It’s really all Winckelmann’s fault. Here we sit, nearly a quarter-millennium after the 18th-century German scholar’s death, and we still haven’t worked out a convention for bringing the chorus of a Greek tragedy to life onstage. Here is JoAnne Akalaitis, a director celebrated for her work with ultra-modern European playwrights; here is her production of Euripides’ The Bacchae in Central Park, on a sleekly curved, ultra-modern set by John Conklin.
And here is her chorus—the vitally important Euripidean chorus of wild women, foreign to Thebes, worshippers following the trail of a strange new god. Who are they? The same nice girls in uniform costumes, this time orangey-pink lawn-party dresses by Kaye Voyce, evocative of some quaint spring ritual on a 1930s Seven Sisters campus. Here they come, chanting in unison, more or less comprehensibly, to quasi-recitativo phrases by Philip Glass, making gracefully unison minimalist motions choreographed by David Neumann. And it all looks exactly like what Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–1768) said it should look like, and what two and a half centuries’ worth of earnest academicians have striven to make it look like: noble antiquity, possessing the grave stillness of the best ancient vase paintings. And not a half-second’s worth of beauty, reality, poetry, drama, or truth.
The Chorus has an especially significant role in The Bacchae because its members are the onstage representatives of the force with which the play’s characters are struggling. Dionysus, or Bacchus, is a bastard demigod, the product of Zeus’s fling with Semele, a princess of Thebes’s royal house. According to the standard legend, Semele demanded to see her lover’s true godlike glory, and was burnt to a crisp by the fire of his presence; Zeus rescued the child she was carrying by scooping a hollow for it in his thigh. Twice-born, of male and female, Dionysus is notoriously ambisexual, the god of polymorphous perversity as well as of wine—celebrated often in the text as the one sure solace for human misery. Even more important, he’s the god of theater, as every ancient Greek playgoer knew. Euripides leaves this second gift unmentioned; his play is its embodiment.
Dionysus here has come home to Thebes, his mother’s city, to claim his birthright and demand worship. The Thebans are divided over whether or not to accept this new god. Euripides, an aficionado of the double-think school of philosophers known as the Sophists, gleefully supplies all the alternative versions by which Greek doubters debunked their myths: Semele was just a slut who invented the affair with Zeus as an excuse for her pregnancy and then immolated herself out of shame; Zeus didn’t carry the unborn child in his thigh, but hid it under his cloak to prevent his jealous wife dashing it to bits; and so on. Under the myth, basic human struggles lie buried: instinct vs. reason, belief vs. unbelief, welcome of foreigners vs. suspicion, social organization vs. anarchy, gender roles vs. fluidity. Where human relations are concerned, you can find almost any moral you want to find in The Bacchae.
Dionysus (Jonathan Groff) believes in his godhead—though Euripides uses him, significantly, to tell us all the debunking versions. His Theban relatives make up a spectrum of opinions on the subject. His cousin, Pentheus (Anthony Mackie), King of Thebes, doesn’t believe at all. Pentheus’s mother, Agave (Joan MacIntosh), has refused to believe but, driven mad by Dionysus, is now up on the hills outside the town worshipping him madly. Agave’s father, the retired King Cadmus (George Bartenieff), doesn’t particularly believe, but worships anyway because the new god’s Theban origins bring the town glory and possible tourism. Teiresias (André De Shields), the city’s resident prophet, believes unreservedly.
The new god’s female worshippers, we’re told, get violent only when attacked or when their sacred rituals are spied upon. Euripides hints, chauvinistically, that it’s not always easy to know when a woman is performing a sacred ritual. Though the bacchants appear to live in a state of harmony with nature and wild animals, they’re also capable of turning at a moment into ferocious hunters with the strength to tear cattle apart. Their sacred songs and dances are a very big deal to them: The word “dance” probably occurs more times in The Bacchae than in any other Greek tragedy. Hence the importance of the Chorus: If their onstage behavior doesn’t embody the worship of Dionysus in ways that seem both believably ecstatic and beautiful, all we know of Bacchic ritual is the reported behavior of the Theban women offstage, which starts to suggest killer Amazons in a splatter film as the play rolls toward its appalling climax.
Solving the problem of what to do with a Greek chorus isn’t easy—it has been one of our theater’s central challenges for over half a century. Reducing the choric presence to pure music or pure dance erases the poetic substance that the choral odes contain; chanting or rhythmic speech, which preserve the verbal substance when well handled, tend to reduce the Chorus’s physical presence to stasis. There have been triumphant partial solutions: Milhaud’s Les Choéphores, Graham’s Night Journey, Mnouchkine’s Les Atrides, Breuer and Telson’s The Gospel at Colonus are among those burned into my brain. Akalaitis’s Park production distresses because she seems, for all the graceful touches Glass and Neumann provide, not to have sought actively for any solution beyond Winckelmann, slightly updated.
And the lack of seeking extends, dishearteningly, into her work with the principals. Groff, so wonderful elsewhere at tracing the nuances of neurasthenic perplexity, seems utterly devoid of godly assurance; Mackie, sharp and forceful, gives barely a hint of the undercurrents stirring in Pentheus. The others, all redoubtable artists, fulfill expectations mechanically. The show’s one triumph, in acting terms, is the long solo that Akalaitis has wisely left undecorated, sculpting it purely out of the actor’s face and voice: Rocco Sisto’s lament, as the messenger who describes Pentheus’s hideous death. Nothing before or after this moment of devastating horror, which is also a moment of pure theatrical bliss, has the grip that The Bacchae, 2,500 years after its first performance, should and can still offer its audiences.