The Bacchae

The Bacchae Study Guide

The Bacchae was presented posthumously along with Iphigenia in Aulis and the lost Alcmaeon in Corinth in 406-405 BCE. The three plays were brought back to Athens by Euripides' son, Euripides the Younger. They were probably written around 407 BCE, just before Euripides' death. These three plays won first prize at the Dionysia, although so often during Euripides' life the judges had (unfairly) favored others.

The specific circumstances surrounding the origin of Greek drama were a puzzle even in the fourth century BC. Greek drama seems to have its roots in religious celebrations that incorporated song and dance. By the sixth century BC, Athenians had transformed a rural celebration of Dionysus into an urban festival with dancing choruses that competed for prizes. An anonymous poet came up with the idea of having the chorus interact with a masked actor. Later, Aeschylus transformed the art by using two masked actors, each playing different parts throughout the piece, making possible staged drama as we know it. With two actors and a chorus, complex plots and conflicts could be staged as never before, and the poets who competed in the festival were no longer writing elaborate hymns, but true plays. The playwrights were more than just writers. They also composed the music, choreographed the dances, and directed the actors. Athens was the only Greek city-state where this art form evolved; the comedies, tragedies, and dramas handed down to us from the period, although labeled generically as "Greek," are in fact all Athenian works.

After the defeat of the Persians in a decisive campaign (480-479 BC), Athens emerged as the superpower of the independent Greek city-states, and during this time, the drama festival, or the Dionysia, became a spectacular event. The Dionysia lasted four to five days, and the city took the celebrations seriously. Prisoners were released on bail and most public business was suspended. Roughly ten thousand free male citizens, along with their slaves and dependents, watched plays in an enormous outdoor theater that could seat seventeen thousand spectators. On each of three days, the Athenians were treated to three tragedies and a satyr play (a light comedy on a mythic theme) written by one of three pre-selected tragedians, as well as one comedy by a comedic playwright. The trilogies did not have to be an extended drama dealing with the same story, although often they were. At the end of the festival, the tragedians were awarded first, second, and third prize by the judges of Dionysis.

For modern readers, the Chorus may be the most alien element of the play. Greek drama was not meant to be what we would consider naturalistic. It was a highly stylized art form: actors wore masks, and the performances incorporated song and dance. The Chorus delivers much of the exposition and expounds poetically on themes, but it is still meant to represent a group of characters. In the case of The Bacchae, the Chorus is constituted by the Bacchae, devout female worshippers of Dionysus that the god has brought with him from Asia. Euripides' choruses are sometimes superfluous to the action, and for this he was often criticized; in the case of this play, the Chorus provides atmosphere and contributes greatly to the play's impact, but they are perhaps less than essential to the structure and plot of the play. However, Euripides should not be criticized for this use of the Chorus: his vision of drama was very different from that of his contemporaries, and in The Bacchae, the Chorus, absolutely essential to the plot or not, is well employed for the purposes of the play. Although perhaps not absolutely essential to the structure, the Chorus is essential to the impact and power of the play as a whole.

Consistent with the norms of Greek drama, The Bacchae is not divided into acts or discrete scenes. However, time passes in non-naturalistic fashion: at certain points, it is clear that a considerable amount of time has passed in the world of the play even though only a few seconds have passed for the audience. In general, as noted by Aristotle, most Greek tragedies have action confined to a twenty-four hour period.