The Bacchae (Greek: Βάκχαι, Bakchai; also known as The Bacchantes) is an ancient Greek tragedy, written by the Athenian playwright Euripides during his final years in Pella, Macedonia (Greece) at the court of Archelaus I of Macedon. It premiered posthumously at the Theatre of Dionysus in 405 BC as part of a tetralogy that also included Iphigeneia at Aulis and Alcmaeon in Corinth, and which Euripides’ son or nephew probably directed. It won first prize in the City Dionysia festival competition.
The Bacchae is concerned with two (2) opposite sides of man’s natures: There is the rational and civilized side, which is represented by the character of Pentheus, the king of Thebes, and then there is the instinctive side, which is represented by Dionysus. This side is sensual without analysis, it feels a connection between man and beast, and it is a potential source of divinity and spiritual power. In Euripides’ plays the gods represent various human qualities, allowing the audience to grapple with considerations of the human condition. The Bacchae seems to be saying that it is perilous to deny or ignore the human desire for Dionysian experience; those who are open to the experience will find spiritual power, and those who suppress or repress the desire in themselves or others will transform it into a destructive force.
The tragedy is based on the Greek myth of King Pentheus of Thebes and his mother Agave, and their punishment by the god Dionysus (who is Pentheus’ cousin). The god Dionysus appears at the beginning of the play and proclaims that he has arrived in Thebes to avenge the slander, which has been repeated by his aunts, that he is not the son of Zeus. In response, he intends to introduce Dionysian rites into the city, and he intends to demonstrate to the king, Pentheus, and to Thebes that he was indeed born a god. However, as the play proceeds Dionysus encounters what he considers newly occurring reasons to be angry, and in his capriciousness, the audience watches his revenge grow out of proportion. By the end of the play, there is the horrible and gruesome death of the king and the wrecking of the city of Thebes by the destruction of its ruling party and by the exiling of its entire population. Dionysus will further cause the plundering of a number of other cities. In The Bacchae there are two completely different versions of Dionysus. First there is the god as he is described by the chorus, which is the god of wine and uninhibited joy and instinct. However, Dionysus as appears as a character on the stage, has come for revenge, and is never like this. He is instead deliberate, plotting, angry and vengeful. The Bacchae is considered to be not only Euripides’ greatest tragedy, but one of the greatest ever written, modern or ancient. The Bacchae is distinctive for the fact that the chorus is integrated into the plot, and the god is not a distant presence, but is a character in the play, he is in fact the protagonist.