Year: 1974

Title of the play: The Bacchae

Author: Euripides Trans. William Arrowsmith

Director: Edward Petherbridge

Cast: Windsor Davies, Charles Kay, Sheila Burrell, Sheila Reid, Paola Dionisotti, Robert Eddison, Robin Ellis, and Mark McManus.

Company/Event: The Actors’ Company

Theatre and location: Edinburgh International Festival Assembly Hall

Other productions of the same play: 1975 - Wimbledon Theatre.

Plot summary: In the Bacchae, Pentheus, king of Thebes, seeks to put down the new worship of Dionysus, which is turning the heads of his female subjects. The offended god persuades him to dress himself in the garb of a Bacchante, that he may pry into the sacred mysteries. Then, disguised as a stranger, he leads him to the mountains, and placing him on the topmost branch of a tall pine, delivers him into the hands of the Maenads, the female devotees of Bacchus, who tear him limb from limb. Summary from here 

Peth’s role: Teiresias / One of two ‘Others’. (Teiresias appears with Cadmus, the first king of Thebes, to warn Pentheus against denouncing Dionysus as a god.)

Review: Anyone can see nowadays that “The Bacchae” is a world-masterpiece. But I could not help wondering, as I sat enthralled by Edward Petherbridge’s beautiful and fearless production, whether I should have recognised the play as such if I had been present at its first performance in 405 BC. I think the answer is almost certainly no, for a reason that has crucially influenced judgment in the theatre during the last twenty years. 

What “The Bacchae” introduces into classical tragedy is the spirit of Dionysiac frenzy. The god Dionysus (Gary Raymond) makes women mad with sexual ecstasy: and Pentheus (Keith Drinkel), who thinks this evil, goes as far as transvestism to see what it is that such women do. To those who still regard sweetness and serenity as the characteristic marks of Greek drama this is almost blasphemy. In his recently-published and combative “The Use and Abuse of History,” professor M.I. Finley reminds us that when Jane Harrison accepted the Dionysiac spirit as a legitimate part of the Greek theatre she was reviled and scoffed at by most classical scholars.

“The Bacchae” is as sharp a break in Greek drama as “Waiting for Godot” and “The Square” are in our own, calling for an equal willingness to abandon old attitudes. It drove even so great and broad-minded a scholar as Gilbert Murray to argue flat against the text, that it is not Pentheus, but Dionysus, who dies at the end of the play, though the bloody head that is borne on to the stage by Agave (Sheila Burrell) is undoubtedly Pentheus’s. If the plain meaning of the “The Bacchae” was difficult to accept in the twentieth century by an enlightened scholar, what problems must it not have posed to its audiences over two thousand years ago? – The Sunday Times

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