Bakkhai: A modern retelling of an ancient Greek tragedy

Photo Courtesy Of smitharts via | On April 21 and 22, Anne Carson’s modern retelling of Euripides’ “Bakkhai” premiered, with upcoming performances on April 27, 28 and 29.


Marissa Hank ‘20
Arts Editor

On April 21 and 22, the Smith College Department of Theatre presented Anne Carson’s new version of Euripides’ “Bakkhai.” “Bakkhai” was the final play written by the Athenian playwright Euripides and premiered after his death at the Theatre of Dionysus in 405 B.C. Since then, it has been rewritten into a wide variety of adaptations. In Anne Carson’s redesign, Dionysos’s entrance, complete with fog effects and strobe lights, opens the show. In this opening scene, Dionysos explains his history as a demigod, the son of Zeus.

Dionysos begins by telling the familiar tale of his birth: how Hera tricked his mortal mother, Semele, into getting Zeus to show her his true form, which immolated her before her son could be born. He explains how Zeus saved the fetus and continued to gestate the fetus in his thigh. Dionysos then continues his speech by explaining the reason he has returned to Thebes (which, uncoincidentally, is also the reason for the play). Dionysos says that he has returned with a band of followers to punish Thebes for not respecting him as a god. He begins this punishment by infecting the women of the city with ritual madness, which drives them out of their homes and away from their looms to the mountains and woods beyond the city, to dance and hunt.

In the “Bakkhai,” the god Dionysos is associated with epiphanies through madness and intoxication. He becomes a cult figure who is worshipped by the maenads. His followers must release themselves and their identities to him fully. Dionysian madness is a form of disorder and disruption, because it sends women away from their homes and looms and out into the woods to drink and run wild. Due to the disorder, Pentheus, the King of Thebes, becomes a skeptic to all Bacchic rituals. This causes Dionysos to grow angry because he wants everyone in Thebes to respect and fear him.

In Carson’s adaptation, a group of the Dionysos’ followers called, the Bakkhai, sing songs before every new scene that foreshadow what will soon unfold. However, these songs are sung in the punk rock genre, with the Bakkhai dressed like members of a rock band. This production of the “Bakkhai” is set in the 1980’s, an era plagued with hysteria about rock and metal music. Just as the god Dionysos is in the play, rock music was feared by those in authority.

The musical sections of the play also draw clear parallels to the intensity of celebrity culture. Celebrity musicians can elicit an almost devotional response from their fans, such as when teenage girls take to the streets in hordes to chase after celebrities like as Justin Bieber. Similarly to this, the maenad women in the play dedicate their lives to following and worshipping Dionysos with gleeful madness. Since Dionysos is a demigod, and therefore immortal, he achieves the metaphorical ideal of the rock star forever alive and forever young, always traveling, rebelling and causing chaos wherever he goes. This devotion creates a tension between established authority and wild, subversive ritual.

This production invites the audience to consider the links between their own culture of frenzied celebrity worship and the madness of Dionysos’ maenads. At the same time, the punk-rock reworking allows the audience to be drawn into that frenzy and therefore consider its consequences. If you missed the opening weekend of this show, there will be three more performances on April 27, 28 and 29. Go reserve your tickets! You don’t want to miss this bacchic tragedy.

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