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It was a common convention of Greek theater that distant, violent, or complex actions were not dramatized, but rather took place offstage and then were described onstage by a messenger. In the case of The Bacchae, this convention is used to bestow even more power on the already fantastical events and also to grant a certain respect to the Dionysian rites by not showing them directly. Indeed, the actors and audience find out about the practices of the bacchants principally through messengers, who often arrive out of breath and frightened. The use of the convention thus accords with historical practice, since, as one of the mystery cults that flourished in Greece alongside state religion, Dionysian cults required that their rites be kept secret from outsiders. When Pentheus asks the disguised Dionysus to tell him what the cult's worship consists of, Dionysus responds, "they may not be uttered to those of men who are not bacchants." Messengers provide the means both for preserving the mystery of the bacchic worship and for making it vividly real for the audience.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Bacchae!