Thursday, January 12, 2017


David Stuttard (ed.), Looking at Bacchae. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. Pp. viii, 235. ISBN 9781474221474. $29.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Courtney J. P. Friesen, University of Arizona (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents may be found at the end of the review.]

This collection of 12 essays on Euripides' Bacchae by internationally recognized scholars and edited by a successful theater director attests to the timeless salience of this play. The contributions are aimed at a broad audience, and Stuttard's own translation included at the end of the volume has been employed in productions around the UK and elsewhere. Academic specialists may find the volume rather introductory in nature—perhaps useful as assigned reading for students—but there is much to stimulate all readers. Not least, Looking at Bacchae provides a compelling model for bringing thoughtful analysis and performance of Greek tragedy to a broader public. A central aim of the volume, as Stuttard remarks in the introduction, is to bring the ancient context of the play more fully into the awareness of modern audiences. Indeed, a driving conviction of the book is that "what Euripides meant to convey in Bacchae and how modern readers or audiences understand the play are not necessarily the same things" (1). The work of classicists thus remains vital.

In keeping with the book's aim, several contributions situate the Bacchae within its dramatic and historical context. In her opening essay, Edith Hall considers the original performance event and factors contributing to audience reactions. The centrality of Dionysus, a god who undermines conventional polarities in the minds of Greeks, tells against univocal meaning. In addition, she argues that a range of influences would have shaped how the audience perceived the play, including political fallout from the Peloponnesian War, festivities of the Great Dionysia, and the Bacchae's place within its trilogy. While Alcmaeon in Corinth is not extant, Hall notes that Iphigenia in Aulis shares with the Bacchae the theme of the bereaved mother. Ioanna Karamanou offers further analysis of the trilogy. including a detailed reconstruction of Alcmaeon. Her analysis suggests that in spite of the wide diversity in the three plots, they "seem to be conceptually interrelated with regard to the fate of the household and its possible effects on the community/polis" (54). Alan Sommerstein examines the interrelation of the Bacchae with earlier tragedies. By detailing echoes from a range of Aeschylean plays, he establishes the extent of Euripides' debt to his dramatic predecessor. Sommerstein explores several tragedies that are not extant but involve myths of Dionysus in order to show that the Bacchae consists "of recycled material, blended, rearranged and sometimes modified" (39). At the same time, this comparison helps to pinpoint Euripides' innovations, perhaps most significantly that Pentheus dresses up as a bacchant in order to spy on the women.

Theatrical elements specific to the Bacchae's production are taken up in the contributions of Rosie Wyles and Chris Carey. First, Wyles explores the staging of the play and how costumes, props, and stage backdrop relate to meaning and effect. As has been observed by Helene Foley and Charles Segal, among others, the emphasis on Dionysus' disguise in the prologue is metatheatrical in that it features the god of the theater himself on stage, performing in costume as a mortal. 1 The god's change of form anticipates several "theatrically self-conscious moments" throughout the play (60). Along with costumes and the palace backdrop, which have received frequent comment, Wyles notes the significance of Semele's tomb, which would have been present on stage from the beginning (mentioned by Dionysus in the prologue) and remained throughout as a reminder that Cadmus did the right thing by honoring the Theban princess. Carey focusses on the role of the chorus as the only character present to the audience throughout the performance. It is significant, in particular, that Euripides chose Lydian maenads: the result is a continuous foreign presence on stage; and, in contrast to many other plays, it leaves Pentheus completely isolated, with no supporting or sympathetic voice.

Richard Seaford and David Kovacs elucidate the place of religion in the Bacchae, an area that represents a substantial gap between ancient and modern perceptions of the play. Perhaps no scholar has worked more extensively on the problem of this tragedy's relationship with Dionysiac mysteries than Seaford. In this essay, he emphasizes that the practice of mystery cults separates the Greeks from us, so that whereas modern readers tend to perceive the tragedy's references to "mysteries" as a vague phenomenon, ancient Greeks would have understood concrete connections with ritual. Failure to take the background of mystery initiation into account has left the Bacchae "the least understood of all ancient dramas" (84). This interpretive distance, Seaford argues, results from three factors. First, the secrecy of the rites involved means that many details remain unknown to us; second, with the rise of Christianity, a rival religion with its own modes of initiation, mystery cults have been supplanted and eliminated; finally, the Bacchae presents an apparent contradiction between the god's demand that all people participate in his rites and the exclusivity and secrecy of initiation. Kovacs takes up the vexed question of Euripides' religious views, starting with Aristophanes' assessment within the tragedian's own lifetime of his departure from "orthodoxy" and progressing up to twentieth-century claims that Euripides was a liberal thinker. Kovacs rightly concludes that such questions remain largely unanswerable; rather, he looks to the play itself to see how religion is depicted. On these grounds, he disputes the notion, common among some interpreters, that the Bacchae satirizes Dionysiac religion. On the contrary, Kovacs maintains that the play treats Dionysus as genuinely powerful and a provider of true spiritual bliss. Thus, Pentheus does not go to Cithaeron merely out of sexual curiosity but in the hope of experiencing religious enlightenment.

