On the 28th of January, I went to go watch UBC Theatre’s production of The Bacchae (2.1). As I have never seen a Greek play, I was intrigued to see how it differed from more contemporary plays (i.e., 19th-20th century works). The style is radically different, to say the least. Main page for the production here.
The first thing I learned is that Greek plays appear to be… very expository. Taking a look at the scripts of both the original and the modernised version, characters (even the chorus) have obscenely long monologues. Most of it tends to be flowery language, text that would most certainly be cut down in more modern plays. I personally dislike this style as it was more “tell” than “show.” At times, it felt more like a sermon than an engaging story. I do not come to plays to be lectured, but to be amused and feel; from those latter two things do I learn.
The re-imagination seemed to be both more philosophical and more ideological. In the original, Dionysus was a flawed, vengeful character that wished to be recognised as a god–specifically a son of Zeus, and in order to do so, carried out a scheme to kill his cousin, Pentheus, the king of Thebes as any worship of Dionysus was banned. The remake featured a Dionysus that seemed to be divorced from reality and challenged one’s perception of where masculinity is demarcated from femininity by dressing up in conventional woman’s garb and near the end of the show, swapped for something more masculine. The incarnation in the remake appears more passive and less overtly confrontational though one could argue that Pentheus and his aides got riled up by his influence. This is one of my pet peeves when someone is making an ideological argument; creating a character that is hot-headed and generally unlikeable (the strawman) and another which is more rational and presents his or her arguments in a cool, logical manner. The way in which the characters are portrayed subliminally pushed to make the viewer feel more sympathetic to Dionysus rather than Pentheus.
Charles Mee, the playwright of the remake, decided to adapt it to make it more relatable with a modern audience. I question his success in doing so, as I felt the nuances behind the modernised touches were too subtle at first and required the audience to put effort in analysing his choices; these touches did not serve to push the plot forward or meaningfully enrich the setting–the setting was plain enough as is, and a time and location did not really come to mind–they only displayed a veil of symbolism that viewers who were curious enough to analyse it at a deeper level would appreciate to some degree. For example, the suits that the “civilised” characters (Pentheus and his aides) wore were contrasting solid black and white, forcing morality, gender, and other concepts into binary systems without any middle ground and using non-vibrant colours invokes a sense of routine, staleness, and lack of expression. The clothes hugged the body snugly (or rather, not loose) and covered most of it (save for the head and hands), acting as a shell that restricts the wearer’s expression. Dionysus and the women, on the other hand, wore less restrictive clothing, which translates to freer expression of self and room for self-improvement. Lively colours (tangerine and earthen colours) invoked senses of nature and creativity. Near the end of the show where the climax occurs one of the women appears to be wearing a long, red, wooden erect phallus, something that I believe was used to question the requirements of gender.
In the second half of the show, Pentheus decides, at Dionysus’ suggestion, to sneak into the abode of the wild women in order to ready himself for an assault against them. In order to so, he decides to dress up as a woman to blend in. What happens in the span of 2 minutes is Pentheus stripping out of his suit and putting on an elegant evening dress, high heels, and a wig. I asked at the talkback after the show the significance of choosing that costume and the costume designer replied that it represented Pentheus’ idea of how the ideal woman looks and behaves. It is also around this time that Dionysus swaps for more masculine clothing, maintaining a duality in gender presentation on the stage.
As Pentheus eavesdrops on the women, he grows to become more sympathetic to their thoughts. Throughout most of this scene, he remains silent, an observer, much like an initiate in a movement.When he is discovered, he is quickly accepted as he listens to more of their tales. By the end, he has successfully been converted and he is accepted into the group. Eventually only he and one other woman, Agave, remain on centre stage. As Pentheus lies on Agave’s lap and is gently stroked, his wig comes off and she flies into a rage that a man has managed to breach her inner sanctum and proceeds to kill him. The twist is revealed when Cadmus, Pentheus’ grandfather, enters the scene and woefully divulges to Agave that she had killed her son. The scene in both the original and the remake are similar in that she denies not knowing who her kill was (in the original, a lion; in the remake, an imposter) before coming to realise that she had just committed filicide. Where it differs is the addition of a third party in the remake: Dionysus, who while soft-spoken, begins to embody the incarnation of the original. He appears unseen by all the other characters as he mocks the lengths to which humans will try and deny that which lies before them; for example, the weeping Agave cradling her child’s head while reciting to herself, “it’s only a dream, it’s only a dream…”
I will attempt to tread carefully in this next section, as it has to do with comparing similarities between the reaction of Agave to Pentheus’ reveal to some members of (typically political or ideological) movements, more recently noted in those that purport to be morally superior. While many branches at a local level typically don’t have these incidents occur, there grows a disturbing trend to dismiss and alienate interested, potential members not necessarily because of the opinions they hold and espouse but by traits that are near impossible to change. Just like Agave’s violent reaction to discovering Pentheus’ identity, some members of these movements discount arguments from others (regardless of whether or not it supports their views) by virtue of their sex, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, etc.
In terms of a work that seeks to explore the different sides of humanity (the “structured, civilised” side versus the “instinctual, wild” side) it is quite thought-provoking; when evaluating it as a work to entertain, it does not come off as strong. Perhaps if the characters were less of a voicepiece for the author and given more individual personality, the script would have entertained better while teaching at the same time.