Monday, July 14, 2008



Alan Cumming & The Bacchae
From the2008 international tour of
The Bacchae.
National Theatre of Scotland
Photo credit: Rhuary Grant

The Bacchae of Euripedes dramatizes themes and issues that are as important today as they were 2500 years ago, and does so with a style as modern as if it were just written.

In fact, The Bacchae was written in about 407 BC (2008+407 = 2415 years ago) and had its premiere, some two years later, about a year after Euripedes died, posthumously winning first prize at the Dionysia.

The play was written in
Greek Macedonia where Euripedes had moved from Athens (on the invitation of the King of Macedonia) about a year before writing the play.

It is helpful to understand some of the background of the creation of the play: the world as seen from Athens in 407 BC. It was written during the
Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta, and war was coming to a climax. It was a bitter conflict. In addition to the dangers of war, politics in Athens were very unstable. Among other events, for example, a coup, about 3 years before Euripedes’ departure from Athens, overthrew the Athenian democratic system in favor of oligarchic rule by a group of 400 prominent and wealthy Athenians.

In Macedonia, Euripedes was removed from danger and from the politics. Also, it has been suggested that he was exposed to Dionysian Mysteries and rituals in Macedonia which were much more intense than the -- rather tame -- ceremonies in Athens.

The play takes place in
Grecian Thebes in ancient times. During the Peloponnesian war, Thebes was Athens’ enemy, allied with Sparta. Thebans may also have been regarded by Athenians as a bit dense or stupid.

Persia, Lydia and Phrygia, which are described as the lands from which Dionysus has just arrived from the East, were important kingdoms when the play was written. Lydia and Phrygia lay Northeast of Athens in what is now Turkey, and in the direction of Persia, which had, not long ago, attacked Greece, but had been repelled.

The Bacchae is a very powerful play. The conclusion is very shocking, and the developments that lead to the conclusion are very theatrical, with both humor and spectacle, and an ever-present suggestion of sex.

Much of the power of the play is that is not a perfect play. Most productions of the play seem to succeed on one level, and yet be incomplete and unconvincing on some other level. It touches on many themes, but is not a simple exposition of any one. Given any interpretation, it could equally be taken to support a different or even opposite interpretation. The freedom of directing the play from any one of many thematic emphases is part of the reason the play is often presented, and often presented at a time of national stress, when one or another of the issues with which it deals become matters of popular relevance and importance.

There is also the issue of language. Ancient Greek drama is said to have been written in a form of poetry which has strong rhythm (without rhyme). Last summer I saw and heard Euripedes’ Medea at Cambridge University in England presented in Ancient Greek. The sound of the language was a revelation. Without understanding the language (but following along: a running translation was provided on an overhead screen), the beauty and power of the sound of the language was evident.

(Note: Cambridge produces a play in Ancient Greek every three years (in years divisible by 3). Oxford also produces a play in Ancient Greek every three years and will be presenting Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, (the first play in the Oresteia trilogy) in Oxford in mid-October this year. It will be directed by Claire Catenaccio who has just graduated with numerous honors and prizes from Harvard, directing and studying ancient Greek drama. I recommend a visit to Oxford this fall!)

There has been a major production of The Bacchae playing in a theater in New York: The
National Theatre of Scotland at the Lincoln Center Summer Festival. And at least one more is in development. Later this year, JoAnne Akalaitis is scheduled to present a production at The Public Theater.

Some of the fundamental themes of the play are:

=> Androgyny and possibly homosexuality
=> Sexual, spiritual and emotional liberation and freedom
=> Empowerment of women
=> Spiritual liberation

=> The need to honor a god
=> The cruelty of a god
=> The history and true nature of the god of wine

=> The need for a government to respect the laws of human nature. Here, the human spirit and the need for liberty is embodied in the god Dionysus. (Note: This is directly suggested in the play by Tireseus, and takes as implicit the notion that a Greek god is an embodiment of some aspect of human behavior, and worship of the god is respect for the corresponding laws of human nature.)
=> The attitude of the chorus to the events
=> The conflict between a liberating political movement and a repressive political government, and the notion that a liberal movement can turn vicious when it meets with excessive resistance
=> The importance of moderation
=> The need to honor both the stability of law and the liberation of the spirit
=> The fall of a government when it does not pay due respect to the gods
=> The hypocrisy of those who repress sex in others but secretly lust themselves; and the hypocrisy of those who profess liberation, but when they are challenged become more cruel and repressive than the repressors; (This theme of hypocrisy could also have been listed under the sexual themes!)

=>The difficulties of family relationships, especially in the ruling class

That is quite a load of themes, any of which can be the basis for an interpretation.

In addition, the play has humor, violence (which is off-stage in the text, but can be brought on-stage by the director), magic, special effects, drugs (alcohol at least), madness, tragedy, cross-dressing, music and dance. And any of these can be the stylistic basis for an interpretation.

