Translated by Emma Pauly
Volume 7, Issue 4 (Fall 2019)
I began work on Bacchae about two months after completing my Bachelors at the University of Chicago in the summer of 2016, though a slow and creeping fascination with the play had been fermenting (pun very much intended) for about two years prior. It received a reading in Los Angeles with Griot Theatre of the West Valley in the spring of 2017 and was briefly workshopped during my time in the UK at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. After a few redrafts, it received another reading in conjunction with Pieus Productions in the spring of 2019. This iteration of the translation represents the changes made after that most recent reading.
Bacchae has been a story of sexual revolution, religious fundamentalism, political unrest, female empowerment (or disempowerment). It has been an atheist manifesto, railing against a cruel and spiteful god just as often as it has been a harkening to faith and orthodoxy. I have no answers here, and I do not seek to find them.
For me, it is a family grieving at cross-purposes. For me, Bacchae is a play of two mothers. One is Agave, maddened and blood-spattered, exulting and mourning, intimately and horrifyingly connected to the body of her son. But the other is Semele, whose tomb is remarked upon too many times within the Greek text for her ghost to ever be forgotten. The spirit of Semele looms large over the text as her son, father, nephew and sisters collide with one another over how they are to remember her.
Most of the scholarship and discourse around Bacchae seems to spiral down into the most dramatic ‘set piece’ of the play: the rending of Pentheus. As such, there is a gravitational pull into Pentheus’ body and psyche, and it is not unreasonable that there would be. Pentheus is male, presents himself as cisgendered, and grapples with sexuality and repressed impulse in a way with which many witnessing his pain can find common ground. His death is fearsome and pitiable and his descent into Dionysiac madness perhaps even more so. He is, after all, a tragic protagonist.
But he is not the only one.
Bacchae is so often characterized as an unstoppable wave swamping a helpless figure, a removed and inexorable god systematically destroying an enemy that cannot hope to stand in opposition to. Dionysus is held at arm’s length: a smiling, inscrutable seducer in one line, an incomprehensible force of nature in another. He is Other and therefore cannot be understood. He is Other and therefore an audience cannot empathize with him. He is Other and therefore he is not ‘us’.
But he is our other protagonist, and I have attempted to produce a translation that treats him as such.
This Bacchae is an exploration of what it means to exist in a queer body, what it means to be perceived in a queer body, and what it means to rage, suffer, and grieve in a queer body. What does it mean to stand in front of one’s family, proclaim your identity, your self and remain unseen? The god Dionysus does this in multiple permutations over the course of the play, revealing and concealing himself in the body that is both disguise and epiphany. My one hard-and-fast rule for the casting of this play was made to honor that: Dionysus must be played by a non-binary, genderqueer, or otherwise gender non-conforming actor.
Rather than creating a distance from the Other, I have striven in this translation to stand within it.
Bacchae is also notorious for the text that it does not possess; an uncomfortably large section is missing from the final moments of the play. Dionysus’ entrance-lines are lost to time, as is Agave’s final lament over the body of Pentheus. Rather than skip over it, I have chosen to fill that space (albeit with an acknowledgement from Dionysus himself that a loss is present). In the page or so of ‘original’ text, Dionysus castigates Kadmos and Agave for, from his perspective, tacitly participating in Semele’s demise. Over and over again in this text, holes open up and grief pours in.
Turning to the logistics of this translation, the main stylistic choice overall was the decision to render non-choral speech in prose rather than verse. In the parodos, odes, and exodos that are woven throughout the play, the chorus speaks in free verse. This is done for ease of comprehension above all else, as I have made that job somewhat more difficult in other areas. References to mythologically obscure places, entities and practices have not been excised. In a few cases, I have attempted to couch them in their context, much in the same way I have added context in-narrative to shed light on the linguistic trickery that occurs in a few select places in the text (two of the most notable being the homeros/meros confusion Teiresias explores in his speech to Pentheus and the continual punning on Pentheus’ very name, which riffs on the Attic Greek word penthos, meaning ‘suffering’ or ‘grief’).
This attempt at context has (somewhat unintentionally) dovetailed with another of my stylistic choices in this translation: fourth wall awareness. Bacchae is a play of violence and horror, yes, but what makes it truly remarkable amongst tragedies is its humor and metatheatricality. In this translation that attempts to re-center the emotional heart of the play, Dionysus serves as both narrator and protagonist, flitting between times and realities, commentating and participating in equal measure as he navigates a body that is both his and not his, a city that is and is not his home, and a family he does and does not love.
Little can be said with certainty about the life of Euripides; he was likely born in approximately 480 BCE on the island of Salamis and likely died around 406 BC in exile in Macedonia. During his life, he wrote anywhere between 92 and 95 plays, 19 of which have survived in complete enough form to be performed (18, if the contested authorship of Rhesus is to be believed). He was awarded first prize at the City Dionysia a total of five times in his career, one of which was for Bacchae (awarded posthumously to him in 405 BC).
Emma Pauly (she/her/hers or they/them/theirs) is a dramaturg, translator and performer with a focus in Greco-Roman text, particularly tragedy. They hold a B.A. from the University of Chicago in Theater and Performance Studies with a minor in Classics and an M.A. from the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s International Acting Programme. Their translations have been featured in productions at Chicago’s Prop Thtr (where she is a member of the dramaturg pool) and Pop Magic Productions, of selections from the Orphic Hymns and Ovid’s Metamorphoses respectively. They are currently serving as the Supporting Dramaturg and translation consultant on Court Theatre’s production of the full Theban Cycle (with The Gospel at Colonus taking the place of Oedipus at Colonus), a three-production endeavor spanning two seasons. Originally hailing from Los Angeles, they are currently based in Chicago.
[Stage directions indicated thusly.]
[Semele’s grave. DIONYSUS is onstage as house opens.]
DIONYSUS: Here I am.
Dionysus, son of Zeus, in the land of Thebes, at your service. Kadmos’ daughter Semele gave birth to me here in a scorch of lightning.
Down from divinity, I have taken this mortal form, here where the Dirke and Ismenus meet.
(They’re rivers, for those of you who haven’t kept up with your classical geography.)
I can see her grave. My lightning-struck mother’s grave. This is her room. Was her room. Right by the palace. Still smoking from Zeus’ fires, a burning that never dies away.
Hera’s fault, though. Hera’s immortal rage against my mother.
Kadmos made this place sacred (well done to him), a shrine to his baby girl. But the vines all around it, I made those. I veiled the place in young grapes and fresh green and growing things.
I came here from Lydia, where the earth bears gold, passing through Phrygia, then the expanse of sunstruck Persia, walled Bactria and the dread land of the Medes—
None of this is going to make any sense is it? Do any of those exist now?
—then through Arabia (you still have that one, right?) and all across fair Asia, the places that hug the salt-sea’s coast, full of Greeks and foreigners mingling beneath the spires.
And now I’m home.
I have come here first before all other Greek cities to strike up the dances and set down my rites so that mortal kind can know me for what I am: a god.
Thebes is first in all of Greece to be roused by my call, fawnskin-draped and bearing the thyrsus in their hands, my ivy-wound spear.
Because my aunts—my mother’s side, her sisters, they never should have—
They said—no, they pronounced that Dionysus was no child of Zeus, that Semele had lain down with some mortal, foisting the blame on Zeus for the product of the unmarried bed. (acting on Kadmos’ say-so). Zeus killed her, so they say, they shrill, for it. For lying about her bedmate.
And so I’ve driven them mad. Driven them from beneath their roofs. They’re up in the mountains now, my wildness in their hearts.
They bear my colors now, at my behest, the trappings of my faith.
All of Kadmos’ female citizens, as many as there are in the city, all have left their homes.
Up there they mingle with Kadmos’ own daughters, among green boughs and sit upon the stones with no roof to pen them in.
The city has to learn, willing or no, even uninitiated as they are. They will learn my ways.
Semele must be defended.
My mother must be defended.
The mortals must be shown that I am Zeus’ trueborn kin, a trueborn god. They will be shown.
But Kadmos. He’s abdicated, handed over his power and privilege to Pentheus, one of his daughter’s brood, one who rails against the gods. Well, me. Just me.
I’m banned from his sacrifices, not given a thought in his prayers.
So we’re going to give him a show. Make my divinity crystal clear, for him and for Thebes.
Then onto other lands, away from here and towards new frontiers. I’ll set my feet on a new road and make myself manifest in other lands.
But if Thebes should, say, take up arms in anger and harry the Bacchae from the mountain …I may take the field.
For all this, I’ve decanted myself into this mortal vessel and taken a human face.
Do you like it?
My exiles from Tmolus, from Lydia’s walls, my retainers, my ladies-in-waiting, you whom I brought from all the lands to keep me company.
Strike up the band, the Phrygian drums, mine and Rhea’s invention.
Flood the city with the beating of drums, encircle Pentheus’ palace, that the city of Kadmos might see you in your glory.
I’ll swing by Kithairon, where the rest are, to share in the dance.
And away we go.
