“Wild ambition is a kind of madness” – Bacchae by Euripides (a new translation by Robin Robertson)

etbThe Bacchae is one of nineteen surviving plays by Euripides (the Didaskalia lists 92 plays, which means 73 have been lost to us), and was one of three discovered after his death in 407 or 406BC – which makes it in the region of two and a half thousand years old. What’s more, as Robertson states in the useful introduction to the translation,

“The theatre audiences of Athens were highly sophisticated, and would have come to these plays will a full grounding in the great corpus of Greek myths. The word mythos means, literally, ‘story’, and these stories were regarded as morality tales of the ancestors.”

In other words, at the time of its inaugural performance it would’ve played in the same way that something like, say, David Hare’s Skylight plays now. Once upon a time, The Bacchae would have been contemporary, acceptable, even reasonable; now, to us, it appears fantastical, concerning, as it does, the forging of a new God’s reputation. The God in question is Dionysus (and Euripides may well have written it for the Dionysian festival in Athens), and the broad narrative concerns a juncture at which there was still a question regarding his God-like status (was Dionysus really birthed from the thigh of Zeus? the naysayers say). This question is represented in the play by the character of Pentheus, who would deny Dionysus and publicly punish any who say otherwise. And there are many who say otherwise, ranging from Cadmus, his grandfather, to Tiresias (grandfather’s best mate) and even Dionysus himself who appears before Pentheus as a Dionysian acolyte.

All of which may sound dated, strange and unfamiliar but actually, again as Robertson draws out in the intro,

“Dionysus feels strikingly modern. A noir God, he is the detached, disaffected, protean stranger that slips from the shadows, a barely contained power, moving from one identity to another, from this world to the next. He cannot be defined, placed or even precisely named.”

And we see him at various points transformed into a bull and also shaking the foundations of the house in which he has been briefly imprisoned to the ground. You don’t mess with Dionysus. Repeatedly however, in the reading, you can’t help but be struck by the forceful clarity of the line. Such as,

“The man whose power lies in his conceit,

does not make a good citizen.”


“Wild ambition is a kind of madness:

stretch too hard for the summit

and you will fail and fall

and plummet back to land.”

To a modern reader, the fate that is bestowed upon Pentheus, and whose tentacles reach to drag down a number of others in the vicinity, may seem unduly harsh (and similarly, we shift gradually from enjoying the company of Dionysus to suspecting he’s not far from being guilty of the arrogant vainglory he accuses others of). And yet it remains a dazzling piece of work, a genuinely unsettling piece of drama that leaps off the page (in a way that makes you want to see it realised on a stage).

One might wish for Robertson to fill in the Magnificent Ambersons-style gaps but that could possibly could be in itself a piece of hubris on the part of the reviewer. Le’s hope the Gods are looking the other way…

Any Cop?: Whilst we don’t have the expertise to say how Robertson’s new translation stands alongside other translations – but we do know that it’s opened our eyes afresh to work that we haven’t dabbled with overlong in about 20 years. So we are grateful and appreciative for that.




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