Essays

THE BACCHANALS OF EURIPIDES

by rocco1

THE BACCHANALS OF EURIPIDES

[53] So far, I have endeavoured to present, with something of the concrete character of a picture, Dionysus, the old Greek god, as we may discern him through a multitude of stray hints in art and poetry and religious custom, through modern speculation on the tendencies of early thought, through traits and touches in our own actual states of mind, which may seem sympathetic with those tendencies. In such a picture there must necessarily be a certain artificiality; things near and far, matter of varying degrees of certainty, fact and surmise, being reflected and concentrated, for its production, as if on the surface of a mirror. Such concrete character, however, Greek poet or sculptor, from time to time, impressed on the vague world of popular belief and usage around him; and in the Bacchanals of Euripides we have an example of the figurative or imaginative power of poetry, selecting and combining, at will, from that mixed and floating mass, weaving the many-coloured threads together, blending the various phases of legend--all the light and shade of the [54] subject--into a shape, substantial and firmly set, through which a mere fluctuating tradition might retain a permanent place in men's imaginations. Here, in what Euripides really says, in what we actually see on the stage, as we read his play, we are dealing with a single real object, not with uncertain effects of many half-fancied objects. Let me leave you for a time almost wholly in his hands, while you look very closely at his work, so as to discriminate its outlines clearly.

This tragedy of the Bacchanals--a sort of masque or morality, as we say--a monument as central for the legend of Dionysus as the Homeric hymn for that of Demeter, is unique in Greek literature, and has also a singular interest in the life of Euripides himself. He is writing in old age (the piece was not played till after his death) not at Athens, nor for a polished Attic audience, but for a wilder and less temperately cultivated sort of people, at the court of Archelaus, in Macedonia. Writing in old age, he is in that subdued mood, a mood not necessarily sordid, in which (the shudder at the nearer approach of the unknown world coming over him more frequently than of old) accustomed ideas, conformable to a sort of common sense regarding the unseen, oftentimes regain what they may have lost, in a man's allegiance. It is a sort of madness, he begins to think, to differ from the received opinions thereon. Not that he is insincere or ironical, but that he tends, in the [55] sum of probabilities, to dwell on their more peaceful side; to sit quiet, for the short remaining time, in the reflexion of the more cheerfully lighted side of things; and what is accustomed--what holds of familiar usage-- comes to seem the whole essence of wisdom, on all subjects; and the well-known delineation of the vague country, in Homer or Hesiod, one's best attainable mental outfit, for the journey thither. With this sort of quiet wisdom the whole play is penetrated. Euripides has said, or seemed to say, many things concerning Greek religion, at variance with received opinion; and now, in the end of life, he desires to make his peace--what shall at any rate be peace with men. He is in the mood for acquiescence, or even for a palinode; and this takes the direction, partly of mere submission to, partly of a refining upon, the authorised religious tradition: he calmly sophisticates this or that element of it which had seemed grotesque; and has, like any modern writer, a theory how myths were made, and how in lapse of time their first signification gets to be obscured among mortals; and what he submits to, that he will also adorn fondly, by his genius for words.