[DIONYSUS exits. The Chorus take the stage. Their garlands and flowers will eventually decorate Semele’s grave.]
From sacred Tmolus we’ve come.
To do Bromios’ precious work.
We follow him in labor unlaborious.
We call evoe, we call out the Bacchae’s cry.
Who would stand in our way?
Who could stand in our way?
Let them stay housebound,
let them clear the streets,
let them keep their mouths shut, shut away, shut off:
I will sing.
I will scream. As we have, as is custom, as is the way.
I will sing to Dionysus.
It’s a blessing to know these rites
to live god-touched
to throw your soul into the dances, initiated in the rites
to run wild in the mountains
in the throes of Bacchic frenzy
sacrosanct and holy, holy, holy
to honor the rites of Cybele the Great Mother–
and, thyrsus in hand and ivy-crowned, to serve Dionysus.
come Bacchae, we who carried him with us,
Bromios the Raging One,
the god and child-of-a-god,
from Phrygian wilderness
to the paved expanse of Greece,
we brought him, Bromios the Loud-Resounding.
She brought him, to us,
first, Semele, in the throes of birth-agony,
death-agony from Zeus’ thunderstroke,
she cast him out from the womb just before-
The lightning stole Semele away.
And so Zeus son of Kronos
made a shelter of his own for his babe.
No hesitation. Slit his thigh open
and sewed the wound shut with gold,
out of Hera’s sight.
From there he came forth
at the time the Fates had set for him,
the horned god, a crown of snakes on his brow.
We do the same in his honor,
wind our hair with wild-caught serpents.
Thebes! City-mother of Semele, wear the ivy.
Thrive, thrive with fruit and yew-garlands,
dance in Bacchus’ glory crowned in oak and fir.
Drape yourself in fawnskin over your sheep’s wool.
Come and be with us.
Have some fun, it’s holy!
The earth will dance with us,
with Bromios-Dionysus who leads this company.
To the mountain.
To the mountain.
Where the women wait,
the ones Dionysus drove in madness
away from the shuttle and the loom.
Hail to the hidden cave of the Divine Dancers,
Cretan cavern, caretaker of the infant Zeus,
in whose depths the thrice-helmed Korybantes
discovered this taut-stretched circle of hide for us.
In their fervent celebration,
they paired it with the sweet breathing-sound
of Phrygian flutes and placed it in the hands
of Mother Rhea, ringing out loud
with the Bacchae’s cries of exultation.
Close at hand were the Satyrs,
dancing like wild, bringing the rites of the Mother Goddess to fruition.
They joined it all together with the dances of the chorus, the feasts we hold
every three years.
And in it all, Dionysus is exalted.
It’s sweet with him, up on the mountain,
sprawling on the ground after the dance has tired him out, the fawnskins beneath us slick with ram’s blood,
our sacrifices. It’s raw. It’s good.
There is a rush through Phrygia,
through Lydia, and Bromios leads the tide, yes.
The earth runs with milk,
He raises a firebrand, a burning pine branch,
like Syrian incense,
the tip of his staff alight.
he kindles the stragglers,
with his cries he spurs us on,
his tumbling hair fans out behind him in the wind—
Our voices one with his, he roars.
Go, Bacchae, go with golden grace,
the richness of Tmolus.
Sing for Dionysus,
sing with the drums,
Cry glory, glory to the god of joy, of exultation.
Call to him.
Give him your screams in sweet music and flute-song.
To the mountain.
Onward to the mountain.
So he says.
And like a young horse
with its mother at the grazing,
we kick up our heels.
It’s all in good fun.
[TEIRESIAS enters. The blind prophet. Elderly, a little wild, and powerful.]
TEIRESIAS: Hello? Who’s there?
Kadmos? Speak up if you’re in there!
Child of Agenor?
He who left the city of Sidon and built this towered town of Thebes?
Will one of you nice young ladies go inside and say that Teiresias is here looking for him?
He’ll know why I’m here.
[One of the CHORUS exits.]
We’ve got an idea, he and I. Even as old as I am (and he’s even older).
We’ll take up the wands, wear the fawnskin, crown our heads in shoots of ivy.
[KADMOS enters from inside the palace with the CHORUS MEMBER trailing behind. Nicely dressed, bearing two ivy wreaths. Old but stately. Kicked ass in his youth.]
KADMOS: Darling! My dear friend.
I heard your voice from inside, I knew it was you. Wise words from a wise man.
I’ve got the god’s livery right here.
[He takes TEIRESIAS’ hand and gently hands him an ivy crown.]
For my daughter’s child has made it clear to mortals that he is a god, this Dionysus my grandson. That being the case, he deserves as great praise as we can give him.
Shall we dance, old friend?
Shall we plant our feet and toss our far-too-graying hair?
You’ll lead, of course, age waltzing with age, my Teiresias. You’ve always been the wiser of us.
This never gets old. Day and night, beating time on the earth with the thyrsus.
I could forget that I’ve grown old.
TEIRESIAS: We’re of the same mind, then. Even I will try out the dance.
KADMOS: Shall we? To the mountain, in a chariot?
TEIRESIAS: A bit proud for greeting a god, don’t you think?
KADMOS: Then I’ll guide you, old following older.
TEIRESIAS: We’ll have an easy time of it, what with a god leading us on.
KADMOS: Is there nobody else in the city who’ll dance for Bacchus?
TEIRESIAS: We’re the only ones wise enough. The rest…less so.
KADMOS: Mustn’t delay. Here, take my hand.
[He offers TEIRESIAS an arm.]
TEIRESIAS: Where—ah, there you are. I’ve got you.
KADMOS: I may be mortal, but I know better than to ignore a god.
TEIRESIAS: But to them [he indicates the city], we don’t ‘know better’ about anything at all. All our traditions, customs of our nation, all the ways of this age, we can’t argue our way out of, not by any measure of our hearts or minds.
Would anyone call me a fool, say I shame myself and my years by joining the dance and wearing the ivy?
Or rather, they shouldn’t. He doesn’t care. The god does not care, young or old, only that you dance. He wants his due from all alike.
None are excluded from his praise.
[During this, PENTHEUS begins to enter.]
I know you can’t see by light, but I can describe for you.
Pentheus is coming. Echion’s son, my grandson, the one I abdicated for. Coming rather fast, actually, right up to the house.
I wonder what set him off.
Some breaking news to report?
[PENTHEUS enters in a rush.]
PENTHEUS: I was out on business when I heard, away from the city. I’ve been told that there’s a new evil in the city, that the women have forsaken their homes. It’s a front, it’s a fake, a false Bacchic rite, an excuse for them to cavort in the mountain’s shade, dancing to honor this ‘new god’ Dionysus.
Whoever that is. Whoever he really is.
I hear they’ve got casks of wine up there, full to the brim, just sitting there in the midst of their frolicking. And that they sneak off into secluded corners, servicing men, excusing it as a sacred thing, a Maenad’s ritual.
If it is a ritual, it’s to Aphrodite, not this Bacchus of theirs.
I’ve seized some of them already, they’re being kept with bound hands in a common holding cell, guarded by my people; as for those still at large, I will drive them down from the mountain.
Ino and Agave are there, Agave who mothered me with Echion, and cousin Actaeon’s mother, my aunt Autonoe, I’m made to understand.
With them clapped in irons, I’ll put an end to this bad behavior. Swiftly.
They say a stranger has made an entrance, some foreign conjurer from Lydia, with waves of perfumed hair. She—
Whatever. The hedge-witch has Aphrodite in their eyes, they say, eyes dark and deep as wine.
She’s holding court with them, day and night, telling tales of these howling rites.
If I catch her here, under this roofs, I will end her. I will stop the thyrsus in her hand from keeping the beat. And that long hair that she so loves to flaunt? I’ll cut that short too.
Taking her head off should do it.
This person says that Dionysus is divine, that he was sewn away inside Zeus’ thigh, but we know the child was burnt alive in the thunderbolt’s blazing trail with its mother, punishment for boasting of her bond with Zeus.
Isn’t that offense enough to merit a hanging? A noose for this stranger and her undignified indignity?
But look here. Another ‘miracle’! I see the prophet draped in spotted fawnskin, Teiresias—and my grandfather—that’s. Just so funny. The both of you, living it up, waving those wands about.
I can’t have this, grandfather, I can’t watch you shaming yourself in your old age. Shake this ivy off, if you don’t mind? Let the thyrsus fall from your hands, oh father of my mother?
[KADMOS does neither of those things.]
You. You talked him into this, Teiresias.
What will this do for you, hmm? If you bring a new god to the people, that’s more auguries for you, a bigger share of the roasts people burn for offerings? If your grayed age wasn’t protecting you, you’d be thrown down, bound in among the rest of the Bacchae for preaching this false gospel.
When women start getting into the wine, I say it’s gone too far. It’s not healthy.
CHORUS LEADER: Blasphemer!
No reverence for the gods from the heir of earthborn-sowing Kadmos?
Will you dishonor your family, Echion’s son?
