23rd November 2008: The Bacchae

Last night we went to see a production of The Bacchae at McGill.

I’ve wanted to see The Bacchae since, oh, since I read The Mask of Apollo, so let’s call that an even thirty years. It’s not performed very often. The audience last night were an interesting mix of people who’d also clearly wanted to see The Bacchae all their lives and friends of the actors. The stage was pretty much circular, and the seating was chairs set up all around it with spaces between. The action took place in all the spaces, there were times when there was a whirling chorus of maenads weaving between chairs. This is a very kinetic production, very powerful, amazingly choreographed. The actors are all very good, especially those playing Dionysos and Agave. It’s well worth seeing, and it’s on again Wednesday to Saturday next week. I may see it again — it’s only $10.

The play is about the introduction of the worship of the new god Dionysos, god of wine, madness and inspiration. He comes to Thebes, his mother’s country, and those who refuse to worship him he drives mad. It’s cleverly paced so that in the first part you have the invitation, then the rejection, then the madness first of Pentheus and then of his mother Agave who has literally torn him limb from limb. (Offstage, but she comes in covered in blood and carrying his head, which is quite enough.) Dionysos is quite terrifying. Our sympathy is directed to him at first, when he is imprisoned, and Pentheus refuses to listen, but his revenge is quite implacable. This is a god unlike our conception of gods. I was thinking that especially with the imprisonment and the fetters breaking — it’s like Jesus being imprisoned before the Crucifixion, and it’s even more like the bit in Acts where Peter walks out of prison, except that it isn’t at all. This is a god who would laugh at the concepts of forgiveness and atonement. This is a god with a mortal mother who has come to offer a specific good and if it is rejected isn’t going to take that. You could really play up that contrast — they didn’t, this is all in my head, but you can count on a modern audience having some knowledge of the Passion story, and you really could.

One thing I didn’t like in this production was the chorus, which was done very rhythmically and in chorus. I liked their movements and dancing, I liked how they transformed from a chorus of maenads to a chorus of soldiers, but I didn’t like their chanting delivery. I’d have liked to have had their parts done as songs, as loud rock songs. I can imagine a very interesting film in which Dionysos is like Elvis with his music and wildness seducing the respectable matrons of the small town his mother left, with explicit Jesus parallels and where your sympathy is all for the people going to hear the music until they start ripping people to shreds. Talking about that afterwards Z and I came up with actual existing rock songs you could use for that.

And from that, I thought of Chocolat. (I’ve only seen the movie, not read the book, and I saw the movie on DVD a little while ago.) Chocolat is, plotwise, The Bacchae, except with chocolate instead of wine. Now that’s a perfectly sensible thing to do. There are only so many plots, and this one isn’t overdone. The chocolate is explicitly magical, she’s explicitly a demigod, driven on the wind, she comes to the town and opens the chocolaterie and they reject it. But it isn’t The Bacchae quite, because it’s cheapened by being sentimentalised, and by having a sentimental happy ending. That ending is made possible by the concepts of forgiveness that have run so deeply through Western society in the last couple of thousand years. And that’s a good thing, I mean forgiving people and all being friends is actually better for society than rending people limb from limb — well mostly. But it doesn’t make for such good art, because you get tragedy free, people’s brains are wired for tragedy, but you have to make them buy eucatastrophe. You have to earn it, and Chocolat doesn’t, for me anyway. It should end with a wild chocolate bacchanal, instead of a tame one.

The Bacchae is brilliant though.

Not even Necessity knows all ends,
the gods brings the unthought to be,
as here we see.

Posted in Theatre