And that very neighbourhood afforded him his opportunity. It was in the neighbourhood of Pella, the Macedonian capital, that the worship of Dionysus, the newest of the gods, prevailed in its most extravagant form--the [56] Thiasus, or wild, nocturnal procession of Bacchic women, retired to the woods and hills for that purpose, with its accompaniments of music, and lights, and dancing. Rational and moderate Athenians, as we may gather from some admissions of Euripides himself, somewhat despised all that; while those who were more fanatical forsook the home celebrations, and went on pilgrimage from Attica to Cithaeron or Delphi. But at Pella persons of high birth took part in the exercise, and at a later period we read in Plutarch how Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great, was devoted to this enthusiastic worship. Although in one of Botticelli's pictures the angels dance very sweetly, and may represent many circumstances actually recorded in the Hebrew scriptures, yet we hardly understand the dance as a religious ceremony; the bare mention of it sets us thinking on some fundamental differences between the pagan religions and our own. It is to such ecstasies, however, that all nature-worship seems to tend; that giddy, intoxicating sense of spring--that tingling in the veins, sympathetic with the yearning life of the earth, having, apparently, in all times and places, prompted some mode of wild dancing. Coleridge, in one of his fantastic speculations, refining on the German word for enthusiasm-- Schwarmerei, swarming, as he says, "like the swarming of bees together"--has explained how the sympathies of mere numbers, as such, the random catching on [57] fire of one here and another there, when people are collected together, generates as if by mere contact, some new and rapturous spirit, not traceable in the individual units of a multitude. Such swarming was the essence of that strange dance of the Bacchic women: literally like winged things, they follow, with motives, we may suppose, never quite made clear even to themselves, their new, strange, romantic god. Himself a woman-like god,--it was on women and feminine souls that his power mainly fell. At Elis, it was the women who had their own little song with which at spring-time they professed to call him from the sea: at Brasiae they had their own temple where none but women might enter; and so the Thiasus, also, is almost exclusively formed of women--of those who experience most directly the influence of things which touch thought through the senses--the presence of night, the expectation of morning, the nearness of wild, unsophisticated, natural things--the echoes, the coolness, the noise of frightened creatures as they climbed through the darkness, the sunrise seen from the hill-tops, the disillusion, the bitterness of satiety, the deep slumber which comes with the morning. Athenians visiting the Macedonian capital would hear, and from time to time actually see, something of a religious custom, in which the habit of an earlier world might seem to survive. As they saw the lights flitting over the mountains, [58] and heard the wild, sharp cries of the women, there was presented, as a singular fact in the more prosaic actual life of a later time, an enthusiasm otherwise relegated to the wonderland of a distant past, in which a supposed primitive harmony and understanding between man and nature renewed itself. Later sisters of Centaur and Amazon, the Maenads, as they beat the earth in strange sympathy with its waking up from sleep, or as, in the description of the Messenger, in the play of Euripides, they lie sleeping in the glen, revealed among the morning mists, were themselves indeed as remnants--flecks left here and there and not yet quite evaporated under the hard light of a later and commoner day--of a certain cloud-world which had once covered all things with a veil of mystery. Whether or not, in what was often probably coarse as well as extravagant, there may have lurked some finer vein of ethical symbolism, such as Euripides hints at--the soberer influence, in the Thiasus, of keen air and animal expansion, certainly, for art, and a poetry delighting in colour and form, it was a custom rich in suggestion. The imitative arts would draw from it altogether new motives of freedom and energy, of freshness in old forms. It is from this fantastic scene that the beautiful wind-touched draperies, the rhythm, the heads suddenly thrown back, of many a Pompeian wall- painting and sarcophagus-frieze are originally derived; and that melting languor, that perfectly [59] composed lassitude of the fallen Maenad, became a fixed type in the school of grace, the school of Praxiteles.

The circumstances of the place thus combining with his peculiar motive, Euripides writes the Bacchanals. It is this extravagant phase of religion, and the latest-born of the gods, which as an amende honorable to the once slighted traditions of Greek belief, he undertakes to interpret to an audience composed of people who, like Scyles, the Hellenising king of Scythia, feel the attraction of Greek religion and Greek usage, but on their quainter side, and partly relish that extravagance. Subject and audience alike stimulate the romantic temper, and the tragedy of the Bacchanals, with its innovations in metre and diction, expressly noted as foreign or barbarous--all the charm and grace of the clear-pitched singing of the chorus, notwithstanding--with its subtleties and sophistications, its grotesques, mingled with and heightening a real shudder at the horror of the theme, and a peculiarly fine and human pathos, is almost wholly without the reassuring calm, generally characteristic of the endings of Greek tragedy: is itself excited, troubled, disturbing--a spotted or dappled thing, like the oddly dappled fawn- skins of its own masquerade, so aptly expressive of the shifty, twofold, rapidly-doubling genius of the divine, wild creature himself. Let us listen and watch the strange masks coming and going, for a while, [60] as far as may be as we should do with a modern play. What are its charms? What is still alive, impressive, and really poetical for us, in the dim old Greek play?

