“Nothing to do with Dionysus.” This famous phrase, while referring to a critical stage in the development of Greek drama, and describing with some accuracy the contents of the extant tragedies, has nothing to do with Euripides’Bacchae. The posthumously produced play is imbued with Dionysiac myth and religion and has Dionysus as its focus and main character. And few plays, it is fair to say, have exerted as much fascination on their audiences (theatrical or literary). Such is the power of the drama—and of the god.
The play has been well served by commentators. E. R. Dodds produced what is often considered a model commentary on this play (2nd ed. 1960), in which he explored vigorously many of the play’s aspects, often from an anthropological perspective; and J. Roux (1970-2), offered a useful supplement to Dodds. Our knowledge about Dionysus and his cults has been augmented in recent years, and, more importantly, our perspectives on them have changed. The time was ripe for a new commentary, and I can think of no one more qualified to undertake one than Richard Seaford. S. has made considerable contributions to Dionysiac studies over the years in a series of articles; he has shown himself an extremely able commentator with his earlier edition of Cyclops (1984); and most recently in his broad-ranging Reciprocity and Ritual (rev. C. Segal, BMCR 95.10.20) he has mapped out a synthetic view of Greek culture, with a keen focus on the role of rituals in the development of the Greek city-state.
The format of the series (to which, I here acknowledge, I am a recent contributor) is by now familiar: general introduction (by Shirley Barlow), introduction, text with facing translation, and commentary, generally with English lemmata. The intended audience is hybrid, both those with and those without Greek, novices and seasoned scholars alike.
S. explains that he will pay particular attention to “two aspects of the play that have hitherto been almost entirely ignored—its close relation to the mysteries of Dionysus, and its political dimension” (vii). This focus is evident throughout the edition, starting with the Introduction, an impressively packed thirty pages. The first section, “Tradition and Structure” (25-30), surveys the literary (especially what can be inferred of Aeschylus’Lycurgus) and mythological background. As he has argued elsewhere (Reciprocity), S. suggests that the Bacchae, with the god having a central role and with the self-destruction of the royal household, is “in a sense the closest to the beginnings of the genre” (28). He thinks that a great number of the play’s motifs are traditional, although he recognizes that the paucity of evidence does not allow for certainty. On the play’s structure, S. offers many good observations, showing how an unusually single focus (Dionysus’ punishment of Pentheus and his family) works in stages, achieving its effect in part through structural balances. “The Bacchae and the Dionysiac” (30-5) reviews several of the leading interpretative approaches to Dionysus, beginning with Nietzsche and including structuralist, Girardian, metatheatrical, and psychoanalytic interpretations. While not hostile to these, S. sees them as secondary to an understanding of the rituals which inform the play. (See also 787-861n., and the approving discussion of Devereux’ psychoanalytic approach to Agave’s “therapy” scene at 1264-97n.) This leads to what for S. is the heart of the matter—”The Bacchae and Cult” (35-44) and “The Bacchae and the Polis” (44-52). In the first of these sections, S. treats maenadism, polis festivals of Dionysus, and Dionysiac mysteries. Drawing on many sources (including his own previously published work), S. paints a rich picture of the various ways the god was worshipped. Always S. brings the information about things Dionysian to the service of the play itself. This is especially true in his treatment of the Dionysiac mysteries, since one of his most sustained arguments is that the play—and Pentheus’ actions—only makes sense as a reflection of this initiation ritual, with Pentheus as initiand. E.g., Pentheus’ opposition to the cult, his transvestism, his double vision, all, S. argues, reflect cultic practice. The focus on the political dimension of the play is also an important contribution, even if one does not accept all of S.’s arguments. Much recent criticism has sought to situate tragedy (and other genres) within the ideology of the polis, the genre itself being part of that ideology, and S.’s reading of the play, here and in Reciprocity, is very much in that vein. The Introduction concludes with a two-page description of the play’s textual transmission.
