classics) BY Euripides. Oberon Books. Paperback, 88 pages. $17.

The cover of Bakkhai (Oberon Classics)

All the ancient-Greek tragedians put their personal stamps on preexisting myths, but in terms of panache, no one could match Euripides. Even while working within the boundaries of ancient-Greek mythos, he turned tales on their heads, irreverently vamping standards like Elektra. As poet and essayist Anne Carson wagers, “Euripides was a playwright of the fifth century BC who reinvented Greek tragedy, setting it on a path that leads straight to reality TV. His plays broke all the rules, upended convention and outraged conservative critics.”

This is certainly the case with his version of the Bakkhai, which Carson has translated, with her own massaging of the language’s sheer roughness, into English. Through poems, prose, and crackerjack translator’s notes that tend to merge the two, Carson has long emphasized how Greek tragedies upset norms and feature at their heart a volatile sexuality. A prime example is the Bakkhai, which examines uncertainty in a world framed and eventually consumed by war and ambiguity. Family strife usually drives Greek tragedy, but in the Bakkhai kinship is subsumed by an all-out tribal meltdown.

It is one of Euripides’s final works, written during his self-exile in Macedonia, and to many minds it is his best. It is surely his wildest play—“the story of a man who cannot admit he would rather live in the skin of a woman,” as Carson summarizes. The Bakkhai truly camps up the myth from which it draws its basic story line. Pentheus, the king of Thebes, wants to destroy a gang of hedonistic women—which includes his mother, Agave—who worship Dionysos. To observe them up close, he dresses up like one of them, an act that ultimately (and violently) destroys him.

In the prologue we learn that Pentheus has banned the ritualistic worship of Dionysos, the young god of intoxication and also, as Carson notes, of beginnings. Pushing against tradition, Euripides presents Dionysos not as a distant divinity but as an Earth-bound protagonist in human form. He arrives as a stranger in Thebes, telling us that, in order to counteract rumors that he is not a god, he has caused “the whole bursting female seed-pod of Thebes” to go mad, to worship him, and to call him the son of Zeus. In a departure from other Greek tragedies, the chorus of Bakkhai—wild female followers of Dionysos—is fully integrated into the plot and not a distant, summarizing voice. Pentheus swears that he will fight these women, but Dionysos urges him to drop his campaign against the women and their worship.

The drama opens with Dionysos, his words rendered in Carson’s plainspoken verse: “I am something supernatural— / not exactly god, ghost, spirit, angel, principle or element— / There is no term for it in English. / In Greek they say daimon— / can we just use that?” From here, the play moves from one outrageous scene to another, with ample violence happening just offstage. In one emblematic passage, a herdsman arrives to describe the reveling Bakkhai, who have ripped apart a bunch of cattle with their bare hands, plundered a few villages, and fought off the locals with staffs of fennel. Afterward, they return to the mountain where they had been celebrating Dionysos and let snakes lick them clean.

Pentheus won’t budge in his decision to fight the women, so Dionysos, who will accept nothing less than total worship, sends him to his doom: He tells the king to dress as one of the Bakkhai, in order to get close. The king delights in putting on his maenad outfit, and in approaching the mountain revelers. He is then slaughtered by the crazed women in a berserk dance of death. Agave is so possessed during the murder—foaming at the mouth, eyes rolling back—that she doesn’t recognize her child and ends up with his head impaled on top of her thyrsus. In the end, Agave’s tragic recognition of what she’s done destroys her in a scene so searing that, as Carson once noted when speaking about King Kreon in Antigone, Aristotle would have “underlined [it] with his highlighter pen.” Lesson learned: Go with the gods.

Typically the Bakkhai is interpreted as representing two sides of humanity—the rational (Pentheus, who trusts only what he sees) and the intuitive (Dionysos, who insists that humans believe he is a god). But what the play more lucidly articulates is the always-limited capacity for human knowledge and control of one’s destiny. Everyone is brought down together in a dizzying ruin. No one escapes the fatal human defect of hamartia—the word the Greeks used for a protagonist’s miasmatic flaw—which results from ignorance or wrongdoing. It led to Oedipus’s end as well.

Euripides presents hamartia as a basic feature of the human condition: His characters always seem to have the least amount of access to agency. In their marvelous book Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece, Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet write, “The true domain of tragedy lies in that border zone where human actions are hinged together with the divine powers, where—unknown to the agent—they derive their true meaning by becoming an integral part of an order that is beyond man and that eludes him.” In the Bakkhai, both the worshippers and the doomed king become unknowingly caught up in a demanding god’s plan.

Carson’s commentary is often the best part of her books. In the poem that opens the Bakkhai, “I Wish I Were Two Dogs Then I Could Play With Me,” she analyzes the deranged king and the “god / of the beginning / before the beginning” and observes: “Life is a rehearsal / for life.” The characters in the Bakkhai act out their own myths. It is a performance in which gender is up for grabs, and also in which the rehearsal becomes life itself, and in the end death. Carson is clearly drawn to the play’s gender trouble avant la lettre, its creative manipulation of story, and its ability to blur the distinction between self-creation and fate. As she notes: “Once you fall under Dionysos’s influence, there is no telling where you will end up.”

Lauren O’Neill-Butler is the managing editor of