The Bacchae of Euripides (1973) is a reworking of Euripides’s famous play The Bacchae. In the original play we see that Dionysus, god of the wine, has arrived at Thebes to demand allegiance and to exact revenge on his mother’s family for spreading vile rumours about him. Pentheus, the king of Thebes and Dionysus’s cousin, does not acknowledge Dionysus’s divinity and sees his entry into Thebes as the flouting of his authority. Dionysus’s followers, who are called the Maenads or the Bacchae, are women who have given themselves over to the new order of Dionysus and have left their homes to follow him. Pentheus is determined to wage war against Dionysus and re-assert his authority, but Dionysus manipulates his intentions so that he decides to go and spy on the activities of the Bacchae. Dressed up as one of the Bacchae, Pentheus goes out of the palace, oblivious of the fact that he is about to meet his doom. Wole Soyinka reworks this play in the context of the Nigerian civil unrest.
Soyinka paints a very vivid picture of the oppression and brutality that is the portion of the slaves in Thebes – the leader of the slaves is a black man who sings in the ‘hollering’ style. Soyinka uses the Classical tragedy as an allegory of the contemporary situation. The chorus of slaves is made up of rebels who want to overturn the prevalent order at any cost and also people who are not strong enough to openly defy authority. Thus, his chorus is not the chorus of Classical tragedy since it does not speak in a unanimous voice. Through the play Soyinka analyzes the social, religious and economic conditions of contemporary Nigerian society.
The most striking element in the play is the fusion of African oral and musical traditions with English. Also, I must say that the text of the play seems a little incomplete in itself – the music, the dance and the spectacle are so important that the mere reading of the play seems insufficient. At the same time this play is a must read for its valuable insight into strife, rebellion and, most importantly, sacrifice.
Whenever I hear the word ‘sacrifice’ I am somehow reminded of this play. The idea of sacrifice is as important to the Nigerians as it was to the Greeks or as it is to Indians. The strong conviction that something must perish in order to give way to regeneration is perhaps common to people of all ages and all races. The old and oppressive order must be overthrown to make way for the establishment of the glorious new order that has given new hope to the people with the promise of freedom. The people are ready to sacrifice all that is familiar in order to embrace this promise of the new. The play is extremely powerful because it pulls its readers into this overwhelming feeling, but at the same time allows them to question all its ideas.
Book Reviewed by Amrita Dutta
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