September 24, 2021
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
In a previous post about Euripides’ Bacchae, I posed the question: Why must we watch a play about a vengeful god? Furthermore, why write such a horrific narrative? Obviously, there is no single answer. We see destructive forces all around us, at times we even feel or participate with them. So, it is natural to want to describe them and understand them. This is what the Bacchae allows: a narrative space to process the destructive forces in our lives. Because it is terrifying to confront such questions, a more common response might be the desire to flee, but studying the Bacchae has absolutely proven to be worth the effort.
The Bacchae ends tragically, horrifically, with Agave blindly murdering her son. Agave, in this ecstatic state, is unaware of her real environment. She believes herself to be hunting a lion. She revels in power and success, until she returns to town. There, her father, Cadmus, confronts her and slowly, Agave’s individual identity and awareness returns. Slowly, painfully, Agave becomes an individual marked by Dionysus’s wrath. Heretofore, all of the action has taken place off stage, but now, the audience watches Agave realize her grievous mistake. Her character undergoes a great humbling, a tragic fall, on stage for all to witness.
This play presents a challenge to stage because of its fiercely brutal narrative. The characters feel remote and ancient, as does the setting and history. But, we can definitely still connect with the pain, torment, and horror of situations that spiral out of our control. Furthermore, it addresses what happens in a community faced with stark changes, such as the force of a new god or a new tradition. It depicts the absolute absurdity, anguish, and discomfort that humans must face in the presence of great change. For these reasons, I would argue that this play is as relevant today as it ever was. Moreover, I would argue that humans always struggle to process the depth of destructive human narratives, and the Bacchae is simply one representation of that struggle.
While studying the Bacchae, for the past month, I have also been reading Rilke. His Elegies also feel so endlessly relevant. To return to my initial question, why did Euripides write the Bacchae?, Rilke might reply:
“More and more in my life and in my work I am guided by the effort to correct our old repressions, which have removed and gradually estranged from us the mysteries out of whose abundance our lives might become truly infinite. It is true that these mysteries are dreadful, and people have always drawn away from them. But where can we find anything sweet and glorious in life that would never wear this mask, the mask of the dreadful? Life – and we know nothing else –, isn’t life itself dreadful? But as soon as we acknowledge its dreadfulness (not as opponents: what kind of match could we be for it?), but somehow with a confidence that this very dreadfulness may be something completely ours, though something that is just now too great, too vast, too incomprehensible for our learning hearts –: as soon as we accept life’s most terrifying dreadfulness, at the risk of perishing from it (i.e., from our own Too-much!) –: then an intuition of blessedness will open up for us and, at this cost, will be ours. Whoever does not, sometime or other, give his full consent, his full and joyous consent, to the dreadfulness of life, can never take possession of the unutterable abundance and power of our existence; can only walk on its edge, and one day, when the judgment is given, will have neither been alive nor dead. To show the identity of dreadfulness and bliss, these two faces on the same divine head, indeed this one single face, which just presents itself this way or that, according to our distance from it or the state of mind in which we perceive it –: this is the true significance and purpose of the Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus.”
– A letter from Rilke to the Countess Margot Sizzo-Norris-Crouy, April 12, 1923) (Quoted from Duino Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus, Edited and Translated by Stephen Mitchell, Vintage International, 2009).
Furthermore, in “The Young Workman’s Letter” Rilke writes:
“There is really everything in the old churches, no shrinking from anything, as there is in the newer ones, where only the ‘good’ examples appear. Here you see also what is bad and evil and horrible; what is deformed and suffering, what is ugly, what is unjust – and you could say that all this is somehow loved for God’s sake. Here is the angel, who doesn’t exist, and the devil, who doesn’t exist; and the human being, who does exist, stands between them, and (I can’t help but saying it) their unreality makes him more real to me.”
I previously believed Rilke’s Elegies to be my favorite of his writings, but now I love to wander the notes which contemplate these big questions in great depth. They also pair very nicely with Euripides. And a special Thanks to Stephen Mitchell for his wonderful Rilke translations, and Gilbert Murray for the Bacchae.
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