The scene is laid at Thebes, where the memory of Semele, the mother of Dionysus, is still under a cloud. Her own sisters, sinning against natural affection, pitiless over her pathetic death and finding in it only a judgment upon the impiety with which, having shamed herself with some mortal lover, she had thrown the blame of her sin upon Zeus, have, so far, triumphed over her. The true and glorious version of her story lives only in the subdued memory of the two aged men, Teiresias the prophet, and her father Cadmus, apt now to let things go loosely by, who has delegated his royal power to Pentheus, the son of one of those sisters--a hot-headed and impious youth. So things had passed at Thebes; and now a strange circumstance has happened. An odd sickness has fallen upon the women: Dionysus has sent the sting of his enthusiasm upon them, and has pushed it to a sort of madness, a madness which imitates the true Thiasus. Forced to have the form without the profit of his worship, the whole female population, leaving distaff and spindle, and headed by the three princesses, have deserted the town, and are lying encamped on the bare rocks, or under the pines, among the solitudes of Cithaeron. And it is just at this point that the divine child, [61] supposed to have perished at his mother's side in the flames, returns to his birthplace, grown to manhood.

Dionysus himself speaks the prologue. He is on a journey through the world to found a new religion; and the first motive of this new religion is the vindication of the memory of his mother. In explaining this design, Euripides, who seeks always for pathetic effect, tells in few words, touching because simple, the story of Semele--here, and again still more intensely in the chorus which follows--the merely human sentiment of maternity being not forgotten, even amid the thought of the divine embraces of her fiery bed-fellow. It is out of tenderness for her that the son's divinity is to be revealed. A yearning affection, the affection with which we see him lifting up his arms about her, satisfied at last, on an old Etruscan metal mirror, has led him from place to place: everywhere he has had his dances and established his worship; and everywhere his presence has been her justification. First of all the towns in Greece he comes to Thebes, the scene of her sorrows: he is standing beside the sacred waters of Dirce and Ismenus: the holy place is in sight: he hears the Greek speech, and sees at last the ruins of the place of her lying-in, at once his own birth-chamber and his mother's tomb. His image, as it detaches itself little by little from the episodes of the play, and is further characterised by the [62] songs of the chorus, has a singular completeness of symbolical effect. The incidents of a fully developed human personality are superinduced on the mystical and abstract essence of that fiery spirit in the flowing veins of the earth--the aroma of the green world is retained in the fair human body, set forth in all sorts of finer ethical lights and shades--with a wonderful kind of subtlety. In the course of his long progress from land to land, the gold, the flowers, the incense of the East, have attached themselves deeply to him: their effect and expression rest now upon his flesh like the gleaming of that old ambrosial ointment of which Homer speaks as resting ever on the persons of the gods, and cling to his clothing--the mitre binding his perfumed yellow hair--the long tunic down to the white feet, somewhat womanly, and the fawn-skin, with its rich spots, wrapped about the shoulders. As the door opens to admit him, the scented air of the vineyards (for the vine-blossom has an exquisite perfume) blows through; while the convolvulus on his mystic rod represents all wreathing flowery things whatever, with or without fruit, as in America all such plants are still called vines. "Sweet upon the mountains," the excitement of which he loves so deeply and to which he constantly invites his followers--"sweet upon the mountains," and profoundly amorous, his presence embodies all the voluptuous abundance of Asia, its beating [63] sun, its "fair-towered cities, full of inhabitants," which the chorus describe in their luscious vocabulary, with the rich Eastern names--Lydia, Persia, Arabia Felix: he is a sorcerer or an enchanter, the tyrant Pentheus thinks: the springs of water, the flowing of honey and milk and wine, are his miracles, wrought in person.

We shall see presently how, writing for that northern audience, Euripides crosses the Theban with the gloomier Thracian legend, and lets the darker stain show through. Yet, from the first, amid all this floweriness, a touch or trace of that gloom is discernible. The fawn-skin, composed now so daintily over the shoulders, may be worn with the whole coat of the animal made up, the hoofs gilded and tied together over the right shoulder, to leave the right arm disengaged to strike, its head clothing the human head within, as Alexander, on some of his coins, looks out from the elephant's scalp, and Hercules out of the jaws of a lion, on the coins of Camarina. Those diminutive golden horns attached to the forehead, represent not fecundity merely, nor merely the crisp tossing of the waves of streams, but horns of offence. And our fingers must beware of the thyrsus, tossed about so wantonly by himself and his chorus. The pine-cone at its top does but cover a spear-point; and the thing is a weapon--the sharp spear of the hunter Zagreus--though hidden now by the fresh leaves, and that button of pine-cone (useful also to dip in [64] wine, to check the sweetness) which he has plucked down, coming through the forest, at peace for a while this spring morning.

