Composers and their stage works 

The Bacchae

(Bakchai; Bacchae, 405 B.C.)



Tragedy, first performed after Euripides's death.

The prologue is spoken by the god Dionysus, who, disguised as a man, has come to Thebes to punish the sisters of his mother Semele for declaring that she had been united not with Zeus but with a mortal and to introduce his worship to the city. This new cult is fiercely opposed by the rash young Pentheus, King of Thebes, who deplores the orgiastic rites adopted by the bacchants, the women who worship the new god. Despite the warnings of his grandfather Cadmus and the seer Tiresias, who urge him not to oppose forces beyond his understanding and who themselves worship Dionysus mainly to be on the safe side, Pentheus resolves to arrest a Dionysian missionary (Dionysus in disguise). He questions him when he is brought before him and has him imprisoned. Dionysus is then heard from within his prison summoning fire and earthquake. Suddenly the royal castle is thrown into ruin, and the god escapes. Pentheus, enraged, comes out of the palace (making no mention of its destruction) and is met by a herdsman who relates the revels and miracles performed in the mountains by a band of Theban bacchants, led by Pentheus's own mother, Agave. The young King resolves to put an end to these excesses by the use of armed force.

Dionysus, seeing that no proof of his divinity can convince Pentheus to accept the new cult, hypnotises him with unexpected suddenness and ease. Playing on Pentheus's hidden sexual curiosity, the god convinces him to witness for himself the ecstatic rites of the women, the better to suppress them. But because no man is allowed to observe the bacchants' revels, Pentheus must first disguise himself as a woman. Pentheus agrees and follows Dionysus to the mountains. There, as a result of the god's terrible revenge, Pentheus is mistaken for a lion by the crazed revellers, led by Agave, and torn to pieces. Agave enters, carrying Pentheus's severed head in triumph, followed by Cadmus, who bears the mangled remains of his grandson. Gradually Agave returns to her senses and realises she has killed her own son. In a scene largely destroyed by a gap in the manuscripts, she mourns over her son's broken body. Dionysus appears in the sky, explaining that what has happened was the will of Zeus. He predicts the exile of Cadmus from Thebes and his future acceptance in the land of the blessed. After exchanging farewells with Cadmus, Agave turns away, repudiating the Dionysian religion for its cruelty.