Subversion, Violence, Gender Disruption: Feminist Engagements with Euripides’ ‘The Bacchae’

The next show in By Jove’s Season of Violent Women, Here She Comes, draws its inspiration from one of Euripides’ final tragedies, The Bacchae. In that play, Dionysus inspires madness in all the women of Thebes, sending them up to nearby Mount Cithaeron to worship him in forested isolation; this comes as a punishment against the city’s mortal king Pentheus for disavowing Dionysus’s divinity. Amongst those women is Pentheus’ mother Agave. In what is likely a change made by Euripides to the myth he was adapting, Agave returns to the stage at the end of the play to announce that when Pentheus was tricked into spying on the mountain women by Dionysus, she led the charge to attack and destroy the intruder.[1] The tragic catch is that Agave thinks she has killed a young lion – that is until she ‘comes to her senses’ and realises what she has done. The scene is one of the most brutal and haunting in classical tragedy.

 

While Agave only appears in the final episode of Euripides’ play, Here She Comes reconfigures events to tell the story from her perspective. Written and performed solo by SJ Brady, the piece in fact originated as a response to By Jove’s 2014 adaptation of The Bacchae, entitled Before They Told You What You Are.[2] Brady had played, amongst other characters, Agave, and it was Agave that seemed to strike a chord with her. In keeping with the company’s creative ethos, both engagements with The Bacchae were approached from an overtly feminist perspective, thinking through the ways in which the play represents women and how it might be configured to speak to 21st century feminist concerns. In Before They Told You What Are one of the focal points became Agave’s journey from city to mountain, charting an attempt to seek liberation from oppression and the complications this entailed. Unsurprisingly, Brady’s Here She Comes picks up and expands that thread.

 

This raises an important question: how easy is it to read Euripides’ play as a (proto-)feminist text? Certainly, academic feminism has rejected this possibility: in a recent lecture, Judith Butler unequivocally stated the play is not about women’s liberation.[3] In equally stark terms, classicist Edith Hall has described The Bacchae as “poisonously misogynistic.”[4] As with all Greek drama that has survived to the present day, it is predicated on androcentric preoccupations and anxieties, and framed very much from the perspective of woman-as-Other. Greek drama often appears to contain progressive representations of women, but this is the distortion of hindsight: a closer examination of these texts in the original context almost always situates these representations, in the final count, as part of the mechanisms of oppression at work in ancient Athens.[5] In this way, even though the plot of The Bacchae turns on the mass revolt of a city’s female population against (human) male authority – a tantalisingly provocative idea from a feminist perspective, perhaps – these women are hardly liberated in the modern sense of the word; their oppressive subjugation is simply switched from a human male to a divine one. Dionysus is, in some ways, even more overt in his oppression: he forces the women to worship him, depriving them of all agency, and leads them into horrific acts of violence.

 

Yet the play has, since its return to the modern stage, seemed to offer something to feminist theatre practitioners. This engagement has varied enormously in its form, purpose, and audience, encompassing radical adaptations riffing on one or more themes of the play through to productions of Euripides’ text that make an active choice to ‘misread’ the gendered dynamics of power so as to articulate the Theban women’s Dionysiac revolt as distinctly feminist in nature. In fact, the play’s first recorded performance on the modern stage emerged amidst a cultural context in which feminist activism in the theatre and beyond was both widespread and high profile. This production, staged in November of 1908, was performed at the Royal Court, a theatre known at the time for staging pro-women dramas.[6] The project was driven by its star Lillah McCarthy, an actress who had rocketed to fame a few years earlier when she played Ann Whitefield in George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, a role McCarthy considered liberating for her as well as her female audience members.[7] In The Bacchae, McCarthy took the role of Dionysus. That act now seems highly significant: after a long absence from the stage, the god of theatre returned in the form of a woman deeply associated with the feminist movement of the day. What’s more, Agave was played by Winifred Mayo, an activist who had been sentenced to prison earlier that year for demonstrating on behalf of the women’s suffrage movement. Only a month after the production, Mayo co-founded the Actresses’ Franchise League; its inaugural meeting was attended by over four hundred women, and the League’s members included McCarthy as well as a number of the 1908 chorus.[8] As McCarthy, Mayo and their co-stars in the chorus played characters that trouble male authority on stage, their own political activism troubled it beyond the theatre.