And the chorus emphasise this character, their songs weaving for the whole piece, in words more effective than any painted scenery, a certain congruous background which heightens all; the intimate sense of mountains and mountain things being in this way maintained throughout, and concentrated on the central figure. "He is sweet among the mountains," they say, "when he drops down upon the plain, out of his mystic musings"--and we may think we see the green festoons of the vine dropping quickly, from foot-place to foot-place, down the broken hill-side in spring, when like the Bacchanals, all who can, wander out of the town to enjoy the earliest heats. "Let us go out into the fields," we say; a strange madness seems to lurk among the flowers, ready to lay hold on us also; autika ga pasa choreusei+--soon the whole earth will dance and sing.

Dionysus is especially a woman's deity, and he comes from the east conducted by a chorus of gracious Lydian women, his true sisters-- Bassarids, clad like himself in the long tunic, or bassara. They move and speak to the music of clangorous metallic instruments, cymbals and tambourines, relieved by the clearer notes of the pipe; and there is a strange variety of almost imitative sounds for such music, in their very [65] words. The Homeric hymn to Demeter precedes the art of sculpture, but is rich in suggestions for it; here, on the contrary, in the first chorus of the Bacchanals, as elsewhere in the play, we feel that the poetry of Euripides is probably borrowing something from art; that in these choruses, with their repetitions and refrains, he is reproducing perhaps the spirit of some sculptured relief which, like Luca della Robbia's celebrated work for the organ-loft of the cathedral of Florence, worked by various subtleties of line, not in the lips and eyes only, but in the drapery and hands also, to a strange reality of impression of musical effect on visible things.

They beat their drums before the palace; and then a humourous little scene, a reflex of the old Dionysiac comedy--of that laughter which was an essential element of the earliest worship of Dionysus--follows the first chorus. The old blind prophet Teiresias, and the aged king Cadmus, always secretly true to him, have agreed to celebrate the Thiasus, and accept his divinity openly. The youthful god has nowhere said decisively that he will have none but young men in his sacred dance. But for that purpose they must put on the long tunic, and that spotted skin which only rustics wear, and assume the thyrsus and ivy-crown. Teiresias arrives and is seen knocking at the doors. And then, just as in the medieval mystery, comes the [66] inevitable grotesque, not unwelcome to our poet, who is wont in his plays, perhaps not altogether consciously, to intensify by its relief both the pity and the terror of his conceptions. At the summons of Teiresias, Cadmus appears, already arrayed like him in the appointed ornaments, in all their odd contrast with the infirmity and staidness of old age. Even in old men's veins the spring leaps again, and they are more than ready to begin dancing. But they are shy of the untried dress, and one of them is blind--poi dei choreuein; poi kathistanai poda; kai krata seisai polion;+ and then the difficulty of the way! the long, steep journey to the glens! may pilgrims boil their peas? might they proceed to the place in carriages? At last, while the audience laugh more or less delicately at their aged fumblings, in some co-operative manner, the eyes of the one combining with the hands of the other, the pair are about to set forth.