TEIRESIAS: It’s no great task for a wise man to speak well when the time comes, if he picks it carefully.
You hold yourself as if you’re one of these ready-tongued individuals. You’re not. Your words lack sense behind them.
Even the boldest speaker fails as a citizen when his words lack sense.
But as for this new god, this one you sneer at, I cannot describe how far he will spread over Greece, how great his rise. For there are two things, young man, two that are prized above all else by men.
The first is the goddess Demeter, for she is the Earth. Call her whichever you prefer. It is she who brings forth solid food from the earth. Dry goods, if you will.
But her junior, Semele’s child, showed us the other side of the coin, found the nectar in a bunch of grapes and gave it to mortals, letting them be free of pain when they partake of the river-of-the-vine. He gives us sleep, to forget the evils of the day for a time, and there is no better prescription for pain.
We pour out a god as an offering to the gods, divinity for divinity, and through him are we given grace in our sacrifices.
And you. You would make light of this, here, now, because Zeus sewed him up inside himself? His thigh, so they say. Pay attention, young man, and I’ll show you the truth of it.
When Zeus spirited him away, out of the lightning’s embers, he took the child up to Olympus, too-newly born. But Hera would not let it stand, wanted him thrown down from the clouds to earth. And so, as gods do, Zeus concocted his own scheme to counter his wife. He shaped a copy of the child from vapor and air, breaking off a piece of earth-cloaking cloud to give to her as a hostage, bait to divert her wrath from the child Dionysus.
And what is hostage in our tongue? ‘Homeros’. And thigh? ‘Meros’.
Cumulative error, it’s called. Mortals tell the story to each other, and gradually ‘homeros’ becomes ‘meros’, and the story grows and changes.
Does that make sense, young man?
[PENTHEUS is silent.]
This god is a prophet, too. There’s method in his madness and much of the future to be found in his dances.
For when the god enters a worshipper and takes full hold, the possessed one can prophesy.
Which isn’t to say there’s nothing of Ares in him either. Now he’s a god you know well. You know that feeling before a battle? That flutter, that tremor in the ranks, that exhilarating fear before anyone so much as raises a spear. That is Dionysus. That too is his madness.
You might even see him up in Delphi’s crags, leaping between the twin peaks with a torch in hand, moving and shaking. Greatest show in Greece.
Listen to me, Pentheus. Don’t go spreading it around that your kingship is the greatest power there is. Even if you believe it so. that you’re in the right. You’re not. Your judgment is impaired.
Welcome the god to the city, let the libations flow for him. Come to the rites. Wear the ivy.
[PENTHEUS is silent.]
Dionysus won’t lead any of the women to Aphrodite if they don’t want to be led. He cannot bring out what is not already there. If they wish to be chaste, they will be chaste and any Bacchic ecstasy isn’t going to change that.
Don’t you see?
You love the praise too, when the citizens cry out your name in joy after a decree, thronging at the city gates. I wager he wants to be honored, just the same.
And so Kadmos and I shall honor him, even with your mockery. Ivy-crowned, we’ll dance, even though a pair of greybeards won’t add much to the revelry. You cannot make us side against a god.
I would consider who is mad and who is not between the two of us. And what kind of cure is needed.
CHORUS LEADER: Apollo is proud, old man. It is no shame to him to praise his little brother, a great god in his own right, and you worship him the better for it.
KADMOS: Child, Teiresias speaks with knowledge. Stake your claim with us, not set apart from the laws of nature. You’re not thinking clearly, you’re all over the place.
And even if he’s not divine, even if he’s as you say, just…say he is. Make it your best lie you’ve told, let Semele be remembered as the mother of a god and bring glory to our family and our line.
You remember Actaeon, your cousin, and his grisly fate? The one whose own dogs, the ones he raised from pups, tore him to shreds. Artemis turned them on him, for saying he was the better hunter between the two of them.
Please. Do not let that be you.
Don the ivy. Give the god his tribute with us.
PENTHEUS: Don’t touch me.
Bacchant it up if you must, but don’t infect me with this idiocy.
He’ll pay for this, the one who tasked you with his fools errand.
One of you. Go, quickly. Find his favorite spot, that little private place where he watches for bird-omens. Ransack it, pry the stones up out of the earth with levers and throw his wreaths and garlands out into the storm.
I’ll hurt him the most with that.
Track down this stranger, the one shaped like a woman, who infected our women with this new disease and plagues our marriage-beds.
Be sure to bring him-or-her-or-whatever here in chains, but alive. I want his punishment to be death by stoning. That’ll cure this Bacchic sickness for all of Thebes.
TEIRESIAS: You have no idea what you’re saying, do you?
More mad now than you were before, and before you were hardly sane.
Madder still to come.
We should go, Kadmos, and beg forgiveness on his behalf, harsh as he may be. For the city, too. Just in case the god tries something new.
Come now, and keep me from tripping with that ivy-staff of yours, and I’ll do the same for you: it’d be a shame for the both of us seniors to take a dive.
All the same. We must serve Bacchus, son of Zeus.
Pentheus will bring you suffering, Kadmos. You and your family.
I don’t need prophecy to see that. He’s made it perfectly clear by word alone.
[KADMOS and TEIRESIAS exit one way, PENTHEUS another.]
Grace, divine queen.
Grace, who spreads golden wings over the earth—
Have you heard these words of Pentheus?
Do you hear his blasphemy against the Raging One,
the first spirit called upon for the happiest times,
for feasting and for garland-wearing joy?
He hallows the chorus
and laughs with the flute,
stops worries in their tracks
when gods set to feasting
and the grapevine’s shimmer steals over them
in ivy and in laughter
he pours out an offering for the guests,
the gift of sleep.
Unchecked tongues and heedless ignorance
only end in misfortune.
But a life of quiet.
This leaves a house unmoved, binds it together.
The gods may be far away in the heavens,
but they see us. See what we do.
Cleverness is not wisdom,
and neither is reaching beyond thoughts meant for mortals.
Our lives are short.
Spend all your time reaching
and you miss what’s in front of you.
This is the madman’s way.
Or at least the ill-counseled.
But that’s just my opinion.
I wish I could be in Cyprus, Aphrodite’s isle,
Where love lives, heart’s-cure love, in mortal hearts,
Paphos where it never rains,
where a hundred foreign streams with a hundred mouths
make the land grow, make the rivers flow.
Take me to the Muse’s home, Pieria,
and let me rest on Olympus’ slopes.
Thunderer, He Who Leads the Dance,
He Who Cries Out Joy, Elemental Spirit,
take me there.
The Graces are there, Desire is there,
there where the Bacchae may worship without fear.
The daimon, our force of nature takes joy
in the good times, Zeus’ child,
He smiles on the Goddess Peace, the abundant one,
The Lady Who Cares for the Young.
In equal measure, to the fortunate and the not,
he gives us the relief of wine.
Wine without pain.
But he hates too.
He hates this in particular:
the ones that have no care for life,
no love for the blessed life,
in bright day and sweeter night.
Those who fail to keep their wisdom,
their cunning far from men who overstep their bounds.
Majority rules. What’s good for the many should be good for me.
[A SOLDIER enters. He leads DIONYSUS with his hands bound.]
SOLDIER: Lord Pentheus!
We have him!
[PENTHEUS enters from the other side.]
SOLDIER (cont’d): We’ve snared the prey you sent us for, we’ve made it worth your while.
It’s a docile creature, didn’t flinch, didn’t flee, but gave himself freely into our hands. Didn’t even turn pale, didn’t lose the flush in his cheeks.
He just laughed. Let us bind him and lead him off, made it easy for us.
I was embarrassed, I told him it wasn’t my idea, friend, that it was you who sent me, your orders.
But as for the others. The Bacchae you captured, plucked out of the forest and threw into the city jail…
They’re gone. Free and sporting in the fields, calling out to Bromios their god.
The ropes untied themselves from their feet, the locks fell open with no hand turning the key.
One of many strange things this one has brought to Thebes.
But I defer to your discretion.
PENTHEUS: Untie his hands. He’s not lithe enough to wriggle out of this net.
Not ugly, certainly.
Not to your women, I’ve heard.
Is that why you’ve come to Thebes, stranger? For the women?
Long hair…not a brawler, then.
The way it falls over your face, a promise of desire.
Smooth skin, carefully maintained. Never worked in the sun, yeah? Kept yourself indoors, behind bedroom doors, doing Aphrodite’s dirty work with your looks.
But tell me about you. Tell me where you’re from.
DIONYSUS: Fine by me, that’s not hard. I’m sure you’ve heard of Tmolus, the mountain of flowers?
PENTHEUS: I know it. It encircles Sardis.
DIONYSUS: I’m from there. Lydian by birth.
Let’s go with that, why not?
PENTHEUS: And why have you brought these rites to Greece?
DIONYSUS: Dionysus son of Zeus set me on the road.
PENTHEUS: Do you have your own Zeus in Lydia, spawning new gods?
DIONYSUS: No. He and Semele met and joined here. This very place.
