When I was a young actor I was fascinated by the character of Dionysos , the Greek god of wine, madness, sex and death… Oh, and theatre itself. So I decided to write myself a one man show which I performed in the late seventies/ early eighties. The piece was called Dionysos Re-membered about a young man who believed himself to be the reincarnation of the God, the premise being that he had invited the audience to announce his new coming on the world only to be disillusioned and destroyed by the audience’s lack of belief in his assertion. On the one hand it was an imaginary look at a disturbed young man whose illusion crumbles and on the other a look at how we accommodate the wonder and spirit in our lives. It was quite funny in part, and very strange and intense. I had recently been in a production of Equus by Peter Shaffer and was quite depressed by the idea that I felt the power of the boy was ultimately devalued at the end, and wanted to address the balance a little. What I mean there is that the boy’s fantasy of riding an Equine God was not ultimately celebrated enough in the play, even though the psychiatrist who investigates is torn about having to ‘cure’ the boy of his fantasy in order that he might be happier and fit more snugly into society. I am not sure I feel now that Shaffer was so conciliatory to his West End audience, but I did then.
The lure of Dionysos was at the time largely based on the feeling that he represented sexual abandon as a route for social change; something very prevalent in the attitudes of young, particularly gay people, at the time. At the time for instance, very few young people would have supported the idea of marriage, gay or straight, considering it a repressive institution and part of the World of Pentheus.
Thematically I suppose in my piece I was fascinated by exploring the invisible and really giving it its value and not letting the audience believe necessarily that the conventional materialistic way was the only way to experience and have success in the world; that there was stuff going on on a deeper level that we could be aware of if we wanted to be, stuff that would enrich our lives ( and theatre also). It is not surprising that I eventually ended up teaching Michael Chekhov technique which supports and encourages this world view.
So I have always been interested in doing The Bacchae, originally written by Euripides, which tells of Dionysos’ return to Thebes with his wild women to exact his terrible revenge on the materialistic city where he was born but I never found a version of it that satisfied me. I would often pick up translations/versions of The Bacchae and other Greek plays, read a page and then return it to the shelf. I cannot tell you the number of times I have done that. And then I tried to write a version of my own but somehow I never got it finished. It was not until I found the David Greig version that I thought it was time to meet the play.
When you meet Greig’s version you meet the clash of the elements; of wildness and materialism; of convention and chaos; of the intellect and the emotions. The writing is incredibly powerful ; modern and tribal at the same time; on the one hand , poetic and forceful constantly moving forward as the irreconcilable forces of unbridled sexuality , creativity and wildness clash with the forces of order, harshness and repression; on the other, modern, accessible and humorous as Dionysos lures his macho cousin Pentheus to his doom, asking us all sorts of questions about gender and stereotype.
The academic and practitioner Oliver Taplin reminds us that Greek Drama always asks big questions about society; questions that the plays explore in ruthless depth. It shows us what happens when we make bad choices in dilemmas which are sometimes irreconcilable, in unrelenting detail. When I was young I believed, much as I liked the grandeur of these plays, that the horrors were overblown. Now I know such horrors exist for many of the world’s peoples. In fact there are Greek tragedies in every small town. The plays also suggest, there is no ‘free lunch’; there are consequences for everything we do. Taplin also talks about polarities which exist starkly and uncompromising in Greek Drama; love and duty; order and chaos; revenge and acceptance; maleness and femaleness. Polarities are a big plank of Michael Chekhov’s shaping of composition, so in a play, each character has a relationship to certain polarities within a piece, and perhaps that is where his concept was born, in the Theatre of the Greeks.
The play warns us that ignoring the elemental rawness of our lives, of ignoring creativity and having too formal boundaries can only result in doom. That the very determination to set a society in stone prepares it for an inevitable earthquake. It reminds me a lot of the environmental issues surrounding us right now… Are the Maenads not like an avenging Nature ripping the head and limbs from the body of the King of civilisation? It reminds me of the whole clash of experience, intellectual versus instinctive, made much of in Greig’s translation, and something very dear to my heart as a champion of the experiential. But perhaps the trick of working on this play with my students at NUI Galway might be to suggest all these issues but maintain an openness. Certainly for the time being.