Here Pentheus is seen approaching the palace in extreme haste. He has been absent from home, and returning, has just heard of the state of things at Thebes--the strange malady of the women, the dancings, the arrival of the mysterious stranger: he finds all the women departed from the town, and sees Cadmus and Teiresias in masque. Like the exaggerated diabolical figures in some of the religious plays and imageries of the Middle Age, he is an impersonation of stupid impiety, one of those whom the gods willing to [67] destroy first infatuate. Alternating between glib unwisdom and coarse mockery, between violence and a pretence of moral austerity, he understands only the sorriest motives; thinks the whole thing feigned, and fancies the stranger, so effeminate, so attractive of women with whom he remains day and night, but a poor sensual creature, and the real motive of the Bacchic women the indulgence of their lust; his ridiculous old grandfather he is ready to renounce, and accuses Teiresias of having in view only some fresh source of professional profit to himself in connexion with some new-fangled oracle; his petty spite avenges itself on the prophet by an order to root up the sacred chair, where he sits to watch the birds for divination, and disturb the order of his sacred place; and even from the moment of his entrance the mark of his doom seems already set upon him, in an impotent trembling which others notice in him. Those of the women who still loitered, he has already caused to be shut up in the common prison; the others, with Ino, Autonoe, and his own mother, Agave, he will hunt out of the glens; while the stranger is threatened with various cruel forms of death. But Teiresias and Cadmus stay to reason with him, and induce him to abide wisely with them; the prophet fittingly becomes the interpreter of Dionysus, and explains the true nature of the visitor; his divinity, the completion or counterpart of that of Demeter; his gift of prophecy; [68] all the soothing influences he brings with him; above all, his gift of the medicine of sleep to weary mortals. But the reason of Pentheus is already sickening, and the judicial madness gathering over it. Teiresias and Cadmus can but "go pray." So again, not without the laughter of the audience, supporting each other a little grotesquely against a fall, they get away at last.

And then, again, as in those quaintly carved and coloured imageries of the Middle Age--the martyrdom of the youthful Saint Firmin, for instance, round the choir at Amiens--comes the full contrast, with a quite medieval simplicity and directness, between the insolence of the tyrant, now at last in sight of his prey, and the outraged beauty of the youthful god, meek, surrounded by his enemies, like some fair wild creature in the snare of the hunter. Dionysus has been taken prisoner; he is led on to the stage, with his hands bound, but still holding the thyrsus. Unresisting he had submitted himself to his captors; his colour had not changed; with a smile he had bidden them do their will, so that even they are touched with awe, and are almost ready to admit his divinity. Marvellously white and red, he stands there; and now, unwilling to be revealed to the unworthy, and requiring a fitness in the receiver, he represents himself, in answer to the inquiries of Pentheus, not as Dionysus, but simply as the god's prophet, [69] in full trust in whom he desires to hear his sentence. Then the long hair falls to the ground under the shears; the mystic wand is torn from his hand, and he is led away to be tied up, like some dangerous wild animal, in a dark place near the king's stables.

Up to this point in the play, there has been a noticeable ambiguity as to the person of Dionysus, the main figure of the piece; he is in part Dionysus, indeed; but in part, only his messenger, or minister preparing his way; a certain harshness of effect in the actual appearance of a god upon the stage being in this way relieved, or made easy, as by a gradual revelation in two steps. To Pentheus, in his invincible ignorance, his essence remains to the last unrevealed, and even the women of the chorus seem to understand in him, so far, only the forerunner of their real leader. As he goes away bound, therefore, they too, threatened also in their turn with slavery, invoke his greater original to appear and deliver them. In pathetic cries they reproach Thebes for rejecting them--ti m' anainei, ti me pheugeis;+ yet they foretell his future greatness; a new Orpheus, he will more than renew that old miraculous reign over animals and plants. Their song is full of suggestions of wood and river. It is as if, for a moment, Dionysus became the suffering vine again; and the rustle of the leaves and water come through their words to refresh it. The [70] fountain of Dirce still haunted by the virgins of Thebes, where the infant god was cooled and washed from the flecks of his fiery birth, becomes typical of the coolness of all springs, and is made, by a really poetic licence, the daughter of the distant Achelous--the earliest born, the father in myth, of all Greek rivers.

A giddy sonorous scene of portents and surprises follows--a distant, exaggerated, dramatic reflex of that old thundering tumult of the festival in the vineyard--in which Dionysus reappears, miraculously set free from his bonds. First, in answer to the deep-toned invocation of the chorus, a great voice is heard from within, proclaiming him to be the son of Semele and Zeus. Then, amid the short, broken, rapturous cries of the women of the chorus, proclaiming him master, the noise of an earthquake passes slowly; the pillars of the palace are seen waving to and fro; while the strange, memorial fire from the tomb of Semele blazes up and envelopes the whole building. The terrified women fling themselves on the ground; and then, at last, as the place is shaken open, Dionysus is seen stepping out from among the tottering masses of the mimic palace, bidding them arise and fear not. But just here comes a long pause in the action of the play, in which we must listen to a messenger newly arrived from the glens, to tell us what he has seen there, among the Maenads. The singular, somewhat sinister beauty of this speech, and a [71] similar one subsequent--a fair description of morning on the mountain-tops, with the Bacchic women sleeping, which turns suddenly to a hard, coarse picture of animals cruelly rent--is one of the special curiosities which distinguish this play; and, as it is wholly narrative, I shall give it in English prose, abbreviating, here and there, some details which seem to have but a metrical value:--