 

Just over sixty years later, The Bacchae found expression in the context of the next wave of the feminist movement. Joan Plowright, wife of then Artistic Director of the National Theatre Lawrence Olivier, had commissioned a number of women writers to produce one act plays for a season at the Jeannetta Cochrane Theatre. Amongst these was Maureen Duffy’s Rites, which transferred briefly to the Old Vic after its first performance. Plowright, who directed the piece, described Rites as “a modern and riveting reworking of Euripides’ The Bacchae … It starred Geraldine McEwan in a frighteningly funny and powerful performance and was set uncompromisingly in the ladies’ lavatory at Charing Cross Station.”[9] Duffy reconfigures the gendered spatial arrangements of Euripides’ play, setting it on the equivalent of Mount Cithaeron –  while in The Bacchae, the men of the play spend much of their time discussing the absent women, in Rites women discuss, amongst other things, the men who are necessarily excluded from the scene. Duffy’s play concludes with the women of the bathroom erupting into violence as they attempt to root out someone they believe to be a male spy. They ultimately kill the figure, only realising afterwards that it was not a man at all, but rather a woman whose gender expression did not conform to contemporaneous expectations of femininity. In this way, Rites proved remarkably prescient for 1969, highlighting a major fault-line in second wave feminism that would come to prominence in the late eighties and early nineties.

 

It was around this later time, in 1986, that another major feminist engagement appeared: Caryl Churchill and David Lan’s A Mouthful of Birds. Developed with Joint Stock and workshopped over a twelve-week period, the piece combined text with dance and the lives of a range of contemporary characters with brief episodes from The Bacchae. Dionysus dances his way through the lives of modern figures, inducing them to experience an “undefended day”, a moment of possession by the internal and external forces usually kept under restraint.[10] As with Rites, the piece was intended to be funny as well as haunting, and in some ways Churchill and Lan pick up the direction indicated by Duffy’s conclusion. Each of the modern characters is possessed by a figure from The Bacchae as both modern and ancient narratives progress. As their stories intertwine, the experience of Derek/Pentheus results in the disintegration and reconstitution of Derek’s gender. By the end of the piece, he has become a woman, announcing in his final monologue that “my skin used to wrap me up, now it lets the world in … I’ve almost forgotten the man who possessed this body … every day when I wake up, I’m comfortable.”[11]

 

The experience of Doreen/Agave is quite different, however: via Agave, Doreen finds release but remains troubled. Doreen and her friends take pleasure in acts of violent supernatural power, recalling the herdsman’s report in The Bacchae that attests to the miracles able to be induced by the Theban women on the mountain as well as their uncanny ability to defeat armed men in battle. In both plays this is an expression of the Dionysiac inversion of gendered power relations, but in A Mouthful of Birds it is contrasted with Doreen’s inability to fully exorcise herself of her patriarchal demons. While Derek is able to find release despite (or perhaps because of) the dismemberment of Pentheus, Doreen’s experience with Agave ultimately renders her body a site of ongoing suffering. “I can find no rest,” she says, “… it seems my mouth is full of birds which I crunch between my teeth … I carry on my work as a secretary.”[12] If the violence of the Dionysiac is a liberating experience in A Mouthful of Birds, then it is not one that is by any means complete, perfect, or permanent.

