Greek Theatre and "The Bacchae"
Formal Analysis

The Bacchae is play written was chant form called dithyramb. Musical instruments especially the drum were used to keep time in the performance of the play. Approximately eighty percent of the play is dialogue while only a small portion is devoted to action on the stage. The order of the narrative is predictable and therefore symmetrical because there is a continuous cycle of basic components that are repeated throughout the play. These components are known as the prologos, parados, episode, stasimon, and exodos. The components that are repeated are the three central components of the parados, episode, and stasimon, which are repeated in predictable form as many as five times in the typical Greek tragedy.

  • The prologos (prologue) is the opening scene in which an introductory monologue or dialogue is presented. This establishes the background information in the play and also introduces the "problem," or outlines the events that are to follow.
  • The parados is the next section in which the chorus, in chant form, introduces some of the characters, predicts, and comments on the action that will follow in the episode.
  • The episode consists of the main action of the play in which the central characters interact in the center of the stage.
  • The stasimon follows the episode. In this section the chorus summarizes and comments on the action that took place during the episode. The play ends with the exodos.
  • The exodos is actually the last stasimon of the play and accompanies the action and the ceremonial exit of the actors from the stage.
  • The Theater Plan

    Athenian theaters follow the same design as the theater at Epidauros (see Stokstad 5-72).  The form of the plays narrative is also reflected in the form and organization of the theater itself.  The design is a symmetrical hemisphere (half circle) that is arranged similarly to modern day stadiums.  The stone material and the shape of the theater allowed the sound of the actors who stood in the orchestra to be heard.  The actors entered onto the orchestra from the parados (wings). (Notice this is also a part of the structure of the narrative and serves the same purpose.) Behind them was usually just a static building that was the backdrop called the skene.   This backdrop had no ornamnentation or painting and was fairly simple.  In fact, props were kept to a minimum on the stage,  Stadiums like this had seating for nearly 12,000.

    Iconography of the Play

    The structure of the play is a vehicle that allows for a clear and repetitive format in which each of the main characters can model and communicate proper roles, attributes, and behaviors for the audience. The main characters in the Bacchae are the chorus, Dionysos and Pentheus. The chorus who are the narrators of the play symbolize the "ideal" followers of the hero of the play Dionysos. The hero, Dionysos (called Bacchus by the Romans) is the god of wine and drama and he represents liberation, divine order, and wisdom. Dionysos' adversary is his cousin Pentheus the immature king of Thebes. Pentheus denounces Dionysos both as his cousin and as a god and therefore represents ignorance. The rest of the characters represent the territory over which the protagonist and antagonist struggle.

    The play as a whole represents several major theme.  One theme is the struggle between the ignorance of those indoctrinated into the Bacchic rites and those who are ignorant non-believers who are not liberated by Dionysos.  This is sometimes refered to as the “Apollonian/Dionysian conflict” which is a conflict between reason and unreason.  This is a rather symmetrical or balanced idea similar to the ideas expressed by the metopes from the Parthenon depicting the battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs.  This ties in with the mathematical concept of symmetrea in which Greeks strived for mathematical symmetry.  In this way form and content are integrated.  Another major theme is justice.

    What the Greeks would calle justice we might call vengance.  Our concept of justice is different than in the age of Perikles and The Bacchae.  Their idea of justice was based on “rights of the mighty” and to excecute justice was, according to Charles Rowan Beye a professor from Lehman College “hurting enemies and helping friends.”  Christian justice is almost the opposite.  One is to“turn the other cheek”, and “do unto others as you would have them do to you.”

    The Chorus and Setting of the Play

    In the "Bacchae," the chorus was performed by a group of females representing the Bacchai (female worshippers of Dionysus often referred to as "maenads" taken from the Greek verb "mainesthai" which means to be mad). As with most choral interludes in Greek tragedy, these were delivered in music and not spoken.  This marked a strong contrast to the spoken word preceeding it.  This would call for the attention of the revelers in the theatre who had perhaps missed parts of the story spoken before.  The chorus was poetic --though lost in some translations, there were numerous poetic devices throughout this part of the play.  This play in particular had numerous alliterations and the author even emploed (more in the Bacchae than in his other plays) the use of puns.  There is yet another marked contrast when the chorus finishes and the play resumes in spoken tones.  At this point, the theme has been set and the viewer is suddenly plunged into another world.