"I was driving my herd of cattle to the summit of the scaur to feed, what time the sun sent forth his earliest beams to warm the earth. And lo! three companies of women, and at the head of one of them Autonoe, thy mother Agave at the head of the second, and Ino at the head of the third. And they all slept, with limbs relaxed, leaned against the low boughs of the pines, or with head thrown heedlessly among the oak-leaves strewn upon the ground--all in the sleep of temperance, not, as thou saidst, pursuing Cypris through the solitudes of the forest, drunken with wine, amid the low rustling of the lotus-pipe.

"And thy mother, when she heard the lowing of the kine, stood up in the midst of them, and cried to them to shake off sleep. And they, casting slumber from their eyes, started upright, a marvel of beauty and order, young and old and maidens yet unmarried. And first, they let fall their hair upon their shoulders; and those [72] whose cinctures were unbound re-composed the spotted fawn-skins, knotting them about with snakes, which rose and licked them on the chin. Some, lately mothers, who with breasts still swelling had left their babes behind, nursed in their arms antelopes, or wild whelps of wolves, and yielded them their milk to drink; and upon their heads they placed crowns of ivy or of oak, or of flowering convolvulus. Then one, taking a thyrsus-wand, struck with it upon a rock, and thereupon leapt out a fine rain of water; another let down a reed upon the earth, and a fount of wine was sent forth there; and those whose thirst was for a white stream, skimming the surface with their finger-tips, gathered from it abundance of milk; and from the ivy of the mystic wands streams of honey distilled. Verily! hadst thou seen these things, thou wouldst have worshipped whom now thou revilest.

"And we shepherds and herdsmen came together to question with each other over this matter--what strange and terrible things they do. And a certain wayfarer from the city, subtle in speech, spake to us-- 'O! dwellers upon these solemn ledges of the hills, will ye that we hunt down, and take, amid her revelries, Agave, the mother of Pentheus, according to the king's pleasure?' And he seemed to us to speak wisely; and we lay in wait among the bushes; and they, at the time appointed, began moving their wands for the Bacchic dance, [73] calling with one voice upon Bromius!--Iacchus!--the son of Zeus! and the whole mountain was moved with ecstasy together, and the wild creatures; nothing but was moved in their running. And it chanced that Agave, in her leaping, lighted near me, and I sprang from my hiding-place, willing to lay hold on her; and she groaned out, 'O! dogs of hunting, these fellows are upon our traces; but follow me! follow! with the mystic wands for weapons in your hands.' And we, by flight, hardly escaped tearing to pieces at their hands, who thereupon advanced with knifeless fingers upon the young of the kine, as they nipped the green; and then hadst thou seen one holding a bleating calf in her hands, with udder distent, straining it asunder; others tore the heifers to shreds amongst them; tossed up and down the morsels lay in sight--flank or hoof--or hung from the fir-trees, dropping churned blood. The fierce, horned bulls stumbled forward, their breasts upon the ground, dragged on by myriad hands of young women, and in a moment the inner parts were rent to morsels. So, like a flock of birds aloft in flight, they retreat upon the level lands outstretched below, which by the waters of Asopus put forth the fair-flowering crop of Theban people--Hysiae and Erythrae--below the precipice of Cithaeron."--