PENTHEUS: Did he force you into his service? Come to you in a dream or appear in front of you?
DIONYSUS: He saw me. I saw him. He gave me the rites personally.
[If there isn’t innuendo on that line, you’re doing it wrong.]
PENTHEUS: And what are these rites like?
DIONYSUS: Not telling. I’m not allowed to. Not to the uninitiated.
PENTHEUS: Do they benefit those that practice them?
DIONYSUS: Wouldn’t you like to know?
Still. Not telling. That’s the law.
PENTHEUS: You’re very good at this! Really, masterful bullshit. Tell me more.
DIONYSUS: The rites don’t take kindly to those who scorn the god.
PENTHEUS: So you say you’ve seen this god in person? What did he look like?
DIONYSUS: Anything he pleased. He’s not mine to command.
PENTHEUS: You’re dodging the question. Quite well, it’s well-crafted silliness.
DIONYSUS: Wisdom always sounds silly to the unwise.
PENTHEUS: Is this the first place you’ve brought this deity to?
DIONYSUS: Every nation save this one is already initiated.
PENTHEUS: They don’t know any better. Far less developed than Greeks, those foreign nations.
DIONYSUS: They’re smarter than you in this instance. And besides, different strokes.
PENTHEUS: And are these rites conducted by day or by night?
DIONYSUS: Night, for the most part. It’s so much more…spiritual. Good for devotion.
PENTHEUS: The night’s a trap for women’s virtue.
DIONYSUS: And the day isn’t? You don’t get out much, do you?
PENTHEUS: You’re going to pay for this, for this sharp-tongued defiance.
DIONYSUS: As are you. For your ignorance. For sacrilege against a god.
PENTHEUS: Brave words, Bacchant. You must have had a good coach.
DIONYSUS: Oh, yes. So what will you do to me?
Are you going to punish me?
PENTHEUS: Yes. I’m going to cut off that pretty hair of yours.
[He grabs DIONYSUS by the hair.]
DIONYSUS: My hair is divine. It is an adornment for the god.
PENTHEUS: Your thyrsus, then. Hand it over.
DIONYSUS: Come and get it. It’s Dionysus’ to take.
PENTHEUS: Prison, then. We’ll shut you away.
DIONYSUS: The god will come for me, whenever I call him.
PENTHEUS: Of course he will, as long as you summon him surrounded by your fawning followers. They’ll do whatever you say and call it divine will.
DIONYSUS: He’s here right now. He sees how I am treated.
PENTHEUS: Well, where is he then? I can’t see him.
DIONYSUS: With me, within me. You are godless. You cannot see.
PENTHEUS: Take him.
He holds me in contempt, and through me, Thebes.
DIONYSUS: I will say this once.
I am not to be bound.
I know something you don’t know.
PENTHEUS: I have the power here. And I say, bind him.
DIONYSUS: You don’t know why you live like this. You don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t know who you are.
PENTHEUS: I am Pentheus, son of Agave, son of Echion.
That means ‘suffering’, you know. Like ‘pathos’. It suits you.
PENTHEUS: Get out.
Throw him in the stables, into a horse-trough, make sure there’s no light for him to see by.
You can dance there. And as for your accomplices, the ones you’ve brought to our city, we’re going to sell them to the highest bidder. I’ll bind their hands to the loom and keep them in service, instead of beating at drums with that racket they keep up.
DIONYSUS: I will go.
Nothing will befall me that is not already set. Let it be.
But you. Dionysus will not let you go unpunished for this arrogance. And still you say he’s not real.
Bind me and you put a god in chains.
[The guards tie DIONYSUS’ hands and lead him away.]
Daughter of Achelous,
fair river-queen Dirke,
hear us! Help us!
You held our god once in your rivers.
When Zeus took him newborn from undying flames,
sewed him up inside his thigh
and brought him to term,
calling to him:
“Come, Dithyrambus, he-of-the-prayer-songs,
let me give you a womb,
not your mother’s but good enough.
I will kindle you to glory, my Bacchus,
and all Thebes will scream your name.”
Lady Dirke, blessed stream, why do you turn me away?
I bring you garlands, I bring you a crown of flowers,
why do you spurn me?
Why won’t you listen to me?
By the clustered grape, Dionysus’ joy,
I swear that you will yet take note
of Bromios the Thunderer.
Such rage flames up
in the son of the earthborn Echion
the serpent’s son,
who sprang up from dragon’s teeth
sown in the earth like grain.
Fearsome beast, like none of mortal kind.
He is a giant,
a bloodstained creature
in a deathmatch with gods.
Pentheus comes for us.
Soon he will loop the noose around my neck,
I who am bound to Bromios and no other.
He has our leader already,
tied up in his house,
cast into confining darkness.
Do you see this, Dionysus?
Son of Zeus, do you see your chosen
in danger of capture?
Come bearing a staff of gold,
down from Olympus.
Come and conquer the pride of this bloody-minded man.
Where are you, Dionysus?
Have you gone to Nysa,
where wild things are bred,
to lead a new revel?
The Corcyrian mountains?
The hollows of Mount Olympus,
where the trees grow thick, where once Orpheus
plucked his harp and gave movement
and sorrow to trees, to beasts?
Blessed Pieria, the Lord of the Joy-Cry honors you.
He is coming.
He comes to lead the chorus,
his cue is here.
He will cross the rapids of the Axion,
he will bring the Maenads in a mad rush.
He has left the land of Lydia for us,
a generous, bounteous land, of fast-flowing rivers
that give water to herds of fine horses.
DIONYSUS [from offstage, amplified, distorted, and in Attic Greek]:
CHORUS: Who is that?
Is that the voice of the Joy-God?
Is that who answers me?
Come, join us, come to your chorus!
Bromios! Oh, Bromios!
CHORUS: He’s bringing down the palace!
Pentheus’ house lies in ruins!
DIONYSUS HAS COME UPON THIS HOUSE.
Worship him, praise him—
Look how the stones slide off their pillars.
Dionysus did that,
he screams out his victory
from within the house of his foe.
[Beat. Power gathers.]
CHORUS: Look! There!
Fire over Semele’s tomb,
can’t you see?
Get down, Maenads,
throw your bodies to the earth.
Our lord our god is come,
he is here,
and the child of Zeus strikes against this house.
DIONYSUS: Oh, sweethearts. Frightened enough to hit the deck?
I’m going to go ahead and say you’ve seen Bacchus’…remodel of the house of Pentheus?
Get up, it’s okay.
Take heart, no need for all that trembling.
CHORUS LEADER: I’m so glad you’re okay.
What would I do without my captain of the dancers?
You left me alone, I was so upset.
DIONYSUS: Did you come to grief when Pentheus took me? When he fenced me in with darkness?
CHORUS LEADER: What else was I supposed to do? Who would lead us if something happened to you?
But how did you escape from that godless man?
DIONYSUS: Did it myself. No trouble.
Mostly myself. Mostly no trouble.
CHORUS LEADER: But your hands were bound, how—
Yeah, well. I may have made that whole thing a little hard for him. Humiliating, actually.
He thought he had me in his clutches, but no. Not for an instant. He fed that hope in vain.
Near the prison he’d tossed me in, someone put a bull in his path. Pentheus threw the chains everywhere he could reach to tie the beast down, right down to the hooves. He was breathing hard by the end of it, sweat pouring off him, gnashing his teeth, everything.
I was right next to him, watching quietly.
Then Dionysus reached down and shook the house to ruin. Then, just to be sure, he called fire to light up his mother’s tomb like a beacon.
Pentheus saw this too, thought his house was on fire, ran all over the place screaming at his slaves to bring water to douse it.
They all fell to, but it didn’t exactly go well for them.
Pentheus gave that up for lost—he’d noticed I’d gone—grabbed his sword and charged after me into the house.
Then, the Roaring God—at least, I think it was him, but that’s just my opinion—created an…image in the courtyard.
Hologram’s good for this century, yeah?
Cool. Okay. A hologram, then. As a target. Pentheus lunged, slashing at shimmering ether with killing intent.
But Dionysus wasn’t done, bringing him and his house low with another tremor, shaking the pillars to pieces.
All this destruction. I guess he didn’t like me being chained up like that. Mean thing to do.
And dear Pentheus is worn out by now from raging, his sword slack at his side.
That’s what happens when you pit yourself against a god.
I took my leave of the house and came back to you, Pentheus isn’t a concern.
[A scream of frustration from offstage.]
I stand corrected.
I’m guessing those are his footsteps inside the house. Former house.
And he’s coming right this way.
Whatever will he say next?
I’ll take it in stride, whatever it is, no matter how much he huffs and puffs.
Keep calm and carry on, as the wisest say.
PENTHEUS: This couldn’t be worse!
The foreigner’s escaped! I had him bound, but still he slipped loose!
[He sees DIONYSUS.]
And here he is! What are you doing here? How did you escape?
DIONYSUS: Easy there, calm down. Try some deep breaths. In through the nose, out through the—
PENTHEUS: How did you slip your chains and make it out here?