None of these themes or styles are developed completely enough in the script to determine the obvious, completely satisfying interpretation; each one of them competes for attention when any other is taken as the primary focus. That is one reason why the play is a failure, and why it is an enduring success.

The director, John Tiffany, of the Scottish National Theatre presentation at the Lincoln Center Festival has taken as his primary interests the cross-dressing, androgynous nature of Dionysus, and the musical and visual potential of the chorus. Stylistically, he emphasizes the theatrical spectacle, and humor. Serving these decisions, Alan Cumming as Dionysus is terrific; the rest of the cast somewhat less so. Cal Macaninch as Pentheus, the ruler of Thebes, and the primary antagonist to Dionysus, is simply not a strong enough presence to challenge Cumming in a dramatically effective way. Paola Dionisotti as Agave and Ewan Hooper as Cadmus, Pentheus grandfather, are not dramatically powerful enough in the final scenes.

There are many terrific elements in this production, and many things that don’t go quite right.

Among the most effective elements of this production are:

=> The special effects and spectacles, especially the initial entrance of Dionysus
=> The clarity of the production in the script, the direction and the acting, making it always possible to understand the characters’ meaning (when you could hear them – the volume level was a bit low and with traces of Scottish accents and a strange play, not all the words were clear)
=> The costumes, which were colorful, bold and interesting, especially effective at making the first entrance of each character exciting
=> The choral music and dance which had a gospel style and nice melodies
=> The comedy
=> And the effective delivery of an interpretation which stressed the androgyny and sexual identity issues in the play.

The clarity of this production probably stems in part from the manner in which it was created. First a literal translation of the play was created by Ian Ruffell. Then a writer, David Greig, was commissioned to turn the literal translation into a play that directly served the director’s interpretation. The script was neither archly old fashioned, nor jarringly modern (two problems most scripts fail to avoid), but seemed ideally suited to the director’s intentions.

Some things were not so effective:

I’ve already mentioned the weak supporting cast, and the low volume sound design, which made words difficult to understand, (a particular problem when the chorus was singing, since the text of what they say is important to the development of the play’s themes).

Although the costumes were stiking and impressive, most characters wore the same thing throughout the show, so that the visual excitement began to fade. I also found the costume design somewhat confusing: some of the costume choices seemed wrongly conceived. This play is set in ancient Thebes, yet the clothes are conspicuously modern and not-Greek. When Cadmus and Tireseus set out for the mountain to join the maenads, they seem to say that they are in fawnskin (or soon to change) and they are carrying the thyrsus; but they are dressed in tuxedos with strangely decorated hats and carrying walking sticks. I also thought Pentheus could have used a uniform or other clothes that marked him as the king -- to give him more gravitas in his encounters and conflicts with Dionysus.

One special effect -- a huge bank of spotlights aimed at the audience -- seemed both pointless in terms of the play, and dangerous to the audience’s eyes.

The play takes place in one location, near Pentheus’ palace. This production sets it firmly there, and never tries to even suggest the licentious behavior of the maenads in the mountainous forest. Only the bacchae that came with Dionysus from the East are seen. Portrayed as gospel-like singers, these women in the chorus seem to have no visceral connection to Dionysus, and there is no chemistry between them and Alan Cumming. So the whole element of the liberating nature of the god of wine, of the Bacchic Mysteries, is almost completely lost.

But the main weakness of the production is that it did not do justice to the tragedy of the play. Aside from the weak acting by the two main characters in this section of the play, the use of a patently fake plastic or rubber head was a disastrous dissipator and destructor of the tension, surprise and horror that should characterize the climax of this play. Agave does not treat the head as the lion’s head she believes it to be, or as any important object at all. It has no reality because of the way it is carried and treated by the actress. In addition, it is introduced too early. There are specific lines in the play which seem designed to be the ideal place to make the reveal, to maximize the shock value and horror of bringing on-stage the severed head of her son, which she believes to be the head of a lion she has killed. Displaying the head earlier dilutes the intensity of the climax.

While the play can be presented in many ways, for me the most brilliant and modern and lasting insight in the play is its depiction of the nature of the political cycle of (1) a movement of liberation, then (2) attempts at repression and then (3) a counter reaction or co-option of the liberation movement with radical violence. It is, for example, the story of the French Revolution; and we saw it in the sixties in the journey from Woodstock to Altamont. It happens in big ways, and it happens in small ways, and it is a cycle that we must always beware of.

The Tiffany version from Scotland, as we’ve noted, stresses other themes, which the director has said he has been interested in for 20 years. For even longer than that - (!) - I’ve wanted to do an adaptation that stresses the political elements of the story, especially this issue of achieving liberation without descending into violence. I hope some day I get to do that!

The National Theatre of Scotland has brought to life The Bacchae in one of the many ways it’s possible to experience this extraordinary drama. Despite some faults, I highly recommend a visit to this production wherever in the world it may travel to, for its spectacle and theatricality, its clarity, humor and, given its intentional focus on the themes of androgyny and sexual identity, its success in accomplishing what it set out to do.

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