A grotesque scene follows, in which the [74] humour we noted, on seeing those two old men diffidently set forth in chaplet and fawn- skin, deepens into a profound tragic irony. Pentheus is determined to go out in arms against the Bacchanals and put them to death, when a sudden desire seizes him to witness them in their encampment upon the mountains. Dionysus, whom he still supposes to be but a prophet or messenger of the god, engages to conduct him thither; and, for greater security among the dangerous women, proposes that he shall disguise himself in female attire. As Pentheus goes within for that purpose, he lingers for a moment behind him, and in prophetic speech declares the approaching end;--the victim has fallen into the net; and he goes in to assist at the toilet, to array him in the ornaments which he will carry to Hades, destroyed by his own mother's hands. It is characteristic of Euripides--part of his fine tact and subtlety--to relieve and justify what seems tedious, or constrained, or merely terrible and grotesque, by a suddenly suggested trait of homely pathos, or a glimpse of natural beauty, or a morsel of form or colour seemingly taken directly from picture or sculpture. So here, in this fantastic scene our thoughts are changed in a moment by the singing of the chorus, and divert for a while to the dark-haired tresses of the wood; the breath of the river-side is upon us; beside it, a fawn escaped from the hunter's net is flying swiftly in [75] its joy; like it, the Maenad rushes along; and we see the little head thrown back upon the neck, in deep aspiration, to drink in the dew.

Meantime, Pentheus has assumed his disguise, and comes forth tricked up with false hair and the dress of a Bacchanal; but still with some misgivings at the thought of going thus attired through the streets of Thebes, and with many laughable readjustments of the unwonted articles of clothing. And with the woman's dress, his madness is closing faster round him; just before, in the palace, terrified at the noise of the earthquake, he had drawn sword upon a mere fantastic appearance, and pierced only the empty air. Now he begins to see the sun double, and Thebes with all its towers repeated, while his conductor seems to him transformed into a wild beast; and now and then, we come upon some touches of a curious psychology, so that we might almost seem to be reading a modern poet. As if Euripides had been aware of a not unknown symptom of incipient madness (it is said) in which the patient, losing the sense of resistance, while lifting small objects imagines himself to be raising enormous weights, Pentheus, as he lifts the thyrsus, fancies he could lift Cithaeron with all the Bacchanals upon it. At all this the laughter of course will pass round the theatre; while those who really pierce into the purpose of the poet, shudder, as they see the victim thus grotesquely clad going to his doom, [76] already foreseen in the ominous chant of the chorus--and as it were his grave-clothes, in the dress which makes him ridiculous.

Presently a messenger arrives to announce that Pentheus is dead, and then another curious narrative sets forth the manner of his death. Full of wild, coarse, revolting details, of course not without pathetic touches, and with the loveliness of the serving Maenads, and of their mountain solitudes--their trees and water--never quite forgotten, it describes how, venturing as a spy too near the sacred circle, Pentheus was fallen upon, like a wild beast, by the mystic huntresses and torn to pieces, his mother being the first to begin "the sacred rites of slaughter."

And at last Agave herself comes upon the stage, holding aloft the head of her son, fixed upon the sharp end of the thyrsus, calling upon the women of the chorus to welcome the revel of the Evian god; who, accordingly, admit her into the company, professing themselves her fellow-revellers, the Bacchanals being thus absorbed into the chorus for the rest of the play. For, indeed, all through it, the true, though partly suppressed relation of the chorus to the Bacchanals is this, that the women of the chorus, staid and temperate for the moment, following Dionysus in his alternations, are but the paler sisters of his more wild and gloomy votaries--the true followers of the mystical Dionysus--the real chorus of Zagreus; the idea that their [77] violent proceedings are the result of madness only, sent on them as a punishment for their original rejection of the god, being, as I said, when seen from the deeper motives of the myth, only a "sophism" of Euripides--a piece of rationalism of which he avails himself for the purpose of softening down the tradition of which he has undertaken to be the poet. Agave comes on the stage, then, blood-stained, exulting in her "victory of tears," still quite visibly mad indeed, and with the outward signs of madness, and as her mind wanders, musing still on the fancy that the dead head in her hands is that of a lion she has slain among the mountains--a young lion, she avers, as she notices the down on the young man's chin, and his abundant hair--a fancy in which the chorus humour her, willing to deal gently with the poor distraught creature. Supported by them, she rejoices "exceedingly, exceedingly," declaring herself "fortunate" in such goodly spoil; priding herself that the victim has been slain, not with iron weapons, but with her own white fingers, she summons all Thebes to come and behold. She calls for her aged father to draw near and see; and for Pentheus himself, at last, that he may mount and rivet her trophy, appropriately decorative there, between the triglyphs of the cornice below the roof, visible to all.