    Greek tragedies like The Bacchae were presented very simply, with very little or no decoration, no vivid scenery or background other than the stage itself, and were presented in an outdoor theater rather than indoors. The actors consisted of men, some of who had a high-pitched voice in order to play the role of a woman in a play. The actors were also masked, which is why dialog, diction, and dramatic body language played an important role in effectively portraying the scenes. The Chorus in The Bacchae, in particular, probably wore identical masks to signify them as one group. Since they were followers of Dionysus, they were linked to him by his trademark, wearing crowns of ivy, and were dressed in fawn-skin as well. After every significant scene, they would summarize what took place and even foreshadowed events.

    Description of Play

    The play contains humor and violence. The reader can compare this play of "The Bacchae" with the new version of the movie Romeo and Juliet (Mafia Story). It is an interesting play, because it is so descriptive that the reader can visualize the events happening. This play survived, because it did not go against the Catholic Church who was the main university system around the year 400 B.C.. Many plays were destroyed, because they were against the church. The two most important concepts represented in the play were sophia (Wisdom) and amathea (Ignorance). Furthermore, the play is about law and order. By inserting a strong moral code into the content of the play it was thought that it would strengthen Athenian society. The women of Thebes were the most ignorant of all the characters in the play, because they were the most enchanted. In addition, they were used as weapons, treated as lesser human beings, and used as territory. Teiresias was partially ignorant and Cadmus was not to wise either, because he let Pentheus rule.


    Plays originally evolved from the performance of epic poems such as Homer's "Iliad" and his "Odyssey."  Epic poems are like plays. At that time people could not read, so they would memorize around 400 pages of a story to tell them to the people. They would use music and rhymes to help them remember the story.  This later on develops into the form Greek theatre takes.

    Theater and the performance of Greek Tragedy and Comedy were an important component in the lifestyle of the Athenians. The theater was a place in which stories, mythology, and cultural values were conveyed and ideas were explored. The theater also served as an important social setting and helped the economy by bringing in tourists and others for festivals. The fact that a theater was devoted to the god Dionysus indicates the importance of the ideas and values personified by him. Dionysus (also called Bacchus) was the god of drama and of wine. In essence he was the god of liberation.

    "Ancient tragic drama was a public event done in large scale. At Athens the Theater of Dionysus, built against the steeply rising east slope of the Acropolis, was large enough to accommodate fourteen to seventeen thousand people. This group sat together on benches without divisions so that as arms, legs, and haunches touched, emotions could race through the audience. A large crowd is characteristically animal. Probably it was in reaction to the natural volatility of a crowd that the Athenian assembly passed a law making an outright and provocative disturbance during a performance a capital offense. The setting offered little form of crowd control. Performances were out of doors, in daylight, continuous, starting at dawn in a large arena where there must have been constant movement, as at present-day sporting events or a Chinese opera. People leaving to relieve themselves, hawkers selling food, these were moving elements of the panorama as much as the actors and the chorus".
    (Charles Rowan Beye, Ancient Greek Literature and Society (Ithaca: Cornell University Press,1975 and 1987) 127-128
    Festival of Dionysus

    This festival was devoted to the God of wine and liberation (Dionysus). This festival was celebrated around the year 530 B.C. for the entertainment of the people. It was celebrated only once every year between the planting and growing seasons in the month of March. The people would tell stories for competition. These stories included comedies and tragedies which were based on myths and poems. The plays would start at sunrise and would end at sundown, because there was no light. People today re-write plays to make them more interesting to the reader. The theater where the festival was held could fit 14,000- 17,000 people. In addition, the people would sit next to each other, because the top benches had no divisions (Imagine a football stadium). In between scenes comedians would come out to make the people laugh, so they would not get bored of the long plays. The repetition of the words the characters said by the chorus was crucial, because the theater was often very crowded and noisy and often the audience was eating and drinking during the performance.

    Why was it Written?

    The play was probably written after Euripides voluntarily exiled himself from Athens. The play was not performed in Athens while he was alive. It is possible that Euripides was, or felt, that he was undervalued as playwright in Athens and may have written the play as a symbol of how he perceived Athens. If this is the case, Euripides might have viewed himself as a type of mortal Dionysos. Euripides then perceived the people of Athens as the misled masses and the critics of Athens dramatic arts as ignorant princes who refused the gifts that were placed before them.

