omplete QPORIT: THE BACCHAE -- SHAKESPEARE IN THE PARK

Monday, August 24, 2009

 

THE BACCHAE -- SHAKESPEARE IN THE PARK




Jonathan Groff as Dionysus & The Chorus
in The Bacchae
Photo by Joan Marcus

There’s a terrific production of The Bacchae (Βάκχαι), by Euripides’ (Εὐριπίδης), one of the greatest plays in all classic Greek theater, and indeed all theater, now at Shakespeare in the Park. Anyone with an interest in theater, Greek theater, or, generally, any theater which, remarkably, is as fresh now as if it had just been written, should see this version (playing just till Aug 30). It’s also outdoors, which is a rare connection these days with the ancient performances.

Greek gods often represented personalizations of archetypal human behavior or natural phenomena, or both. They were kind of living metaphors for strong, sometimes complex ideas.

Because the gods were archetypes, respect for the gods meant being respectful of the true nature of man and the power of nature. (Note 1 (disclaimer): This is one point of view. In one sentence. Many whole books have been written about the attitudes of Greeks to their gods.) (Note 2 (somewhat contrary view): See below: JoAnne Akalaitis, the director, takes a different point of view on the relation between the gods and men.)

Greek Gods did not exist a priori, they were created as myths, and the myths were refined by people, especially writers, and in the days of Greek theater, especially playwrights.

The story of Dionysus (aka Bacchus) and the Bacchae – the women followers of Bacchus – as described by Euripides was a combination of his invention with myths and history that were known to the Greeks. Each author that translated or adapted Euripides’ text and every director that staged the play since it was written added their own creative invention.

(Note: In a story about the National Theater of Scotland’s production of The Bacchae at Lincoln Center last year, I discussed in detail some of the alternative approaches to The Bacchae.)

Euripides’ version alludes to many themes associated with the myth of Bacchus:

THEME 1 -- It was a relatively new religion that swept in from the East.

This theme has echoes now in our modern world, where the western world is being tested by fervent promoters of a religion which is coming from the East.



THEME 2 -- Alcohol liberates the spirit, provides comfort – but also can provoke fighting.

This can be amplified to a basic cycle: a spirit of liberation, supported by forces of moderation; which is opposed by a repressive regime; and then there is an element which associates itself with the pacifist spirit, but which is violent.

This duality was certainly a part of the spirit of 1968-69 – the 40th anniversary of which we are celebrating now. It is epitomized by the journey from Woodstock (a festival of peace and love and mud) to Altamont (where, as described in Wikipedia, a member of the audience at a Rolling Stones Concert – one of whose anthems was “Sympathy for the Devil" -- was killed by a member of the Hell’s Angel’s). Or by the journey from the "summer of love" to the Manson murders.


Liberation:



Dionysus in 69
Directed by Brian De Palma & Richard Schechner, US, 1970;
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Richard Schechner


The liberation of the 60’s and its tie to the myth of Bacchus was expressed in the version of this play, Dionysus in 69.

(Note: For a look back, visit the contemporary impressions of Time magazine, and The New York Times -- access to NYT may require registration.)


The Tribe/Chorus
in Hair
Photo by Joan Marcus


It was also expressed (with Pot more than booze as the liberating drug of choice) by Hair.

Interestingly, a terrific production of
Hair is currently playing on Broadway, where it was transferred after originating at Shakespeare in the Park last summer. Hair (especially the first act) could almost be an interpretation of the spirit of the Bacchic revelers in the present age.


Jonathan Groff as Claude
in Hair
Photo by Joan Marcus

It is also interesting – and more than a coincidence I would think – that the current version of The Bacchae, now playing in Shakespeare in the Park features
Jonathan Groff as Bacchus. He also played Claude in last year’s Hair at The Park, and also is part of Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, about the festival.

The current version takes note of, but does not show (much less enjoy) the spirit of liberation. There is no sex, no nudity, no Bacchants in this production. (The chorus may be Bacchants in name, but they do not participate in any Bacchic revels.) The chorus, which in many productions takes the role of the liberated women, here are purely commentators (which they do in an especially rich fashion, as we comment below). The description of liberated women is – except in the scene with Cadmus & Tiresias (Τειρεσίας), who are sympathetic to the revels – almost entirely in terms of how Dionysus has crazed the women, especially the daughters of Cadmus.

Note: Tiresias is the blind seer. Cadmus is the old, retired legendary king of Thebes who has given his crown to his grandson, Pentheus. His daughters are: Semele, the mother of Dionysus; Agave, the mother of Pentheus; Autonoe and Ino. Dionysus is thus the cousin of Pentheus and also a grandson of Cadmus.

Dionysus claims that his father is Zeus, and therefore he has divine lineage. His mother claimed Zeus was her lover, but neither Cadmus nor his mother’s sisters believed her. This rejection is the primary motivation behind Dionysus' return to Thebes to claim the respect he and his mother were denied. Continued disrespect is the motivation for his revenge.