And now, from this point onwards, Dionysus himself becomes more and more clearly discernible [78] as the hunter, a wily hunter, and man the prey he hunts for; "Our king is a hunter," cry the chorus, as they unite in Agave's triumph and give their sanction to her deed. And as the Bacchanals supplement the chorus, and must be added to it to make the conception of it complete; so in the conception of Dionysus also a certain transference, or substitution, must be made-- much of the horror and sorrow of Agave, of Pentheus, of the whole tragic situation, must be transferred to him, if we wish to realise in the older, profounder, and more complete sense of his nature, that mystical being of Greek tradition to whom all these experiences--his madness, the chase, his imprisonment and death, his peace again-- really belong; and to discern which, through Euripides' peculiar treatment of his subject, is part of the curious interest of this play.

Through the sophism of Euripides! For that, again, is the really descriptive word, with which Euripides, a lover of sophisms, as Aristophanes knows, himself supplies us. Well;--this softened version of the Bacchic madness is a sophism of Euripides; and Dionysus Omophagus--the eater of raw flesh, must be added to the golden image of Dionysus Meilichius--the honey-sweet, if the old tradition in its completeness is to be, in spite of that sophism, our closing impression; if we are to catch, in its fulness, that deep undercurrent of horror which runs below, all through [79] this masque of spring, and realise the spectacle of that wild chase, in which Dionysus is ultimately both the hunter and the spoil.

But meantime another person appears on the stage; Cadmus enters, followed by attendants bearing on a bier the torn limbs of Pentheus, which lying wildly scattered through the tangled wood, have been with difficulty collected and now decently put together and covered over. In the little that still remains before the end of the play, destiny now hurrying things rapidly forward, and strong emotions, hopes and forebodings being now closely packed, Euripides has before him an artistic problem of enormous difficulty. Perhaps this very haste and close-packing of the matter, which keeps the mind from dwelling overmuch on detail, relieves its real extravagance, and those who read it carefully will think that the pathos of Euripides has been equal to the occasion. In a few profoundly designed touches he depicts the perplexity of Cadmus, in whose house a god had become an inmate, only to destroy it--the regret of the old man for the one male child to whom that house had looked up as the pillar whereby aged people might feel secure; the piteous craziness of Agave; the unconscious irony with which she caresses the florid, youthful head of her son; the delicate breaking of the thing to her reviving intelligence, as Cadmus, though he can but wish that she might live on for ever in her visionary enjoyment, [80] prepares the way, by playing on that other horrible legend of the Theban house, the tearing of Actaeon to death--he too destroyed by a god. He gives us the sense of Agave's gradual return to reason through many glimmering doubts, till she wakes up at last to find the real face turned up towards the mother and murderess; the quite naturally spontaneous sorrow of the mother, ending with her confession, down to her last sigh, and the final breaking up of the house of Cadmus; with a result so genuine, heartfelt, and dignified withal in its expression of a strange ineffable woe, that a fragment of it, the lamentation of Agave over her son, in which the long-pent agony at last finds vent, were, it is supposed, adopted into his paler work by an early Christian poet, and have figured since, as touches of real fire, in the Christus Patiens of Gregory Nazianzen.

NOTES

64. +Transliteration: autika ga pasa choreusei. E-text editor's translation: "Straightway all the earth shall dance." Euripides, Bacchae 114. Euripidis Fabulae, ed. Gilbert Murray, vol. 3. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913.

66. +Transliteration: poi dei choreuein; poi kathistanai poda; kai krata seisai polion. Translation: "Where must I dance? Where must I stand and shake my white locks?" Euripides, Bacchae 184-85. Euripidis Fabulae, ed. Gilbert Murray, vol. 3. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913.

69. +Transliteration: ti m' anainei, ti me pheugeis. Translation: "Why do you reject me, why do you run from me?" Bacchae 519. Euripidis Fabulae, ed. Gilbert Murray, vol. 3. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913.

 
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