I finished reading Paul Roche’s translation of Euripides’s The Bacchae on 25 Aug 2009.
Pentheus attempts to suppress the cult of the new god Dionysus, who wreaks his revenge by causing Pentheus’s mother to tear him apart in a god-possessed frenzy. The moral is one typical of the Greek myths: don’t mess with the gods. Respect them, not because they deserve it, but because they’re bigger than you. Pentheus suspects that Dionysus’s cult is an immoral influence, and Dionysus proceeds to prove him right — but he also proves that might makes right irrelevant, and that a prudent mortal knows his place. Knowing Euripides’s general attitude toward the gods, though, I doubt that the play is really about respecting an actual Dionysus. More likely, Bacchus and the Bacchae stand for intractable aspects of human nature which must be respected whether you like them or not; people can’t all be strait-laced Penthei all the time, and trying to force them to is a recipe for disaster. Or it could be read as focusing on the Dionysus cult as a potent cultural/religious force which it would also be folly to mess with, since suppressing such movements often only makes them stronger and nastier. (Reading The Bacchae today, it’s hard not to think of Islamic extremism.) In any case it seems clear that Euripides is not defending the Bacchus cult itself as a good thing but warning against fanatical opposition to it.
Perhaps the most troubling thing about this play is its lack of a hero. One expects a tragedy to have a hero, albeit a flawed and doomed one, and the absence of anyone sympathetic or noble in The Bacchae makes it deeply unsatisfying. (That’s not necessarily a criticism. Who says the purpose of art is to satisfy?) Pentheus is portrayed as a small-minded prig, Cadmus and Tiresias as self-serving cowards, and Dionysus as a ruthless and self-absorbed maniac. There are no sympathetic characters, and when the audience feels little sympathy for the suffering, tragedy loses its force as tragedy. Somewhat ironically, given its ostensibly pro-Dionysus message, this is a play that makes you think rather than feel.
(A side note: I went to Ohio State University, where post-football game celebrations sometimes devolved into violent alcohol-fueled riots (setting fire to cars, that sort of thing) which were described as bacchanalian. Reading this play, it occurred to me that there might be some comedic potential in a travesty based on a Bacchae/Buckeye pun.)