Revenge / Violence:

This production stresses the theme of revenge. Dionysus comes out angry. The Chorus is fierce. Dionysus gives Pentheus a chance to respect him. When Pentheus does not, Dionysus arranges for Pentheus to be brutally murdered by his own mother.

On one level this is a counter-reaction of violence to repression. On another level, this is the representation (we alluded to before) of the aspect of drink that makes people fight.

Depending on how you view the play, this is

THEME 3 – Cross dressing

In the course of his revenge Dionysus convinces Pentheus to dress as a woman so that he will not be attacked by the Bacchants.

This is a strange statement on the face of it, since earlier Euripides’ has (at least according to most translations) suggested that men and women were making love among the revelries and, besides, Cadmus and Tiresias had just gone up to join the revelers. The simplest explanation is that Dionysus was lying to Pentheus.

Pentheus expresses reluctance to wear a woman’s clothes, and the reaction the play seems to be looking for is that Pentheus is humiliated by dressing as a woman.

Jonathan Groff as Dionysus
With a smear of red lipstick
in The Bacchae
Photo by Joan Marcus

Bacchus, himself, in myths is portrayed as half-man half-woman. And stage directions in many versions of the play describe Dionysus, when he comes in, as having long blond hair, kind of androgynous. In this production, Dionysus wears just a smear of lipstick.


Anne Hathaway as Viola
in Twelfth Night
Photo by Joan Marcus



Some commentators on the play treat the theme of cross dressing as the paramount theme of the play. Indeed the ads for this whole summer’s Shakespeare in the Park stress Cross Dressing: the other play this summer being Twelfth Night, in which Viola (played by Anne Hathaway) dresses as a man.

(Note: Viola dresses as a man to be safe going around in a strange country by herself (aka himself). It was, of course, convenient for Shakespeare to have women dressed as young men, since they were, in fact, being played by young men.)

Neither play seems to make too much of cross dressing in these productions. (It was a much more important part of The Scottish Theater’s version of The Bacchae.) With respect to how cross-dressing illuminates the relation between men and women, they do take almost the same view (that in the world they live in, men are more important) in very different ways (inflating women and deflating men in Shakespeare; mostly mocking women and – perhaps mockingly – almost worshipping hunting and killing as manliness in The Bacchae
).

Twelfth Night notes how a woman can be just as manly as a man, when people think she’s a man. It bursts a bubble of assumed superiority for men, and elevates woman to the same level as a man.

The Bacchae, in the person of Agave, boasts how a woman can be just as strong as a man when she is crazed, while Pentheus, dressed as a woman is mocked: Men are strong, women are maddened by Dionysus; when a man is maddened, he is made to play the role of a woman and mocked; a woman can think she is as strong as a man only if she is maddened. In this view, Euripides is quite a misogynist. (Other interpretations of Euripides, stressing the androgynous nature of Dionysus, and the freedom and independence of women in the Dionysian rites, are quite different.)


THEME 4 – Human powerlessness in the face of irrational gods

I had no direct access to the creative team, but the NYT quotes
JoAnne Akalaitis, the director, as saying the play is “partly about human powerlessness in the face of irrational gods…” In this interpretation, Dionysus is not even revenging himself, his fury is irrational.

(If one wishes to put this irrationality in context, it could be tied back to the idea that excessive drinking makes one irrational, and to a modern notion that the gods of Greece were pagan gods.)


THE STAGING

There is an additional element in the interpretation of a play, especially a Greek play, and that is how the play is staged.

In
the story I referred to above, I discussed the staging of the play last year by The National Theater of Scotland. That staging was notable for its ability to find humor in the text, and for cross-dressing, and for its vivid effects.


The Chorus
in The Bacchae
Photo by Joan Marcus


In addition to being outdoors! (as Greek plays were originally staged), the most notable element of the staging in The Park is the magnificent score by Philip Glass, and the singing, chanting, dancing and appearance of the chorus. It is almost operatic, and is the central element for most of the play. (In the program, Eustis, the Artistic Director of The Public Theater, says the chorus was “almost really the starting point for this entire endeavor.”)

Watching The Bacchae, and listening, I thought back to the last opera I saw:
Doctor Atomic, with a score by John Adams. There is something about our times that is bringing a certain musical sensibility, large in scope, concerned with real and mythical events, recent and ancient events, that remind us of the precariousness of our situation, comfortable at home, but threatened by the possibility of imminent cataclysm.

There is a similarity between our times and the times when Euripides wrote The Bacchae – Athens was in grave danger, both militarily, politically, and philosophically, with much of the danger coming from Persia and the East. The Bacchae may be 2,400 years old, but it is a modern play, and this is a timely production.


(Note: It has little to do with rest of this article, but I just wanted to note that these are extraordinary photos by
Joan Marcus. These are not only great shots, but they show the extraordinary concentration and the incredible life that is going on with every one of the characters shown in the pictures. They are a great tribute both to the productions, and to the photographer.)

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