The text of the Bacchae, very corrupt in some places and seriously lacunose in two others, poses major problems. S. prints in essence Diggle’s OCT (1994) with about twenty “substantial” differences. Of S.’s own suggestions, three appear in the apparatus (on 102-3, 200, 877), none in the text. A simplified apparatus criticus (based chiefly on Diggle’s) is presented, printed not below the relevant sections of the Greek text but all together before it (57-63). Without translation or commentary, selections from Christus Patiens thought to pertain to the Bacchae are printed following the text. Textual matters receive no slight treatment in the Commentary (and are marked off with a preceding “T”, much as Dodds placed square brackets around his textual discussion at the end of notes). S. is judicious and clear in his presentation of the issues and he brings to bear the full array of textual critical tools. Moreover, also as textual critic S. is informed by Dionysiac ritual. Thus, e.g., at 32, 630, 631, 647, 860, 1103, 1133, 1167, he prints a different text from Diggle’s at least in part because of his interpretation of ritual, mystic, or Dionysiac connections. In a few places, S.’s text seems preferable to Diggle’s: at 32, printing Burges’s conjecture
τί τὸ σοφόν, ἢ τί τὸKA/LLION+ παρὰ θεῶν γέρας ἐν βροτοῖς ἢ χεῖρ’ ὑπὲρ κορυφᾶς τῶν ἐχθρῶν κρείσσω κατέχειν; ὅτι καλὸν φίλονAI)EI/
The chorus of Asian maenads voice, it seems, the commonplace joy at victory over one’s enemies, embedding it in the play’s discourse on wisdom. But these lines have been given various interpretations. Blake suggested printing a question mark after
Following the series’ aim, S.’s translation “aims at closeness to the Greek rather than elegance or actability” (vii). S. succeeds in providing a literal and accurate translation, frequently giving parenthetically a phrase or word for the sake of clarification. I note a few places where I have questions about nuance or tone. “I made [them] to ululate” introduces a tone absent in the Greek
On matters of Dionysiac cult, on the play’s echoes of initiation ritual, on the destruction of the royal household, one will find S.’s notes in the Commentary full, informative, and impressive. Repeatedly he weaves observations about the god’s cult and mystic initiation into the notes with thorough citation of primary and secondary sources. S.’s observations are not, of course, limited to these issues. He presents an interpretative overview of each lyric and episode, these larger treatments connecting nicely to the individual notes that follow on a very wide range of issues. Many topics, however, while not excluded, are given considerably less attention than S.’s special interests. This is evident from the fact that one will look in vain for any mention of, e.g., Winnington-Ingram or Segal on the play’s elaborate matrix of images, Mastronarde on the conventions of dialogue, or Kranz on lyrics. Taplin’s Greek Tragedy in Action contains many valuable insights into the play’s visual dimensions; nowhere is it referred to. S. spends more time explaining Bacchae in terms of Dionysus and less explaining it in terms of Greek tragedy. In particular, and here I may betray my own prejudices, S. says little about the conventions of the stage. E.g., at 977-1023n., in explaining that the song is thought to cover the time described in the following messenger’s speech, he does not make clear that such temporal manipulations are standard fare, especially with no actors on stage. On 846n., S. observes that the exiting Pentheus does not hear Dionysus’ threatening words, but says nothing about the convention of “words at the back”. At 576-641n., the scene of the “palace miracles”, S. has a full two pages on the mystic and political dimensions, but very little on the possible staging of this remarkable scene. The light tone of the scene of Teiresias and Cadmus is also underplayed (he faults Seidensticker [on 170-369n.] for reading it as too comic), in part, I think, because he pays no attention to the anomaly of the blind Teiresias coming on stage unattended or to the contrast between the concluding picture of the parodos and the old man’s entrance.
While S. makes a powerful case for the very strong ritual coloring of the play and for the necessity of understanding ritual in interpreting it, I am unpersuaded of the primacy of ritual as a hermeneutic strategy. I will also confess a more sympathetic response than S. to Pentheus and the destruction of his household. The response to this play in the Theater of Dionysus cannot, of course, have been simple or monolithic, but I find it difficult to accept that the god’s fierce punishment was seen generally as a “social necessity” (1348-9n.) or that the desolation and bleakness facing the royal household were felt to be more than compensated for by the presumed establishment of Dionysus’ cult (in the missing section of the god’s speech) and its polis-unifying effects. (See especially pp. 50-1 and 1302-26n.)
Better proof-reading would have helped the final production of this volume. There are too many spacing and other small errors, too many inconsistencies in bibliographic citations. One does not need a state-of-the-art word-processing program to produce an em-dash (the simple hyphen is annoying) or to justify the margin on the final line of a page. In the Greek text there are various slips (none great), and in the lacunae marked by metrical schemata, x marking anceps has been converted by the Greek font to the letter j.
S.’s commentary is a very valuable contribution to our understanding of this extraordinary play and a “must” for anyone interested in the play or Dionysiac religion. Commentary writing is an art of selection. In wishing for a commentary with a greater balance of issues treated, I am perhaps saying only that no commentator could do justice to all aspects of this exceptionally rich play. S.’s trenchant reading of the play will inform its readers and inspire debate among them.