BMCR 2017.11.30

The Gentle, Jealous God: Reading Euripides’ ‘Bacchae’ in English. Bloomsbury Studies in Classical Reception

, The Gentle, Jealous God: Reading Euripides’ 'Bacchae' in English. Bloomsbury Studies in Classical Reception. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. xi, 237. ISBN 9781472513533. $114.00.


The Gentle, Jealous God is a development of Simon Perris’s DPhil thesis at the University of Oxford, supervised by Oliver Taplin. In this work, Perris reviews the reception of Euripides’ Bacchae in English translation, with seven translations receiving extended (often chapter-length) analyses. In the concluding chapter, he explains why he selected these translations: “my examples do have extrinsic target-culture significance, whether because the author is a well-known poet (H. D., Derek Mahon, Anne Carson) or playwright (Colin Teevan, David Greig), or because the translation itself is historically noteworthy (Gilbert Murray)” (164).

Perris begins with a preliminary chapter introducing readers to a variety of topics relevant to the analyses that follow. After providing a summary of the content of Euripides’ Bacchae, Perris sketches—using the broadest strokes—the play’s reception from antiquity to the twenty-first century. This review provides the framework for understanding how additional signification accumulates to the play: each translation or reception becomes a link in a chain of influence that affects how the play is later interpreted (“strong thesis”); each is also a cultural artifact in its own right (“weak thesis”). Perris then proposes a “weaker thesis,” that “vernacular translations” can invigorate the study of an ancient text, even for classicists (7). Nevertheless, The Gentle, Jealous God, he says, is sensitive both to historical interpretations of the Bacchae and to those that are postmodern, and so he discusses translations skewing either direction.

Chapters One and Two further orient readers on the topics of Euripides’ Bacchae, Dionysus, and twentieth-century translations of the Bacchae. Chapter One begins by analyzing the play’s opening lines, which introduce, inter alia, the theme of Dionysus’s identity. He writes, “Dionysus in Bacchae is a deity ( theos) in charge of wine and ritual madness who wants to be worshipped by one and all” (28). Perris comments on the uncharacteristic (for Euripides) thematic and structural unity of the Bacchae : “Connections, parallels, juxtapositions and significant contrasts abound” (34). Although a well-structured play, the staging is ambiguous, granting interpretive license for future performances (such as whether or how to stage the earthquake). Chapter Two contains a tour-de-force review of twentieth-century translations, with special attention given to those produced in the “long sixties” (1958–1974). Perris highlights many ways in which “ Bacchae has been adopted as a master-text of counterculture” (54), observing that “ Bacchae can be adapted into a new play about almost any ideological conflict one can imagine” (56). The many “conflicts” featured in translations of the Bacchae include globalization, the sexual revolution, imperialism, colonialism, cultural revolutions, transgender identity, and climate change. The Bacchae can accommodate such a variety of adaptations because of its schematic plot: “a religious crisis sparks a revolution in which a radical foreigner destroys a conservative local” (57). New Zealander Harry Love’s Hūrai (2011), for example, pits a nineteenth-century missionary (corresponding to Pentheus) against an indigenous Māori prophet; Mike Poulton’s Euripides: Bacchae (2010) features a Dionysus bent on reforming “liberal–democratic Western society” by opposing “war, brutality, oppression, pride, apathy, greed, climate change and so on” (51); and Conall Morrison’s The Bacchae of Baghdad (2006) critiques modern imperialism by situating Pentheus (a U. S. military officer) in Iraq in opposition to a Middle Eastern Dionysus.

Chapter Three begins Perris’s analyses of individual translations of the Bacchae with Gilbert Murray’s The Bacchae of Euripides (1902), a work that continues to cast a long shadow over subsequent translations, versions, and performances of Euripides’ play. By mimicking biblical conventions (e.g., capitalizing “God” and “God’s Son”) and mapping “Dionysiac religion onto specific Christian beliefs,” “Murray’s translation popularizes Euripides’ Bacchae by making it intelligible to an Edwardian audience and shaping it into a proto-Christian passion play” (64). Nevertheless, Murray’s translation—particularly with respect to the bacchants’ choruses—also became a vessel for his humanistic sensibilities regarding rationality, feminism, and liberality. Perris writes, “On these terms, Bacchae becomes not only an unfinished passion play but also a profession of faith in the basic human decency of ‘simple’ people, which is the clearest manifestation of the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth” (74). Perris concludes that Murray’s translation is particularly significant because it “established a pattern which persisted through the long sixties and after” (78) by using metaphorical language (for Murray, late-Victorian Christianity) in order to communicate his own interpretation of Euripides’ message (for Murray, humanism).

