The first notable thing about ‘Bakkhai’, Anne Carson’s new translation of Euripides ancient tragedy, is the missing definite article from the play’s title. Commonly known as ‘The Bacchae’ the removal of ‘the’ feels in itself a significant act in keeping with the indeterminate nature of the play’s leading character, Dionysos.
We use ‘the’ when the person taking in the information will know exactly to what we will refer. Yet in a Thebes that has been brought under the spell of a mysterious interloper nothing is quite as it seems. Dionysos may appear as man or, as seen by Pentheus a ‘bull leading me in procession [with] horns growing out of your head’, entranced ‘menead[s] sitting happily working at little tasks’ are also capable of pulling ‘a calf to pieces as it bellowed alive in her bare hands’. Thebes itself is lit by two suns/sons; one for those who see and one those who do not. In this world how can we be sure enough of what we know for anything to feel definite.
Anne Carson’s decision is just one small part of a superb translation. It follows her exceptional reworking of Sophocles’ Antigone for Ivo Van Hove. In all the plaudits heading for Ben Whishaw’s central performance and Orlando Gough’s magnificent composition for the Chorus, Carson’s contribution should not be underestimated. If her translation of Antigone stripped backed much of the poetic, Bakkhai feels more of a hybrid. If it uses a simplified language that allows a naturalness of speech within Thebes that is much in keeping with the modern world – Pentheus’ order to ‘go to Teiresias’ little outpost and bulldoze it’ could come from any age – then upon Mt Cithaeron the language changes in order to retain the sense of ancient rites and rituals.
It feels that this approach to the writing is aligned with James McDonald’s vision of the play. Transformation seems to be at the heart of McDonald’s approach. Language transforms depending on place.
The arrival of this mysterious stranger is the catalyst for a series of transformations. Pentheus and Dionysos are both sons of Thebes but equally they are two halves of one person. Dionysos is the explosion of all that Pentheus has repressed, in himself and in the society he governs. We feel the yearning of the populace when the shepherd, despite terror at what he has witnessed, recounts how Dionysos ‘gave the gift of wine to men: why, without wine we’ve no freedom from pain. Without wine there’s no sex. Without sex life isn’t worth living’. This is both act of narration and reproach for Pentheus.
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