 

Both Rites and A Mouthful of Birds seem to have the same tacit message: liberation is more complicated than it seems. It was this idea that By Jove began with when it came to working on Before They Told You What You Are; Churchill and Lan’s play was read by the company at an early juncture in the rehearsal process. With A Mouthful of Birds as a focusing lens, The Bacchae became the starting point for discussions about feminism in the twenty-first century: its successes, its contradictions, and the relationship of individual women to a sense of sisterhood that is facilitated by shared feminist sentiment. Euripides’ play enabled the performance work to make visible the tragic incongruities of androcentric civilization. In this way, the creative process for Before They Told You What You Are followed Jennifer March’s assessment of Euripides as a playwright: that even if he is not a feminist, he is not strictly misogynist either.[13] By Jove’s work can thus be situated in a performance tradition that has consistently made use of the way The Bacchae problematizes patriarchal categories by reorienting the text away from its masculinist origins and shifting the terms of the debate towards a focus on contemporary women. The ‘how’ and ‘why’ of this tradition has differed over time and in response to changing cultural concerns, but what is fascinating is that these revisits to The Bacchae demonstrate an on-going interest in utilising classical, canonical representations of women to speak to the feminist concerns of the present. It is in this tradition that Here She Comes sits, offering the next feminist encounter with Agave and her fellow subversive women.

 

Next month on SPARAGMOS: Wendy Haines on Rona Munro’s ‘Iron’ and navigating stereotypes of female violence and motivation.

 

David Bullen (@hydeandgoseek) is By Jove Theatre Company’s Co-Artistic Director. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in Drama and Theatre Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, working on a feminist reception history of Euripides The Bacchae.

 


 

 

[1] Certainly there is no visual record attesting to Agave’s role as the chief murderer of Pentheus prior to Euripides’ The Bacchae; references to the myth in earlier extant works by Aeschylus also make no mention of it. See March, 1990, 49-50.

[2] This piece was commissioned by the Annual Meeting of Postgraduates in Reception of the Ancient World (AMPRAW) and was written primarily by Wendy Haines and Alexander Woodward, both By Jove associates.

[3] Butler, 2017.

[4] Quoted in Croall, 2002, 20.

[5] Mary Beard has recently been appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour to discuss key women from Greek drama. In her discussions of Clytemnestra, Antigone, Lysistrata, Phaedra, and Medea, she observes the points of connection they have with modern feminist thought, but invariably underlines the ways in which these characters originally served a misogynistic purpose.

[6] This included Britain’s first explicitly pro-suffrage drama, Elizabeth Robins’ Votes for Women!, as well as a number of George Bernard Shaw’s New Woman dramas. For a discussion of the context in relation to the 1908 production of The Bacchae, see Hall and Macintosh, 2005.

[7] McCarthy, 1933, 63-64.

[8] Holledge, 1981, 49.

[9] Plowright, 2001, 157.

[10] Churchill, 1986, 5.

[11] Churchill and Lan, 1986, 52.

[12] Ibid, 53.

[13] “Euripides felt, and for any thinking member of his audience taught, a supreme compassion for the painful precariousness of the human condition; and he taught it most of all through his women characters. In no way can he be called a misogynist.” March, 1990, 63.

 


 

Bibliography

Butler, Judith. 2017. “Kinship Trouble in The Bacchae.” Available at: https://youtu.be/ixwrw0PMC8I

Churchill, Caryl. 1986. “Author’s Notes”. A Mouthful of Birds. London: Methuen.

— and David Lan. 1986. “A Mouthful of Birds”. Caryl Churchill Plays: 3. London: Nick Hern Books.

Croall, Jonathan. 2002. Peter Hall’s Bacchai: The National Theatre at Work. London: Oberon.

Hall, Edith and Fiona Macintosh. 2005. Greek Tragedy and the British Theatre 1660-1914. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Holledge, Julie. 1981. Innocent Flowers: Women in the Edwardian Theatre. London: Virago.

March, Jennifer. 1990. “Euripides the Misogynist?” Euripides, Women, and Sexuality. Ed. Anton Powell. London and New York: Routledge.

McCarthy, Lillah. 1933. Myself and My Friends. London: Thornton Butterworth.

Plowright, Joan. 2001. And That’s Not All: The Memoirs of Joan Plowright. London: Orion.

  1 comment for “Subversion, Violence, Gender Disruption: Feminist Engagements with Euripides’ ‘The Bacchae’

  1. Nicole
    17 March, 2017 at 5:23 pm

    Really looking forward to seeing Here She Comes after reading this.

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