Thursday, May 29, 2014

Euripides' "Bacchae": Book Review

This tragedy's all about showdowns. Dichotomies and conflicts, as Daniel Mendelsohn, emphasizes in his preface, create a character unique to the genre. Dionysus "hovering between divine majesty and human weakness, magnificence and pettiness--and between male and female--the teasing, seductive, playful, epicene god is a great study in ambiguity." This god, an effeminate foil for the law-and-order bent, but fatally lured Pentheus, draws him and the audience into a diabolically clever trap. The horror than felt, as Pentheus is punished and then his corpse torn apart, while his own mother than slowly comes out of the bacchanalian frenzy to realize her own complicity, deepens what could have been but a strange depiction of subliminal drives into a portrayal of compassion after cruelty.

Mendelson explains how this drama "explores both the benevolent and the punishing faces of divinity." Ecstasy and terror follow  instead, as the natural wonder and delight transfers through a breakout of the repressed tendencies within us, once under some spell cast, into dread and sorrow. Euripides tells this story swiftly; this can be read in a short sitting, and it moves as rapidly as a well-written thriller might in an short television production today on some "prestige" cable network. Like shows now, the critics stay divided. As Mendelsohn notes, consensus is lacking "because its subject--among other things--is the irrational, and how conventional intellectual resources wither in the face of a wildness, a potency beyond reason."

From Robin Robinson's translation, an excerpt illustrates the swift concision of his rendering. Cadmus mourns Pentheus' end: "If anyone still disputes the power of heaven./ let them look at this boy's death/ and they will see that the gods live." Certainly the reaction of this grandfather captures the human response to the whims and imperatives of a divine plan unfathomed by mortals, yet again.

This edition includes a supplement, complete with a glossary on how to pronounce names, as this assumes we now lack this preparation. A chart of who's related to who, and an introduction to Euripides, about whom we know nearly nothing, helps the reader. It's sobering to be reminded that out of a thousand works performed in the 5th c. BC from Greece, we have only 33 of them today.
(Amazon US 9-12-14)

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