DIONYSUS: Did I not say I would be rescued? Were you not listening?
Always coming out with some new excuse, you’re so inventive.
Who rescued you, then?
DIONYSUS: The one who pushes the grapevine through the soil for mortal men, Dionysus.
DIONYSUS: I don’t get you. It’s Dionysus’ gift, it’s a good thing, why—
PENTHEUS (to guards): Close the gates. Lock every way out of the city.
DIONYSUS: Why bother?
A god can leap tall buildings in a single bound.
PENTHEUS: You’ve got a smart mouth.
Not as smart as you’d like it to be.
DIONYSUS: I’m smart enough where it counts.
You might want to listen to this one first. He’s come from the mountain with news.
Don’t mind me, I’ll be right here. I’m not going anywhere.
MESSENGER: Lord Pentheus, king of Thebes, I have come from Mount Kithairon, from the peak where the snowfall never melts.
PENTHEUS: And what news have you come in such haste to deliver?
MESSENGER: I saw the Bacchae, the priestesses, the ones who made a break out of the city, flying from it on frail feet. I have come to tell you, to warn the city—
My lord. There is some insane shit going on up there that I don’t understand.
But please. I need to know if I may speak freely or keep myself in check.
I fear some retribution, lord, from a short temper and a noble’s patience.
I won’t be shooting any messengers. It wouldn’t be fair.
Instead, for every horror you tell me about the Bacchae, the more will I visit upon this one here, the one who our women took their cues from.
MESSENGER: The cattle-herds were just coming over the top of the hill, right when the sun just begins to warm the earth.
I saw three groups of women, of revelers, one led by your aunt Autonoe, the second by your mother Agave, the third by your aunt Ino.
They lay asleep, all of them, their bodies at rest, some leaning their backs against fir-trees, some with their heads pillowed on oak-leaves.
They seemed sober, sir. Not as you said they would be, drunk on wine and flute-song, and certainly not—
[He struggles, trying not to say ‘fucking like rabbits’.]
Sneaking off to ‘seek Aphrodite’.
But then your mother stood up in the middle of them and called out, urging them to shake off sleep. She’d heard the cattle lowing.
So they broke themselves from their rest, springing up straightaway. Orderly-like, organized, all of them, it was starting. Old and young, married and not.
They let their hair fall over their shoulders and the ones that had let their fawnskins fall hiked them back up and tied them in place.
With. Um. Snakes. They tied the dappled hides in place with snakes. Snakes with flicking tongues that licked their cheeks.
Some cradled wolf-cubs or young deer in their arms and fed the wild things from their breasts, the ones who left their newborns behind in the city whose breasts were still heavy with milk.
All of them re-crowned themselves in ivy, in oak, in blossoming yew.
One of them took her staff and struck it against a stone, and a jet of water sprang out, fresh and clear. Another plunged hers into the earth and the god loosed for her a torrent of wine. Those who wanted to dug their fingers into the dirt up to the knuckles and found rivulets of milk. Honey ran free from their staves, sweet as it dripped.
If you had been there, if you had seen it, you would pray to this god you condemn.
The cowherds and shepherds met up, talking over each other, trying to piece together the wonders, the terrors they had seen done.
One of them, a traveler, an out-of-towner, a bit more practiced in speaking, addressed us all.
“Come on, men! Men of these holy mountains, don’t you want to hunt them down? We could bring back Agave to Pentheus; she’s his mother, we’d be doing him a service getting her out of that Bacchic insanity (and earn something in return)!”
That was good enough for us, and so we burrowed down into the leaves and waited to ambush them.
And they came right on time, we saw them whirling into their dances, crying with every voice for Iacchos, Bromios, the son of Zeus.
The whole mountain worshipped with them, even the beasts, and nothing could keep still.
Agave bolted by me and I blew our cover, hoping to grab her quickly I had left behind the thicket where we had hidden ourselves.
She saw me and screamed: “My hounds, sprinters, men are hunting us! Fall in, fall in, thyrsoi to hand!”
We ran. And just avoided a shredding by the Bacchae.
And since they couldn’t have us…
They got the grazing cows instead. Attacked them with nothing but their hands.
You’d have seen them tearing a fat calf in two, screaming in their grasp. Look another way and there they were, rending pieces off a heifer.
You would have seen ribs and cloven hooves thrown all over the place, blood-drenched ribbons hanging from the trees, still dripping. Proud bulls, tossing their horns in defiant rage, were driven to the ground, torn down by more women’s hands than I could count. Their hides were ripped from the meat in the blink of an eye, even your kingly eyes.
And then they took off, all at once, like birds, with a flightpath down over the plains that line the Asopus river, where the best of Theban grain is sown. They hit Hysiae and Erythrae, the two towns at the base of Mount Kithairon, turned the villages inside out like raiding soldiers.
They took children from their homes. Whatever they took with them on their shoulders, none of it fell to the ground or needed any ropes to tie it down, not bronze, not iron.
They wore fire in their hair, but they were not burned.
Some of the townspeople took up arms in retaliation, marching out against the Bacchae.
It was terrible, my lord. Terrible to watch.
The points of the men’s spears could not draw blood.
But the women did, hurling their staves like javelins, they did their damage and took flight.
Women. Women did this to our men, and not without a god at their backs.
They went back to their base after that, the spot where the god had sent forth the fountains for them. They washed the blood off there.
I saw the snakes licking the last drops off their faces with forked tongues.
Welcome this god into the city, whoever he is. Please, my lord.
He has shown his power.
And it’s not all bad. I’ve heard he gave the grapevine to us mortals, as an end to pain.
And without wine, we’ve got no chance with Aphrodite. Or anything else good, for that matter.
CHORUS LEADER: Maybe I shouldn’t say so to a king, but I will.
Dionysus bows to no other god.
PENTHEUS: This is an outrage, the gall of these Bacchae, and it spreads like wildfire already. You are a black mark on all of Greece.
But I will not waver.
Summon the rest of the guard to the Electran gate. I want all the shieldbearers, the cavalry with their swiftest horses, and everyone who can hold a shield on one arm and pluck a bowstring with the other.
We will march upon the Bacchae.
This is too much to bear, to suffer this much injury by women’s hands. We cannot let this stand.
DIONYSUS: …well, that isn’t what I said to do. I know you heard me, Pentheus.
You’ve tried to hurt me, but even so I’ll tell you this. this is not right. You are making war on a god.
Listen for a second. Wait.
Bromios won’t just let you take his followers off the mountain.
PENTHEUS: Don’t tell me what to do. Be glad you managed to escape your chains. Or are you missing them?
DIONYSUS: If I were in your place, I would rather sacrifice to a god than stamp my foot at him.
PENTHEUS: But I’m making a great sacrifice. In the glens of Kithairon I will make it, from a slaughter of women.
It’s what they deserve.
DIONYSUS: You will flee. All of you.
You think they’re laughing at you now? Imagine when you have to take your bronze shields and turn tail, running from the staves of the Bacchae.
PENTHEUS: He just doesn’t stop talking, does he? Such an impossible person.
You have a chance to make this right.
PENTHEUS: By doing what? Being ruled by my subjects?
DIONYSUS: What if I brought the women to you? Unarmed? I can.
PENTHEUS: Nice try. I know a trick when I see one.
DIONYSUS: Is it a trick if I’m trying to save you?
PENTHEUS: This is all part of your plan, I’m sure, a pact to make this worship last forever.
DIONYSUS: I made that pact. But that’s between my god and me.
PENTHEUS [to guards]: Get my armor.
[PENTHEUS begins to walk away.]
DIONYSUS: Do you want to see them? All together, sitting up on the mountain?
PENTHEUS: So much. I’d pay good money to see that.
DIONYSUS: Oh? Why the sudden passion? What could have come over you?
PENTHEUS: Well, it would be upsetting to see them drunk, certainly—
DIONYSUS: But you’d enjoy it. Even if it’s so unpalatable.
PENTHEUS: Yes, of course. I could sit under the pines, I’ll be quiet.
DIONYSUS: But they would hunt you down, no matter what stealth you use.
PENTHEUS: You’re right, I’ll go in the open. That’s a good idea.
DIONYSUS: Shall we, then? Will you come on this adventure with me?
PENTHEUS: Right away, let’s go! No delay, I can’t stand waiting.
DIONYSUS: Hold on.
You’re not dressed for it.
A nice dress, preferably linen, and then you’ll be ready.
PENTHEUS: What? Go from man to woman? Why?
DIONYSUS: They’ll kill you if you look like a man.
PENTHEUS: You’re right. Again.
You’ve been right this whole time.
DIONYSUS: Dionysus taught me well.
PENTHEUS: How should I do what you ask? What’s the best way?
DIONYSUS: Come back inside, we’ll get you changed.
PENTHEUS: Into what?
I can’t. It would shame me.
DIONYSUS: So you don’t want to see the Maenads that badly.
PENTHEUS: What do you want me to wear?
