Getting Naked to the Classics: Euripides’s “Bakkhai” Performed in the Raw

The above photo is from Dionysus in 69, a stage play of Euripides’s Bakkhai, performed in New York City in 1968. The play garnered a good deal of public controversy for the display of nudity in the performance.

Euripides’s Bakkhai  is, in part, a meditation upon the nature of Dionysian metamorphosis, and the director brilliantly portrays Dionysus, at the beginning of the play, sliding through a birth canal embodied by naked men and women (as shown above).

At the end of Dionysus in 69, Pentheus, a king who does not properly believe in Dionysus’s virgin birth, goes to his death passing in reverse order through the “birth canal.” Here’s one scholar, Froma Zeitlin, on the power of the birth and death scenes:

One of the most striking effects in Schechner’s reworking of Bacchae was the introduction of the so-called ‘birth ritual’ just after the formal opening of the play. . . . This ritual followed the entrance of Dionysus, when he introduced himself to the audience and announced he was about to be born. Modelled after an Asmat rite of passage in New Guinea, the ritual passed Dionysus through a ‘birth canal’ composed of four women in alternating formation with five men. The very same ritual, but in reverse, was matched at the end of the play as a ‘death ritual’ for Pentheus. ‘Now, instead of facing away from Pentheus, the women faced toward him; instead of helping him through, they raised their bloody hands over their heads. Front and back were reversed in this formation in a perfect symmetrical counterpoint with its opposite, and taken together, these two rituals served as unifying elements of the entire play.’ (Dionysus Since 69, Ed. Edith Hall, Oxford 2004)

It has been said that great art is frequently akin to blasphemy and pornography, and Dionysus in 69 is an example of a director who risks bringing eros overtly to the surface, while still managing to control it within the boundaries of a play.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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