by Christopher Peck (drama student)
A notable element of Euripides’s Bacchae is its meta-theatrical tendencies. This is quite fitting as Dionysus, the patron deity of theater, is both the reason for the showing of the play and the driving force in its plot. This theme runs through the play in the actions taking place on stage and off it.
One of the most notable instances of the meta-theatricality is the cross-dressing of Pentheus. In Greek drama all roles were played by male actors therefore cross-dressing for the purpose of drama was not striking in a play. The interesting point here is the self awareness of Pentheus while dressed as a woman. The audience is drawn to the absurdity of a male actor playing a man who is playing a woman. A point, which I only realized after looking back at the characters on stage at any given time, is that Agave and Pentheus must be played by the same actor. This is under the assumption that there are only three actors playing all the parts and the same actor plays a given character throughout the play. This makes for some very interesting scenes where the actor which was once the cross-dressing Pentheus is now a woman and in addition he is, in a sense, carrying around his own head! This transition highlights the fact that such an absurd situation could only happen in the theater.
A related point is the possible divine influence of Dionysus in getting Pentheus to dress as a woman. Although we spoke of the possibility of a comparison to drunkenness in class, another way to look at it is as the feeling of disassociation with oneself that an actor takes on in playing a role. In addition it could also be likened to the disassociation with reality that the audience experiences in watching a play.
The use of Dionysus as a character in the play and his role within also speaks to the duality inherent in the nature of theater. In his opening monologue Dionysus speaks of how he has assumed a mortal body. We are again drawn to the double inversion seen in Pentheus. We have a man playing a god who is playing a man. The assumption of roles is highlighted as taking role counter to ones nature is a key facet of theater. In the course of the plays we have read male actors play women, moral men play gods, young men play old men and Athenians play barbarians.
The last point I want to touch upon is the downfall of Pentheus. Pentheus goes to the mountain so that he might spy on the Bacchae. He uses a tree to get a better view of the proceeding and instead of seeing the Bacchae without drawing notice he is seen himself. I believe this is a jarring statement to the audience on the nature of performance. One often forgets in watching that they in turn are being watched. It raises thoughts in the mind of the audience that while they watch the actors the actors are watching them.
The happenings of the play show a certain self-awareness not found in other plays we have read. Euripides seems ahead of his time in his realization that theater is not all about what is happening on the stage, but rather a more complicated experience.