DIONYSUS: Let’s deal with your hair first. It needs to be longer, I can take care of that.
PENTHEUS: And next? Any other costume pieces?
DIONYSUS: A dress that falls past your ankles. And a headband.
PENTHEUS: Do you want to add anything else?
DIONYSUS: A thyrsus in hand and a dappled fawnskin. That’ll do nicely.
PENTHEUS: I can’t, I can’t, not women’s clothes, it’s not—
DIONYSUS: You’ll spill blood if you fight them head-on.
PENTHEUS: Right. It’s better for me to go first to do recon.
DIONYSUS: Exactly! It’s a better plan than fighting fire with fire.
PENTHEUS: But how can I get through the city without being spotted?
DIONYSUS: Back alleys and side streets. I’ll lead.
PENTHEUS: Anything’s better than being the Bacchae’s fool. We’ll go inside and I’ll think about it.
DIONYSUS: Great, fine by me.
Whatever you decide, I’m ready and waiting.
PENTHEUS: I’m going. Inside, I mean.
Either I will go armed to the Bacchae or…I’ll do as you say.
The CHORUS gathers closer.]
DIONYSUS: He’s in the net, ladies.
He will come to the Bacchae, and he will give them his life as tribute.
Dionysus, it’s in your hands.
You’re not far off, this I know.
Make him pay.
Strip him of sanity, plant madness in his heart, something manic.
He wouldn’t do this with his wits about him. Women’s clothing for such a man…not him. But now, driven to distraction? Now, he’ll wear it.
I want him brought low. I want Thebes to see him in a woman’s guise, led through the streets in the form he once scorned. He’s said some hurtful things.
Back inside for me, then, and a few last touches on what Pentheus will wear for his ‘Road Trip to Hades’ look, delivered there butchered by his mother’s hands.
He will know Dionysus. He will know the son of Zeus to be true-god-born, to be the greatest horror to mortal kind.
And the greatest helper.
Am I to dance?
To lift my feet the whole night through
with the frenzy of a god inside me?
Shall I bare my throat to the dewy air
like a fawn at play in the meadow,
where joy is green and wide?
When she has outrun a panicked chase,
leaped clear over the braided nets and their wielders?
When the hunter spurs his dogs on
and she presses faster, faster,
her fear puts lightning in her bounds?
She rushes over the plains,
down the riverbank and finds her joy again,
away from men, finds it in the wild places
and in the shade among young trees.
What is wisdom? Here, now?
What is the highest blessing of gods to mortals?
It is to stretch out your hand
over the head of the one you hate,
the one that hates you,
and know your strength is greater.
Doesn’t that always feel good?
The strength of a god is not roused without need,
But when it is roused, it comes down.
It sets mortals to rights,
the ones who kneel at the altar of pride,
those who, in senselessness and without judgment,
do not acknowledge the gods.
In their cunning, the gods hide themselves
behind time, behind the pace of our years.
And they hunt down the unholy.
Natural law forbids us from exceeding our time, our scope.
The price of knowing this is not too high.
There’s even strength in it.
Knowing the divine is power.
It has been so for the longest of time,
it will be so for a long time more.
It’s only natural.
What is wisdom? Here, now?
What is the highest blessing of gods to mortals?
It is to stretch out your hand
over the head of the one you hate,
the one that hates you,
and know your strength is greater.
Doesn’t that always feel good?
Happy is the one who escapes a sea-storm
and comes home to the harbor.
And happy is the one who stands against their hardships.
Happy are they who endure.
One man may exceed another, in his own way.
Countless hopes for yet-more-countless people.
Sometimes hope wins out, gives us riches—
And sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes we fail.
But the one who can live in spite of this,
who is happy day to day.
That one is blessed.
DIONYSUS: Come on now,
So eager to see what he’s not meant to see,
So eager to chase what must not be chased?
Pentheus, I’m talking to you, come on out!
Out of the house, that’s right, out where I can see you.
I want to see you dressed to the nines in women’s wear.
Not just a woman’s. A maenad’s, full of fire and fury, a spy amidst your mother and her retinue.
[PENTHEUS enters, wearing women’s clothing.]
DIONYSUS: My goodness.
A daughter of Kadmos, how lovely.
I can see two suns. I think?
Two sets of seven gates around the city, two Thebes.
You’re the bull. You look like a bull. Right in front of me, leading me on. I can see horns on your head.
Were you wild before? A beast, not a person? You’re a bull now, I’m certain.
DIONYSUS: It’s the god’s presence. He walks with us.
He wasn’t feeling very gracious before, but now he’s declared a ceasefire.
You’re seeing what you should see.
PENTHEUS: How do I look? Is this like how Ino stands? Or Agave my mother?
DIONYSUS: Spitting image.
But here, this lock of hair has come loose. It’s not where I put it under the headband.
PENTHEUS: Might’ve done that inside. I was practicing Maenad-ing, tossing my hair and all that.
DIONYSUS: …of course you were.
Come here, I’ll fix it, that’s what I’m here for.
Hold still. Head straight.
[DIONYSUS fixes his hair.]
PENTHEUS: Alright, set it in order. I’m all yours.
DIONYSUS: And your belt is too loose.
And these pleats, they’re all uneven around your ankles.
PENTHEUS: Seems alright on the right side.
As far as I can tell, it’s not too bad. It’s a nice cut on me, ankle-length.
DIONYSUS: You’ll think me a true friend once you see that you were wrong about how the Bacchae dress. It’s sensible, really.
PENTHEUS: What’s more like them? Holding the staff in the left hand or the right? I want to get it spot-on.
DIONYSUS: In the right. And lifted with the right foot.
I’m so pleased that you’ve changed your mind.
PENTHEUS: I could lift Mount Kithairon on my shoulders, Bacchae and all, couldn’t I?
DIONYSUS: Sure, why not? If you want to.
You had such a negative outlook before, such an unsound mind. Now you’re thinking as you should.
PENTHEUS: Maybe we’ll bring a crowbar? Or should I tear the mountain from its roots barehanded?
No, I’ll need a better angle. Better to brace with the shoulders, arms maybe?
DIONYSUS: Just as long as you don’t wreck the nymph’s shrines or Pan’s favorite pipe-playing spot.
PENTHEUS: Ah, yes! Well said! No taking women by force. I’ll hide myself in the pines.
DIONYSUS: You’ll hide in the perfect hidey-hole for a spy sneaking up on the Maenads.
PENTHEUS: I can see them now, almost. Little birds in the brambles, tangled up in each other, in bed with each other.
DIONYSUS: Well then, it’s up to you to stop them! Guard against their wiles.
You might even catch them, unless they catch you first.
PENTHEUS: Let’s go. Lead me through the middle of Thebes.
I’m the only man with the courage for this. Me.
DIONYSUS: You. Only you.
You take this on for your city. All alone.
For the trial that awaits you is your destiny and yours only.
Come along now.
I am your escort and deliverer.
Another will bring you home.
PENTHEUS: My mother, right.
DIONYSUS: You’ll be a celebrity.
PENTHEUS: That’s why I’m going.
DIONYSUS: You’ll be raised up.
PENTHEUS: I like the sound of that!
DIONYSUS: In your mother’s arms.
PENTHEUS: You’ll make a delicate thing of me yet.
DIONYSUS: Something like that.
PENTHEUS: I’ll get my just reward.
DIONYSUS: You’re terrible! Just terrible.
And what meets you will be just as terrible.
Get ready. You will find glory, a fame that touches the sky.
Embrace your son, Agave.
And your kin too, all you daughters of Kadmos.
I am taking this boy to his greatest exhibition, and I’m going to win it. Me and Bromios together.
Stay tuned for further developments.
To the mountain, go.
Go, quick hounds of madness,
Run to Kadmos’ daughters and their band.
against the one who comes in women’s wear
like a mad thing the spy comes to the Maenads.
His mother will be first.
First to see him hiding in the crags
or behind a rocky spar, scoping them out.
She’ll call out to the Maenads—
Who’s here to eavesdrop on Kadmos’ mountain-bound daughters?
Who is it who comes to the mountain?
Who is it who comes to the mountain, Bacchae?
What could have borne him?
No woman’s blood has borne him.
A lion’s whelp.
Or a Gorgon, one of the race of monsters.
Let Justice show herself.
Let Justice bear her sword.
Let her open the throat of this man.
Let her cut down the son of Echion,
the man who sprang from the earth.
Atheon. Anomon. Adikon.
Ungodly. Unlawful. Unjust.
He comes with violence in his head
and injustice in his heart,
with this he goes against your worship, Bacchus.
With this he desecrates your mother.
With his wits incensed
and his will in uproar, he’s on his way.
He comes to conquer the unconquerable.
Death will teach him temperance.
In matters divine, there is no excuse.
A mortal life can be without pain.
I don’t begrudge wisdom.
I do have fun trying to find it.
But there are other things.
Great things, things I can know.
I’d like to set sail towards a good life.
To live well, day and night.
I will cast away injustice
and I will honor my gods.
Let Justice show herself.
