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The Bacchae



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Plot Overview

The three great Greek tragedians Aeschylus (525–456 B.C.) Sophocles (497–405 B.C.) and Euripides (485–406 B.C.) wrote a composite ninety-two plays, of which seventeen survived. Most of these were composed in the years between the defeat of the Persians by the Greeks at Salamis in 480 B.C. and the defeat of Athens by Sparta in 404 B.C. During that time, Athens experienced tremendous political, social and economic change. In 525 B.C. the tyrannical Pisistratus and his sons were in command, but just five years later a series of swift constitutional changes were begun, culminating in the establishment of democracy. Abroad, the Persian Empire, founded by Cyrus the Great, had already absorbed all of Asia Minor and extended its influence over the Ionian Greeks. The Athenians pushed back the Persians in 480 B.C. and embarked upon a tremendously expansive age, matching internal democracy with imperialism abroad. The extension of Athenian commerce and political influence throughout the Mediterranean brought in great revenue, stabilized the nascent state, and provided the funds necessary to adorn the Acropolis with public buildings graced by an unmatched purity of style. For many, Pericles (460–429 B.C.), one of the greatest rulers of Athenian history, was the living embodiment of the achievements of this period.

Naturally, Athens's power aroused jealousy in the two other prominent Greek powers: Sparta and Corinth. In 432 B.C. a Peloponnesian coalition under Sparta launched a long and costly war against Athens, concluding in a costly Spartan victory in 404 B.C. Although Euripides himself died two years before the final Athenian defeat, in his lifetime he had witnessed both the sharp rise and precipitous fall of Athenian power in the Mediterranean.

Euripides was born c. 485 at Phyla in Attica, probably of a good family. He made his home in Salamis, most likely in the estate of his father, and it is said that he composed his works in a cave by the sea. He held a lay priesthood in the cult of Zeus. Evidence in his own plays and other documents connects him with leading philosophical circles and thinkers of his day, including Protagoras and Socrates. Considered something of a loner, he spent his entire life upon his estate, living with family. In 408–7, he left Athens to go north all the way to Macedonia; it is not known why he chose to leave his homeland so late in life. In Macedonia he wrote his last play, The Bacchae, and was buried there.

Euripides wrote for Athens and the surrounding Attica, and these geographical and historical limits gave his plays an intense and narrow focus. Euripides, like other Greek dramatists of the era, was a man of his times, participating enthusiastically in the social and political life of his community. He is generally considered the most tragic and least polite of the major dramatists, and can be understood as foreshadowing the individualism of the coming Hellenistic age in his writings.

The Bacchae was not performed during Euripides' lifetime, only reaching the amphitheater after his death. The play won first prize at the annual contest where it was performed, ironically, a prize that had eluded Euripides all his life. It is considered to be in the same class as Aeschylus's Agamemnon and Sophocles' Oedipus the King.

In Euripides's time the story of the Bacchus was familiar to all and had been written about by many, including Aeschylus. Our records concerning the history of the cult of Dionysus at the time of Euripides are extremely scant, although sources are plentiful for later periods of the cult. During his lifetime Euripides saw the incursion of strong Asian influences into cult practices and beliefs. Even the god himself mutated, taking on new forms and absorbing new powers: Dionysus was the God of theatre, the God of ecstatic female worshippers, God of fertility and the wildness of rampant nature, and, of course, the God of vine and husbandry. He was often worshipped in the form of a phallus. As a counterpoint to this ecstatic, wild virility, Dionysus was also intimately linked to Hades, the God of the underworld.

Performances of Greek plays always took place in the open air, and audiences sat on benches inserted into the slope of a circular and recessed hillside. Chorus and actors shared a round dancing floor. The effect for the audience was a spectacle not just of words and emotions but also of music and choreography. Forecourts, courtyards, and streets were the main settings of most dramas, while enclosed, private chambers were generally avoided. Characters were played by multiple actors, and so masks were essential for identifying who was who throughout the play. Since the personality of any particular actor was thus severed from the role he played, the burden of dramatic emphasis was carried by the language itself. The productions were funded both by the state and by private patrons. The playwrights usually directed their own works and retained primary artistic control. The term chorus denotes the body of dancers and singers. Tragically, we have lost both the music and choreography of the time, so we must depend solely on the written texts to reconstruct the performances. Dialogue and lyrics were sung both by the characters and the chorus. There were many different types of metres, and each was associated with a certain emotion, such as anger, grief, joy or haste. Greek metre depends on an alternation of long and short syllables and not on the idea of stressed vs. unstressed syllables such as in English drama.

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