A range of themes is taken up by other contributors. James Morwood considers interaction between "comedy" and "tragedy" in the Bacchae, surveying its moments of humor. Most obvious, of course, are the scenes of cross- dressing, first with the dancing old men, Cadmus and Tiresias, and later with Pentheus being costumed ahead of his final misadventure. More daringly, Morwood considers the comic potential of the dismemberment of Pentheus as "the blackest of black humor" (95). Alex Garvie explores "Paradoxes and Themes": a barbarian god of Greek origin; a new religion as old as time; blessedness proclaimed only for initiates but in a cult open to everyone of any age, gender, or ethnicity; ecstatic experience requiring wisdom and moderation; and most strikingly, a god promising joy but producing unspeakable suffering and honor. These paradoxes should chasten readers, Garvie argues, from expecting the play to yield simple answers to "great problems of human existence" (119). Hanna Roisman sets the Bacchae alongside other revenge plays. The closest Euripidean analogy is the Hippolytus in which a deity likewise drives the revenge to completion. What sets the Bacchae apart, however, is the absence of a human intermediary. Whereas Aphrodite leaves the stage to allow Phaedra to deliver the consequences of Hippolytus' failure to honor her, Dionysus remains in the Bacchae's action throughout. As a result, Roisman notes, "the play lacks the moral quandaries tragic characters involved in the workings of revenge usually face" (122), and thus portrays Dionysus' retribution upon Pentheus as most harsh and unrelenting. The god's indifference to human suffering exposes the extent of the tyrant's helplessness before divinity and would have evoked the audience's pity. Sophie Mills observes that Pentheus and Dionysus are cousins and she proceeds with an instructive comparison between them: each is "absolute in his treatment of the world around him" (135); refuses to tolerate ambiguity; uses similar vocabulary; and mocks and bullies those who have humiliated them.

In the final chapter, Betine van Zyl Smit turns from antiquity to the modern world, surveying productions of the Bacchae since Richard Schechner's Dionysus in 69 (1968–1969). Her explorations bring us from New York, to London, Berlin, and Cape Town. Zyl Smit well illustrates the ongoing power of this play and its resonance with new historical moments ranging from the cultural revolution of the 1960s to West African experiences of European colonization. The study of the reception and reperformance of ancient drama is a rapidly burgeoning field, and the Bacchae is no exception. A 2014 monograph by Erika Fischer-Lichte is devoted entirely to this topic, and we now anticipate the publication of Simon Perris's study of English translations of the play.2

Following the 12 essays is Stuttard's translation, which is intended for performance, and thus is fluid and engaging while remaining close to its source. The dialogues are given in prose while the choral odes are rendered into verse. Overall, the translation effectively balances an interest in accurately conveying the ancient text while employing language suitable for contemporary discourse. Stuttard's freedom of translation allows for a foregrounding of possible intertexts; for example, in line 4 where Dionysus declares that he has exchanged his divine "form" (morphe) for that of a mortal, Stuttard has "became flesh," a phrase borrowed from the New Testament (John 1:14) rather than the tragedy. Of course, one can find quibbles with any translation, so here I limit myself to one: in the third episode, as Dionysus persuades Pentheus to go to Cithaeron, he asks in line 815, "nevertheless, would you view with pleasure things that pain you?" The question is especially striking in that it both foreshadows the consequences of Pentheus' voyeuristic misadventure, while also functioning as a broader metatheatrical comment on the tragic audience's complicity. In Stuttard's translation, however, the line is reduced to, "But even so, you want to see them?"

In sum, the volume is a welcome contribution, bringing the highest level of academic scholarship to bear on this important tragedy in the interest of a broader audience for whom it may continue to hold salience. For this, Stuttard and the contributors should be applauded. The balance between scholarship and accessibility is a challenging one and will not be satisfactory to all readers. For instance, Garvie's essay proceeds with no citations of secondary scholarship (except for a passing mention of Seaford's commentary); however, with generalizations such as "Scholars used to argue," and "Most critics now recognize" (119), it would be helpful to direct readers to where they might find such things discussed. Furthermore, while Garvie's essay contains numerous quotations from the play, the line numbers are never cited, making it almost impossible for readers to follow up on his often insightful analysis. This problem arises in part, perhaps, from his use of Stuttard's translation, which employs neither line numbers nor labels for the episodes, which proves cumbersome for literary criticism. These are minor shortcomings, and I expect that this volume will add to an ever growing renaissance of Greek tragedy, moving it beyond the walls of the academy and into the wider public theater.

Table of Contents

Introduction – Bacchae in Context, David Stuttard
1. Perspectives on the Impact of Bacchae in its Original Performance, Edith Hall
2. Bacchae and Earlier Tragedy, Alan H. Sommerstein
3. Family Reunion or Household Disaster? Exploring the Plot Diversity in Euripides' Last Production, Ioanna Karamanou
4. Staging in Bacchae, Rosie Wyles
5. Looking at the Bacchae in Bacchae, Chris Carey
6. Mysteries and Politics in Bacchae, Richard Seaford
7. 'A Big Laugh': Horrid Laughter in Euripides' Bacchae, James Morwood
8. New Religion and Old in Euripides' Bacchae, David Kovacs
9. Paradoxes and Themes in Bacchae, Alex Garvie
10. Euripides' Bacchae – A Revenge Play, Hanna M. Roisman
11. The Grandsons of Cadmus, Sophie Mills
12. Bacchae in the Modern World, Betine van Zyl Smit
Euripides' Bacchae, translated by David Stuttard


1.   Esp. H. P. Foley, Ritual Irony (Ithaca 1985); C. Segal, Dionysiac Poetics and Euripides' Bacchae, 2nd ed. (Princeton 1997).
2.   E. Fischer-Lichte, Dionysus Resurrected: Performances of Euripides 'The Bacchae' in a Globalizing World (Chichester 2014); S. Perris, The Gentle, Jealous God: Reading Euripides' Bacchae in English (London 2016). Fischer-Lichte's monograph may have appeared too late to be cited in van Zyl Smit's essay.

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