Let Justice bear her sword.
Let her open the throat of this man.
Let her cut down the son of Echion, the man who sprang from the earth.
Atheon. Anomon. Adikon.
Ungodly. Unlawful. Unjust.
Dionysus, show yourself.
As a bull.
As a serpent with many heads.
As a lion with fire for a mane.
Throw the fatal noose to catch the Bacchae’s would-be hunter.
Let him fall to the Maenads
Let him fall to the throng.
And do it with a smile.
[The SECOND MESSENGER enters.]
SECOND MESSENGER: This house was great, once. Blessed, out of all in Greece, the house of Kadmos of Sidon, who sowed a crop of dragon’s teeth in the earth and reaped a harvest of earthborn men.
I’m sorry for you.
I’m only a servant, but I am sorry.
CHORUS: What is it?
Do you have something to tell us?
SECOND MESSENGER: Pentheus is dead. Echion’s son is dead.
CHORUS LEADER: Oh, Dionysus.
Lord-and-Lady, you have shown your glory.
SECOND MESSENGER: …what?
What are you saying?
You can’t be happy about the fall of this house, the evil that has come upon it.
CHORUS LEADER: In case you haven’t noticed,
we’re not from here.
I sing in a key that was born far away from here,
and you cannot threaten me with chains.
MESSENGER: Do you think there are no men left in Thebes that will do it?
Dionysus has me for his own.
MESSENGER: I understand that.
But we are undone. To take joy in that is wrong. It is impious, ladies.
CHORUS: Go on. Tell me how the blasphemer died.
SECOND MESSENGER: We left Thebes’ houses behind, crossed the river Asopus and began the climb of rocky Kithairon, Pentheus and I—I was following my master—and the stranger in the lead. When we got to the site, we settled into a grass-covered valley, keeping our tongues and footsteps silent, so we could watch without being watched ourselves.
It was a cleft in the rock surrounded by cliffs, well watered, canopied over with pine-branches where the Maenads had established themselves. They were keeping their hands busy with workaday things.
Some were remaking their ragged staves, twining long ivy about them, some chased each other like horses at play, still others sang, calling back and forth to each other, some song about Bacchus.
But Pentheus wasn’t happy. He couldn’t see the group of women from where he was. He said:
Stranger, I can’t see them from here. No sign of the “Maenads”.
We need higher ground. If I climbed one of the tall pines I might be able to get a better view of their shameless raving.
And then I saw the stranger work a miracle.
He took the highest branch of a pine-tree in his hand—I don’t know how—he pulled it down, and down, and down, until it touched the dark soil.
It traced an arc like the curve of a drawn bow or part of a circle scratched out by a compass. Thus did he, with his hands, nothing else, bend the pine-bough to earth.
Human beings can’t do that.
He settled Pentheus onto a branch and let the tree straighten itself out again, guiding it gently with his hands, making sure its cargo didn’t go flying off, until finally the pine stood straight again, with my lord and master crouched on its back.
Right where the Maenads could see him. Better than he even saw them.
He was a sitting duck up that high, and the stranger was nowhere to be found, but there was a voice, out of nothing, out of the air—it must have been Dionysus—he cried out:
He’s here, ladies. I’ve brought him.
The one who laughed at you, at me, at my worship.
He spoke, and a pillar of sacred flame breached heaven and earth at his words.
Then silence. The leaves of the trees hushed themselves and the beasts made no sound.
You wouldn’t have heard a thing.
The women bolted to their feet and tried to investigate—
And he gave his orders again.
And this time, the daughters of Kadmos knew Dionysus’ command.
Doves could not have been quicker than them as they surged forward, sprinting with quick footfalls, Agave his mother, then her sisters, then all the Bacchae behind them. They leaped over broken cliffs and streams swollen with snowmelt with the god breathing frenzy into them.
When they caught sight of the king perched in the fir-tree, they threw stones for their missiles (first pebbles, then boulders), from a high rock opposite the tree that they’d scaled. They threw pine-branches like javelins, and still others used their staves as spears and launched a volley of those at Pentheus too—like a damned dartboard.
But they didn’t hit. He was sitting at too great a height for even their energy to reach.
But they’d got him cornered with no escape route.
As a last resort, they pulled up oak-branches, lightning-fast, using them like iron crowbars to gouge out the tree’s roots.
When even this didn’t work, Agave called:
Come on, circle the trunk, every Maenad to a branch!
We’ll bring down this crouching beast, make sure he won’t go spreading the secrets of the god’s rites.
A thousand hands seized the fir-tree.
And uprooted it.
From that great height, Pentheus fell, screaming long and loud.
It had clicked. He knew he was done.
His mother was the high priestess. It was her right to go first. To begin the killing, and so she threw herself at him.
He tore the headband from his head so that she would recognize him—oh, poor Agave—to stop her from killing him.
He touched her face and said:
It’s me, mother.
It’s me. Your son, it’s Pentheus.
You had me in Echion’s house.
Mercy, mother, please. I know I messed up, please, please don’t kill me, don’t kill your son—
She was foaming at the mouth and her eyes roved everywhere, she wasn’t thinking clearly—or at all—
Bacchus had hold of her. She didn’t listen.
Grabbing his left forearm in her hands, she braced her foot against his bruised ribs and tore the arm from his shoulder.
It wasn’t her own strength that did it, the god had given her hands some of his own.
Ino went to work on the other side, tearing the flesh from the bones, and Autonoë and the rest of the Bacchae fell on him.
There was so much noise, all of them together, him groaning with all the breath he could get and them raising their victory-cry.
One carried off an arm, another a foot, still shod.
His ribs were stripped bare and with bloody hands they threw what was left of Pentheus around like they were playing catch.
His body lies all over the place, some in the cracks in the rock, some in the canopy deep in the forest.
It won’t be easy to find.
His wretched head, his mother happened to get that in her hands, she’s speared it on the tip of her staff, like a hunter who brings a lion home down the middle of Kithairon, leaving her sisters behind in the Maenad’s dances.
She’s coming home, rejoicing in the cursed quarry she caught, bringing it inside the walls. She gives Bacchus partial credit, her partner in the hunt, her brother-in-arms, the most illustrious victor.
Her only prize is tears.
I have to go. Get out of the crossfire before Agave sets foot back in the house.
Temperance and honoring the gods. It’s the best we can do.
The smartest thing mortals can choose to do.
[SECOND MESSENGER exits.]
CHORUS LEADER: Dance in the name of Dionysus.
Raise up your voices for the fall of Pentheus,
son of dragon’s teeth, son of the earthborn.
Dressed in woman’s garb and a fennel-staff,
he went straight down to Hades.
The bull led him by the hand to disaster, to death.
Kadmos’ Bacchae, you have achieved the glory of glories.
But for you, it is wailing.
For you, it is tears.
What a great thing, what a fine thing,
for one’s hands to drip red with blood,
Blood of a son that you struck down.
Agave comes home.
Pentheus’ mother comes home with her eyes rolling.
Welcome her to the revels.
Welcome her with the god’s own joy.
[AGAVE enters, bearing the head of PENTHEUS.]
CHORUS LEADER: What’s got you excited?
AGAVE: I’ve come from the mountain, I’ve brought home a new cutting, a fresh sprig to adorn the halls, a blessed quarry!
CHORUS LEADER: I can see that.
And I welcome you as a sister-dancer.
AGAVE: I snagged him, me on my own! No ropes for this wild young lion. See for yourself!
CHORUS: From what wilderness?
AGAVE: Killed him!
CHORUS: Who struck him down?
AGAVE: ME! I was first, the honor is mine!
They sing of me in the revels, they call me “Agave the Blessed”!
CHORUS: Anyone else?
CHORUS: Kadmos’ what?
AGAVE: His daughters, my sisters!
They only got to the beast after me.
We got lucky in this hunt!
CHORUS: So lucky.
AGAVE: Come on! Share in this feast with me.
CHORUS: What? Share it?
You poor woman.
AGAVE: It’s a young one, too.
See how the hair’s so soft on the sides here, and longer on top.
CHORUS: He certainly looks like a beast with hair like that.
A wild beast.
AGAVE: Bacchus is a huntsman indeed, he was so smart in setting the Maenads on this wild thing.
CHORUS LEADER: Oh, he is.
Our lord-and-lady is a hunter.
AGAVE: Won’t you congratulate me?
AGAVE: Soon Kadmos’ kin—
CHORUS: And Pentheus your son—
AGAVE: He’ll be so proud of his mother, for catching this prize, the lion’s share.
AGAVE: Remarkably done!
CHORUS: Are you pleased?
It was amazing.
I did something amazing in this chase.
CHORUS LEADER: So show them, oh great and terrible woman, show them your hunting-prize, brought home in victory.
AGAVE: People of Thebes, this fair-towered city, all of you!
Come and see what I’ve caught, the prey that the daughters of Kadmos have snared in the hunting, not with thrown-spears like those in Thessaly, not with nets, but with our own fingers, our own arms.
What use is there in boasting of our skill in spear-making? It’s all in vain.
