How do you deal with the literature of the distant past? How do you make Greek tragedy comprehensible to a contemporary audience? How do you make the language of Greek drama performable? How distant is the distant past in any case? Is Beowulf nearer to or farther from us than Catullus? Is Homer more or less alien than Táin Bó Cuailgne or the Fiannaíocht? The sensibility shift between our slice of time and the many pasts doesn’t run in a nice vertical line, but loops and veers, sometimes intersecting with our world, sometimes sheering back and sometimes running in parallel. Other than the fact that your car might be more fuel efficient and your software more bloated, there’s no linear progression from era to era in anything that matters. Some art forms, though, don’t travel as easily as others. We might enjoy a jar in The Front Lounge with Catullus but baulk at extended conversation with the author of The Seafarer. We love Sappho now because all those intriguing fragments that constitute our version of her chime with our post-modernist fragmentary sensibility, but that doesn’t mean we’d enjoy dinner with Aeschylus or Euripides. In spite of the fact that Greek drama is regularly adapted for the contemporary stage, we don’t necessarily get it. We haven’t trooped out of Athens on a spring evening for a communal bonding ritual, we have the dimmest notion of the social, political, religious, let alone the literary or dramatic contexts of these plays. Their central concerns are, in many respects, very different from ours. We don’t inhabit the mindscape of fifth century BC Greece and have to work hard for a foothold in it. Ernst Gombrich has the great image of history as a lighted paper falling down a well shaft, and Euripides’s world is pretty far down that shaft.
True, there are fundamental human desires, fundamental ways of ordering civilisations, fundamental conflicts, but I’m not not sure how useful it is marshal contemporary events as parallels for the events in a play like The Bacchae. So what is the play about? It’s a conflict between two irreconcilable positions, neither of which holds much appeal, and neither of which, maybe, we really comprehend. Resentful Dionysus arrives in Thebes with his female Bacchantes, angered that he is not recognised as a god and that Pentheus has been installed as king. Pentheus forbids all Dionysian rites, seeing it as his duty to repel this new and barbaric Asian invasion that threatens Theban order. So, a conflict between a fanatical religious intensity and a ‘rational’ autocracy; between male and female, masculine and feminine. The play carries a heavy sexual charge. Pentheus seems to lust after Dionysus for all that he condemns and scorns him, and his desire to observe the Bacchic rites while dressed as a woman seems to imply a battery of unresolved sexual issues, as we might see it. But if Pentheus doesn’t offer much for an audience to sympathise with or get excited about, what’s so attractive about Dionysus? Licence, freedom, drink, craic, mayhem, but also murder, intolerance, mutilation, general monstrosity. We get to hear a detailed account of the Bacchic rites when the Messenger describes them to Pentheus early on in the play; at first it’s all bucolic sweetness and gushing fountains of wine, but pretty soon the blood’s up and the heifers are being dismembered with bare hands.
In Conall Morrison’s version in the Abbey, the Bacchantes are equated with suicide bombers, and Dionsyus comes on like an Islamic fanatic . Pentheus for his part is got up like an American general and we’re apparently in The Green Zone, ‘a little America embedded in the heart of Baghdad’. The publicity makes it even clearer: ‘Here set in the contemporary surrounds of Baghdad’s Green Zone, The Bacchae of Baghdad is a compelling investigation of the lethal force of political and religious fundamentalism.’ And this is where I begin to stumble. Tempting as it might be to overlay a contemporary parallel on the bones of the play, there is no sense in which either the original or this version applied any kind of analysis to the brutal succession of events presented. Things happen, and then more things happen. The royal house is destroyed, the Dionysian rage prevails. When Cadmus remonstrates with Dionysus at the end, suggesting that gods shouldn’t merely ape the destructive anger of men, Dionysus’s reply is that Zeus willed all this long ago – and that, more or less, is that. The bleak resolution is that everything was foreordained, and one kind of tyranny has supplanted another. Seen like this the play offers a nightmare vision of a world without the possibility of any escape from horror, in which human will plays no part. And that would be one way to play it. But if you’re going to namecheck Guantanamo and Baghdad, if you’re going to particularise the context to that extent, you have to have something meaningful to say about them, you have to engage with their particular realities – otherwise the contemporary reality is merely decorative, a frisson of danger to persuade the audience of the play’s relevance, or to provide something to look during the long speeches. As it is I don’t have the sense that Morrison is that interested in his own chosen context, beyond the opportunity it affords for visual spectacle. And besides, the realities of occupied Iraq are not actually transferable to the conflict between Pentheus and Bacchus. Conflicts don’t necessarily operate on the level of that kind of mythic struggle.
The difficulties of this version, though, go beyond the Iraq references.You have the sense that the bulk of the thinking has gone into the visual spectacle; into costume and choreography: how to deploy the music, how to lower Dionysus from the sky, what to do with the chorus, and so on. The words are secondary – it’s as if The Bacchae was an opera and the words a libretto half taken in. This version is ‘written and directed’ by Conall Morrison, with ‘written’ appearing to mean adapted from previously existing English translations. It would be interesting to know what exactly the relationship is, how this particular version was arrived at. It sounded like a conventional translation: stilted couplets, curiously old fashioned diction [what are you prating of?], the kind of prosaic yet simultaneously self-conscious poetry into which the classics frequently get translated. That is, you felt at all times as if you were, with all the dutifulness that that implies, watching a Greek tragedy. And yet huge chunks of the play consist of long speeches and reports of off-stage events. The language is the prime mover of the play – all the action is in the account of the action. If the language doesn’t grip us from the outset, we’re immediately distanced from the events of the play, we immediately begin to filter them through a literary haze, we become aware of the play as a reading of an ancient classic. The challenge for the adapter is to find a way to release the text from itself, to let it slip free of the long burden of its past.
As I write this I hear the radio advertise The Bacchae of Baghdad as ‘a powerful play for today’ but this is advertiser speak; if it’s to speak to us now, it needs a radical re-visioning. Its central conflict needs to made to speak to our own lives rather to our historical awareness, and dressing it in contemporary allusions isn’t the answer. The language itself needs to be reconstructed to speak to us: it needs to be vigorous, muscular, as dramatically powerful as the original was in its time, in the Tony Harrison’s adaptations of Aeschylus are. It needs, maybe, to be less faithful to the lineaments of the original since that fidelity ends up more often than not translating as piety. The staging of it needs to be re-thought. Our attention begins to wander almost from beginning, from Dionysus’ long opening speech – again, we need to be made forget that we’re watching a two thousand five hundred year old play, we need to be brought right into it before it disappears from us behind a veil of translationese and exoticism. Otherwise we end up in the drama museum.