Chapter Four situates H. D.’s work “Choros Translations from The Bacchae ” (1931) amid early-twentieth-century modernist sensibilities regarding poetry. In particular, Perris outlines how H. D.’s translations of the Bacchae both conform to (through concentrated phrasings) and transgress (through repetitions) Imagist ideals. In neither case does she strive for fidelity to Euripides’ Greek. These translations, in Perris’s view, are not successful as Imagist retellings of the Bacchae because they omit much of the play’s violence in favor of mysticism.

Chapters Five, Six and Seven feature translations by poets from the British Isles. Published in 1991, Irish poet Derek Mahon’s “parodic translation” of the Bacchae, titled The Bacchae: after Euripides, renders the tragedy using conventions more familiar to comedies. Of particular prominence is his use of “heroic couplets.” Mahon’s tragicomedy mocks, in Perris’s judgment, a number of targets: from Irish language to the political appropriation of Greek tragedies by his contemporaries. Chapter Six features another Irishman’s translation, Colin Teevan’s Euripides: Bacchai (2002). Perris is nearly unequivocal in his criticism of this translation and production, contrasting it unfavorably with a 1981 production of Aeschylus’s Orestia featuring the same director, composer, and lead actor. Teevan’s translation is largely prosaic, despite various attempts at poeticizing the text, and—in contrast to Mahon’s apolitical translation –explicitly draws from Teevan’s socio-political (post-9/11) environment. Scottish playwright David Greig’s translation, Euripides: The Bacchae (2007), prioritizes dynamic equivalence (or “radical authenticity”), bringing out elements of humor—in the tradition of Mahon’s translation—and assonance. In contrast to his evaluation of Teevan, Perris largely approves of Greig’s work. Nevertheless, he critiques Greig’s Bacchae as lacking emotional depth: “Greig locates the Dionysiac in neoliberal bourgeois hedonism” (149).

Chapter Eight, which Perris identifies as an epilogue, reviews two recent translations: Robin Robertson’s Euripides: Bacchae (2014) and Anne Carson’s Euripides: Bakkhai (2015). Robertson, a Scottish poet, provides a “nominally authentic” translation, true both to Euripides’ Greek and to modern English. Perris regards this translation as well executed but otherwise hardly remarkable. The epilogue devotes considerably more attention to Canadian classicist Carson’s translation. In discussing Carson’s work, Perris foregrounds two themes: (1) daimon / daimonic as a cipher for Dionysus’s mysterious identity and (2) the prominence of color (especially green, but also blue and purple), especially as it evokes the daimonic. Carson’s translation can be read, Perris concludes, “as a deep, ‘ daimonic ’ meditation on classics, reception and translation” (162).

In a concluding chapter, Perris reflects on the unique responsibility of translations for readers unable to read ancient Greek. Verse translations, Perris argues, occupy the equipoise between poetic adaptation and historical-critical interpretation. He then returns to the “theses” discussed in the introduction. His recapitulation of the “strong,” “weak,” and “weaker” theses, however, is cursory. I expect that many readers will desire a more robust summary of how the translations featured in the previous chapters demonstrate these theses—especially his own “weaker” thesis that vernacular translations can bring clarity to classical studies. Finally, he reiterates the adaptability of the Bacchae, which is possible because it “submits to many different readings” (166) and “accommodates different viewpoints” (167).

The back matter includes two entries of note. First, an appendix lists English translations of the Bacchae published between 1781 and 2015. Second, a glossary aids readers with different subject-area competencies by defining selected jargon (e.g., “invariant,” “translator’s invisibility”) and Greek terms (e.g., sparagmos, thiasos) that occur throughout the book.

Overall, The Gentle, Jealous God is a helpful addition to the growing body of scholarship on the reception of classical literature and should be regarded as the standard work on the reception of the Bacchae in English in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. I expect that Perris’s book will also be of interest more generally to those who engage in translating and/or adapting ancient texts for English-speaking audiences.