We did this, we caught this beast bare-handed and scattered his joints to the wind.
Where’s my old father? Tell him to come.
And where’s my son Pentheus?
He should have this. Tell him to bring a ladder with him, too, I want him to mount this on the lintel, this lion that I caught for him, brought here for him.
[KADMOS enters, bearing the rest of Pentheus, attended.]
KADMOS: Come on, bear that wretched burden. Oh, Pentheus.
Come on, right here, right before the house.
This wasn’t easy to find. I searched all over Kithairon, finding the body. The scraps.
I’ve brought it back.
Some was thrown into the trees, some in the rocks.
Hard to retrieve.
I’ve been informed of my daughter’s activities, but only when I was already out of the city, on my way back from trying to get to the Bacchae with old TEIRESIAS.
I turned right back around to the mountain.
And now I escort my grandson home, slain by the Maenads.
I saw Autonoe there, Actaeon’s mother by Aristaeus, and Ino, my girls, still stung to madness among the oaks and pines.
I was told Agave was on her way here, Bacchus’ spirit in her steps—
And it seems they were right.
I see her. It is a curse to see her.
AGAVE: Daddy, we’ve brought you bragging rights, the right to say you have the finest daughters in the mortal world!
All of us—well, mostly me, we left the loom behind and went on to bigger and better things, to the bare-handed hunt!
I have the victory-spoils right here, see? I brought them here for you to hang up in the house: here, you should hold them, Daddy.
Be proud of our catch, tell your friends! Have a feast!
We are blessed, blessed, for what we’ve done.
KADMOS: Oh, penthos, grief beyond measure, I can’t look, not at what you’ve done with murderous hands.
You’ve thrown down a fine sacrifice to the gods, and you would call all of Thebes to a feast for it.
To your misery, greatest of all, and then to my own.
A god has destroyed us. Justly but…but this is too much.
The lord Bromios has destroyed us.
He’s our family.
AGAVE: You’re getting crotchety in your old age, and sad-eyed.
My son’ll be a good hunter, he takes after his mother when he takes a kill with the rest of the Theban youths someday.
All he does now is rail against the gods.
You should really scold him for that, Daddy.
Can someone call him out here so he can see my stroke of luck?
You’ll know pain when you realize what you’ve done.
If you stay like this forever—you won’t be alright, but at least you won’t know how not-alright you are.
AGAVE: What do you mean, not alright? What’s wrong?
KADMOS: First, I need you to look up. Look at the sky.
AGAVE: Okay, okay. Why am I looking at it?
KADMOS: Does it look the same or has it changed?
AGAVE: Brighter than before. Sharper.
KADMOS: How do you feel? Still…overwrought?
AGAVE: I don’t understand.
I think I’m coming down from whatever I was before, something’s changing.
KADMOS: Can you hear me? Can you answer me clearly?
…I forgot what we were saying.
KADMOS: Whose house did you go to when you were married?
AGAVE: You gave me to one of the earthborn, that’s what they called them. Echion.
KADMOS: And who is the son you bore there to that husband?
AGAVE: Pentheus. He’s mine and his father’s.
KADMOS: Whose head are you holding in your hands?
AGAVE: A lion’s. They said so. In the hunt, they said so.
KADMOS: Look again now. Look clearly. It’s not hard to see.
AGAVE: What is this? What am I holding?
AGAVE: I see sorrow. The greatest sorrow.
KADMOS: Does it still look like a lion?
No it’s Pentheus. It’s Pentheus’ head.
No, please no.
KADMOS: Mourned even before you knew him.
AGAVE: How did he die? How did he get in my hands?
KADMOS: An unhappy truth. And too long in coming.
AGAVE: Tell me.
My heart’s beating so fast, I can’t—
KADMOS: You killed him. You and your sisters.
Where did this happen?
KADMOS: The same place where Actaeon’s dogs dismembered him.
AGAVE: Kithairon? Why did Pentheus go there?
KADMOS: He went to mock the god and your rites.
AGAVE: Why did we go there?
KADMOS: You were possessed. You and the rest of the city had Bacchus within them.
He’s destroyed us.
KADMOS: He was dishonored by you.
He was not acknowledged as a god.
AGAVE: Where is my son, father?
Where is what’s left of my most-loved child?
KADMOS: I’ve brought it back here. Only just managed to find it out.
AGAVE: Has he been set in order?
KADMOS: No. I tried. I couldn’t.
AGAVE: But what did Pentheus have to do with my mistake?
KADMOS: He took after you and did not honor the god, and so the god bound us all together in this same ruin, destroyed this house and us with it.
And me. Without sons and now without your son, my grandson, child of your womb, woman of sorrow—
This is an ugly death he’s died.
[He addresses the pieces of Pentheus.]
You were a light in the house. You held us together, child, son of my daughter, and were something to be feared in the city.
When they saw your face, nobody would insult ancient old me. You would have laid down the law on all of them.
But now I am dishonored, exiled from my own house, Kadmos the great, who sowed and reaped the Theban race, the most glorious of harvests.
Dearest to me of all men—you’re dead, I know you’re dead, but I call you dearest still.
You won’t ever touch me with those hands again, embrace me, call me grandfather, touch my face, saying: “Who’s wronged you, old man? Who has slandered you? Has someone stirred you up or made your heart heavy? Say who, so I can punish them, I’ll punish anyone who hurts you, grandfather.”
But now I am miserable. And you are broken. Your mother needs pity and her sisters are ruined.
If there are any left who would look down on the gods, let them see this.
And let them know the gods.
CHORUS LEADER: I’m sorry, Kadmos.
This man deserved what he got, child of your child, but it is a torment for you.
Daddy, this is—
Everything’s changed, everything’s gone—
In the quiet, DIONYSUS enters, a God revealed.]
DIONYSUS: I warned him.
I told him exactly what I was, exactly what I wanted, exactly what he had to do to avoid this.
But he didn’t believe me.
There were other words here, once. Good ones.
But they’re lost. To time, to carelessness, to the degradation of parchment, fire and sand.
Doesn’t matter. They’re lost.
Kadmos and his wife Harmonia turned to serpents, leading an army and sacking Thebes (still as serpents? I’ve never been sure), pillaging Apollo’s oracle, saved at the end by Ares, a peaceful death at long last, and so on.
[Back to KADMOS and AGAVE.]
I bring Semele’s regards. The Semele you called a whore, called a liar.
I can’t help but think that maybe if she had been believed, if when she had come to you with news a child you had trusted her, she might not have trusted Hera when she planted that seed of doubt. What if your sisters are right, what if this is a common man and your child a common bastard?
She might not have made Zeus promise her anything she asked for.
She might not have asked him to reveal himself.
And she might not have been burned out of existence by what she saw.
I might have had a mother.
But you didn’t believe her.
And even after she went up in smoke, you and your sisters and your son shut her out, shut me out.
I say this to you as Dionysus, son of no mortal father.
I am Zeus’ son.
I am Semele’s son.
If you would have been wiser, if you had been willing to listen, we—
You would be happy now and you would have the son of Zeus as your ally. Your family.
We’re begging you.
We know we have acted unjustly.
DIONYSUS: A little late to that.
You should have known me from the start. You didn’t.
KADMOS: I know that now.
But you have gone too far.
DIONYSUS: And you committed blasphemy.
I am a god. You denied me.
You are a god.
And so you shouldn’t stoop to mortal anger.
DIONYSUS: Doesn’t matter.
Zeus-my-father set this all in motion long ago.
AGAVE: It’s been decided.
Exile for us both.
And why delay? What will be, will be.
All this is too terrible, all that’s come upon us. You, your sisters, and us, all cursed.
I will go into foreign lands, an aged exile and have no rest from trouble or pain.
No peaceful passing to the Acheron which flows down into the earth.
I’ll have to go without you.
KADMOS: What’s all this, my poor child?
You look like a little swan, wings outspread over its worn-out parent.
AGAVE: Where should I go?
I don’t have another home to go to.
KADMOS: I don’t know, my girl.
Your father can’t be of much use to you here.
Goodbye to the palace, goodbye to my city, my country, my home.
I leave you in pain for more pain in banishment.
KADMOS: Go now, my child. Try Aristeus’ land.
AGAVE: I grieve for you, Daddy.
KADMOS: And I for you, my child. For you and for your sisters.
AGAVE: It’s a terrible thing that Dionysus has done to us and our house.
DIONYSUS: And terrible what was done to him, for his name had no honor in Thebes.
AGAVE: Goodbye, daddy.
KADMOS: Goodbye, unhappy daughter.
It will be hard going for you.
AGAVE: See me out, ladies.
It’s the least you can do.
I’ll fetch my sisters to accompany me in my journey.
I will go where sullied Kithairon can no longer see me, where I can no longer see Kithairon, where there are no fennel-staves to be found.
Leave it to the rest of the Bacchae.
[KADMOS and AGAVE are led to separate exits. The CHORUS exit with them.
DIONYSUS remains onstage as the play ends.]