Bakkhai by Euripides, translated by Anne Carson – review

Bakkhai by Euripides, translated by Anne Carson. Oberon Books, 521 Caledonian Road, London N7 9RH, 72 pp. £9.99.

Oberon Books specialises in theatre, drama and the performing arts. I think the truest home of this stripped-for-action dramatic text is probably in the theatre, but Anne Carson is a poet and her Bakkhai has much to offer the private reader, whether on its own or as a complement to another version. I’ve read several. For some things I think this is the best.

Bakkhai, or The Bacchae as it’s commonly called, was first performed in 405 BC and is the last play by Euripides, the third great Athenian tragedian. It presents the confrontation between Pentheus, the young king of Thebes, and Dionysos, a young new god who brings orgy, madness and terror but also, he and his followers say, “the gentlest human peace”. To Pentheus he’s a false god, a foreign interloper preaching ways that threaten the established order and decencies of the city. When Pentheus speaks to him he thinks he’s speaking to a mere human prophet. In a sense, though, Dionysos is a native Theban, son of Zeus, the king of the gods, but also of Pentheus’s own aunt Semele. Semele was consumed by lightning when she saw her lover in his divine form but Zeus snatched the embryo from her womb as she burned. The play opens with Dionysos’s return to Thebes at the head of a train of devotees, determined to force Thebans to recognise his divinity. Before it starts, he’s driven the women of the city mad, stung them from their homes and sent them into the mountains dressed as his followers. As the confrontation with Pentheus unfolds, he shows him the emptiness of human power, mocks him with illusions, persuades him to dress as a woman to spy on the Bakkhai, and engineers his being torn apart by them. His own mother Agave attacks him first, pulling off his arm, and when he’s been ripped into pieces she carries his head back to Thebes in triumph, imagining it’s the head of a lion. This dreadfully complete undoing of Pentheus as man, as son, and as king involves abject humiliation as well as agonizing death. His mother and grandfather are smashed up in the collateral damage.

The stripped quality of Carson’s rendering isn’t just a matter of reducing detail, it’s even more to do with style. She favours short, hammering lines and syntactical units. Longer sentences develop in a series of bursts, the units of utterance emphasized by free verse line breaks. This gives an explosive, twisting, nervous energy. Instead of the supple undulations and shifts of tone we find in the longer passages of Derek Mahon’s adaptation (The Bacchae, Gallery Press, 1991) or Philip Vellacott’s 1954 translation, Carson presents the play’s clashing forces with stark clarity, vividly differentiating the language of different speakers.

Dionysos is the first of these. He’s come to assert himself and he does so in a soliloquy of brutal egotism. Several lines of startling beauty contrast with the overall tone, creating tension and dramatic suspense. Some might argue that they hint at a more sensitive side to the god’s nature but I think their real effect is to create sympathy for the vulnerable lives in his power.

The immediately following Entrance Song of the Bakkhai brings completely different energies into play. Their fluidly dynamic, lyrically patterned lines sing sweetly of love, reverence and awe for the god and the divine Mother, of dancing streets and the fertile beauty of nature. Though their words are touched by glimpses of the god’s terrifying inhumanity – they say he was born “with horns on his head / and snakes in his hair” – they’re dominated by celebration of the blessings, joy and liberation he brings. This too, the play suggests, is Dionysos. A fundamental, hauntingly unresolved problem of the work lies in the contradiction between the way he appears as a speaking and acting character and the way he’s seen as the object of cult.

Next we have a dialogue between Kadmos, Pentheus’s grandfather who founded the city, and the blind prophet Teiresias. They’re kitted out as followers of Dionysos, preparing to join the Bakkhai on the mountain. Age is well caught by their breathless rhythms. It’s something else that makes their speeches really startling, though: an abrupt shift into a comic gear. This involves another striking feature of Carson’s writing: the way it moves between a boldly colloquial, even slangy contemporary register and a more neutral and timeless one. Anachronism played for laughs isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and not everyone will like this exchange between Kadmos and Teiresias:


We must get to the mountain.
Should we call a cab?

That doesn’t sound very Dionysian.

Good point. Let’s walk.


For myself, I think it works brilliantly. It brings us into an immediate relationship with the material of the play. More importantly, it throws us off balance, deceptively lightening the mood in a way that lays us wide open to the shock of what follows. Repeatedly, in this as in other Greek tragedies, characters seem to stroll blithely over an abyss they don’t know is there till it opens under their feet. The frightening instability of the classical Greek world may seem blessedly remote from most of us most of the time, but it’s been experienced all too literally by whole nearby countries, as when the bright hopes of the Syrian opposition slid into the abyss of the last seven years of war. At the same time, the jarring of such different registers brings the human and the divine into provocatively ambiguous relation to each other.

Irony is recurrent, as often in Greek tragedy. Perhaps it’s inherent in a genre that depends so much on the protagonist’s proceeding through hamartia – roughly glossed as error of judgement – to the consequences of that error and his or others’ final anagnorisis or recognition of what’s happened. The gap between the character’s blindness and the audience’s understanding produces a peculiar edge-of-the-seat tension, a frisson of helpless horror. Cruel ironies appear in the chain of metaphors by which one of the guards who’ve arrested Dionysos’s supposed priest (actually Dionysos himself) tells Pentheus “here’s your quarry: we hunted him down. / You called him a wild beast but we found him tame”, Pentheus comments “he’s in my net, he won’t escape”, and the Bakkhai call on Dionysos as he leads Pentheus to his death to “Come with your little net / and your fatal smile, / your little smile / and your fatal net, / hunt down the hunter”. The horrifying culmination comes when Agave bears the head back to Thebes in triumph:


O citizens of beautifully towered Thebes,
come see my catch!
We daughters of Kadmos hunted and caught
this wild animal,
not with javelins,
not with nets,
just the slender fingers of our own white hands.


Could irony be more cruel? Gloucester’s words in King Lear seem peculiarly apt: “As flies to wanton boys, are we to th’ gods, / They kill us for their sport.”

I said that Kadmos and Agave were collateral damage. However extreme his punishment, Pentheus can be seen as in some sense having brought it on himself by setting himself against the god. However, the suffering of Kadmos and Agave seems almost bewilderingly unjust. This contributes to the pity and terror of the play, and of course reflects the injustice of life all too accurately. Dionysos himself is brilliantly realized as both divinely powerful and like a spectacularly self-centred human being. Even as on one level the play seems to demand submission to his power, on another it makes true reverence impossible by demonstrating his ethical inferiority. I suppose tragedy in its nature treads a fault line in the nature of life. Even so, other Greek tragic trilogies seem to move towards some kind of reconciliation or wisdom in their ending. Whether or not Euripides actually was an atheist, as is asserted and denied by different scholars, this play’s conclusion seems to me unredeemedly bleak. Carson’s verse gives the bleakness unsparing expression. I’d love to see her version in the theatre (I’ve only seen the one by Mike Poulton). It certainly makes a memorable reading experience.


I would like to thank Patricia Oxley for her permission to post this review, which originally appeared in Acumen 91.



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