    According to the Brittanica,

    The tragedies of Euripides test the Sophoclean norm in this direction. His plays present in gruelling detail the wreck of human lives under the stresses that the gods often seem willfully to place upon them. Or, if the gods are not willfully involved through jealousy or spite, they sit idly by while man wrecks himself through passion or heedlessness. . . In the Bacchae, when the frenzied Agave tears her son, Pentheus, to pieces and marches into town with his head on a pike, the god Dionysus, who had engineered the situation, says merely that Pentheus should not have scorned him. The Euripidean gods, in short, cannot be appealed to in the name of justice. Euripides' tendency toward moral neutrality, his cool tacking between sides (e.g., between Pentheus versus Dionysus and the bacchantes) leave the audience virtually unable to make a moral decision. . . In Euripides, the gods are destructive, wreaking their capricious wills on defenseless man. Aristotle called Euripides the most tragic of the three dramatists; surely his depiction of the arena of human life is the grimmest.

    Many qualities, however, keep his tragedies from becoming literature of protest, of cynicism, or of despair. He reveals profound psychological insight, as in the delineation of such antipodal characters as Jason and Medea, or of the forces, often subconscious, at work in the group frenzy of the Bacchae. His Bacchic odes reveal remarkable lyric power. And he has a deep sense of human values, however external and self-conscious. Medea, even in the fury of her hatred for Jason and her lust for revenge, must steel herself to the murder of her children, realizing the evil of what she is about to do. In this realization, Euripides suggests a saving hope: here is a great nature gone wrong--but still a great nature.

     "Euripides- the dark tragedian."   Britannica 2001 Standard Edition CD-ROM.   Copyright © 1994-2001 Inc.   December 27, 2002.

    Synopsis of story:

    Prior to reading Euripides' The Bacchae, it is important to know the antecedent action relating to the play, or the events that took place before it. This takes us back to the story of Semele, Dionysus's mother and the princess of Thebes. Semele had an affair with Zeus (referred to as Jove in Liaisons), the principal and perhaps most powerful god of Greek mythology, and became pregnant with Dionysus. In jealous rage, Zeus's wife and sister Hera (also known as Juno) sought revenge against her. Hera disguised herself as Semele's nursemaid and convinced her to ask Zeus to prove he loves her by revealing his godliness to her. Zeus, a god who cannot take back his word, immediately vows to grant Semele anything upon hearing her request for a favor she refused to name without his prior consent. Regretfully, Zeus reveals his godly identity and burns Semele to ashes in the process. Fearing for the unborn child, Zeus manages to save Dionysus by taking his body and sewing it in his thigh to develop. Despite Hera's attempts to destroy the child, Zeus ultimately manages to spare his life with trickery. Dionysus grows up and travels around Asia. He returns to Thebes with resentment toward his mother's sisters, however, upon hearing the rumors they spread that he is not Zeus's son but the offspring of a mortal and sends them wandering in insanity in the mountains. He vows to prove his godly heritage to the disbelievers of Thebes. Dionysus's anger and purpose in Thebes is revealed throughout the play by the tone of his words, particularly in the prologue as well as in the scene where Teiresias, the blind seer, tries to persuade Pentheus of Dionysus's godliness by telling him Dionysus's story. Dionysus's frustration is further emphasized by the Chorus as well, the Bacchic women who praise him and somehow narrate the entire play.

    Some of the Main Characters

    Dionysus, the god of wine and liberation: The lead character in The Bacchae is Dionysus, the god bitterly seeking recognition in the land of Thebes. He is the son of Zeus and Semele (half god and half mortal, though the mortal half may have been destroyed in the antecedent action to the play), witty, and burdened by the rumors of his mother's death and his origin. He is capable of controlling the actions and sanity of those he possesses. Dionysos is described as wearing a mask that smiles. He is beardless and wears fawn-skin. He holds a thyrsus, or staff, with ivy leaves covering the tip. He has long blond, curly hair, and possesses feminine characteristics. He seeks revenge against the disbelievers who spread rumors denying his immortality as a god, and his primary goal in the play is to gain the worship and recognition of the people of Thebes.

    Pentheus, heir to the Theban throne following the reign of his grandfather Cadmus: Pentheus is the egotistical and selfish cousin of Dionysus, whose godly identity he scorns and denies. Pentheus loves the spotlight. He is ignorant, narrow-minded, and easily made jealous when worship and admiration are diverted from him. In the play, he proves to overestimate himself and his power as a mortal versus the immortal Dionysus. Pentheus is a bitter character who doesn't respect but is loved by his grandfather Cadmus. He loves to rule over and degrade others below him. Physically, Pentheus is young, brawny, and, like Dionysus, beardless. He is first presented in the play wearing traditional Greek attire. In the play, he serves as the Theban ruler who resents and desires to destroy Dionysus and his followers/believers.

    The following is a brief synopsis of the basic elements of theatre (or performance) according to the Greek philosopher Aristotle.

    According to the Encyclopedia Britannica,
    "Aristotle b. 384 BC, Stagira, Chalcidice, Greece d. 322, Chalcis, Euboea
    Greek ARISTOTELES, ancient Greek philosopher and scientist, one of the two greatest intellectual figures produced by the Greeks (the other being Plato). He surveyed the whole of human knowledge as it was known in the Mediterranean world in his day.

    More than any other thinker, Aristotle determined the orientation and the content of Western intellectual history. He was the author of a philosophical and scientific system that through the centuries became the support and vehicle for both medieval Christian and Islamic scholastic thought: until the end of the 17th century, Western culture was Aristotelian. Even after the intellectual revolutions of centuries to follow, Aristotelian concepts and ideas remained embedded in Western."

    Aristotle's ideas on theatre are a theoretical system that most dramatists use today to explore and study theatre.  According to Aristotle, successful theatre is composed of six primary elements:

    Aristotle's Six Parts of a Theatre
            1. Plot
            2. Character
            3. Thought (theme, idea)
            4. Diction (Language)
            5. Music (sound)
            6. Spectacle
        1. Plot:
        1. Exposition
        Everything the audience needs to know to understand the play.

        "antecedent action" (everything that has happened before the play begins)? and how is it revealed?

        "point of attack" The point in the play in which things change.

        2. Conflict -- the clash of opposing forces man vs. self, man, environment, natural forces, group, God, or group vs. group.

        "Inciting incident" (or "initiating incident"): the event that occurs to begin the conflict.

        "Complications" --

        Discoveries, reversals (peripety)

        Sub-plots / parallel plots major and minor conflicts

        3. Climax -- (Wilson, p. 276) the point at which one or the other of the forces is favored; the point at which events must turn in one direction or another. Not necessarily the "high point"

        Falling Action

        4. Resolution / Denouement -- whatever comes after the climax.

        Not always resolved satisfactorily:  the "deus ex machina" (Wilson, p. 4, 285):  -- god of the machine -- a contrived or unrealistic or unbelievable ending / resolution.
        2. CHARACTER: the essences of human behavior.
          Physical, social, and psychological traits.
    Protagonist -- "agon" = struggle; the pro side of the struggle -- often used to refer to the lead character in a tragedy (Wilson, p. 271).

    Antagonist -- the anti side of the struggle -- often the bad guy, but could be anyone / thing that struggles against the protagonist.

    Foil: (Wilson, p. 322) reveals some aspects of the main characters by having similar or different circumstances or by behaving similarly or differently

    Stock characters -- (Wilson, p. 316). exemplify one particular characteristic, as in commedia dell' arte (Wilson, p. 316).

    Type -- a character who is larger than life -- as opposed to a "real" or life-like individual [Sporre, 95].

    The idea, theme ("the me") of the play.
    It is often allegorical or symbolic sometimes direct, sometimes indirect.
    Plays may often be written about an idea, but the playwright will probably focus more on plot and character to get idea across -- plays are seldom about an idea.

    In production, directors seldom try to direct the idea--it is the other values that will get the idea across (tho' sometimes the idea will not be obvious / overt).

    Language is used to:
    depart information, reveal characters, characterize, direct attention, reveal themes and ideas establish mood / tone, establish tempo / rhythm appropriate to character (again, "decorum" had nobility speak poetry, peasants speaking prose).
    5. MUSIC / SONG:
    The sound of the dialog, etc. musicality, rhythm, pace, etc. helps establish mood, characterize, lend variety, pleasurable.
    The most immediate element
    --appropriate and distinctive (but perhaps least important for the "drama / play").