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  • Writer's pictureThe Blue and White Magazine

Euripides, Revisited

Rethinking Greek tragedy in “Bacchae: The Immersive Experience.”

By George Murphy



Illustration by Derin Ogutcu


It is twilight, and a party is underway. Elaborately dressed revelers howl and shriek, dancers gyrate to pulsating rhythms, and copious amounts of alcohol are consumed. But while this may resemble the average Columbian’s Friday night, it’s something very different—a scene from Euripides’ Bacchae, a fifth-century Athenian tragedy recently performed at the Glicker-Milstein Theater under the direction of Barnard alumna Izzy Bohn, BC ’23. I first read Bacchae last semester in Professor Nancy Workman’s Literature Humanities class, and I fell in love with it. Loving a play that you’ve never seen, however, is a dangerous game. As I was about to find out, there are some things that can only really be understood on the stage. 


A slight yet extraordinary play, Bacchae contains moments of both unearthly beauty and bloodcurdling terror, often at the same time. Its plot is relatively simple: The god Dionysus is angry at Pentheus, King of Thebes, so he makes the women of Thebes go mad and join his Bacchic cult. When Dionysus arrives in Thebes in disguise, asking for permission to spread his cult of worship, Pentheus promptly imprisons him. To exact revenge, Dionysus convinces Pentheus to spy on the women as they engage in cultic worship—Pentheus is caught, and he is torn to pieces by his own mother, Agaue. End scene! Needless to say, translating Bacchae to the modern stage is no small task. So when a friend of mine, the play’s stage manager, told me about the Columbia Performing Arts League’s new production, which reworked the play in the context of a modern nightclub, I was excited to see what they would do with it.


When I arrived at the theater, it quickly became clear that the play had been billed as an “immersive experience” for a reason. I was given a green glow-stick necklace to signal to the actors that they could interact with me, led into the theater by an usher dressed as a bouncer, and handed a glittery fluorescent-blue mocktail by an actor-cum-bartender. 2000’s pop hits soon gave way to the action, and I found myself torn in two directions. On the one hand, I was impressed by the production’s zany set and engaging blocking, not to mention many compelling acting performances. Kai Joseph, CC ’26, played Pentheus with sinister aplomb, while Eden Johnson, CC ’25, gave the role of Agaue a startling gravity and depth. 


At the same time, however, I struggled to recognize the Bacchae that I had read and loved in class. For one thing, I hadn’t thought of the play as particularly funny when I read it, but in the Columbia production, gags took center stage. I also found the depiction of Pentheus and Agaue’s relationship somewhat uncompelling, due to the incorporation of some new lines in the script which make Agaue more sympathetic at the expense of turning Pentheus into a horrifying, mother-abusing monster. Joseph’s villainous portrayal of Pentheus was so successful that by the time he was swarmed by the chorus in the play’s climax (with papier-mâché body parts flying into the air), it was difficult to have any sympathy for him whatsoever. 


A few days later, I sat down with Workman. Right away, she disabused me of the notion that Bacchae is exclusively a tragedy. “Comedy is absolutely baked into the play,” she told me. Talking about Dionysus, she noted that “for him, all the events in the play are comic.” In fact, as it was originally staged, the actor playing Dionysus would have worn the smiling mask that’s now a symbol of comedy. Talking to Bohn further convinced me that the play’s comedic elements had emerged from the text itself. “There was no intentional thought that we needed to play up the funny parts,” she explained. “It just naturally happened.” She herself saw it as “the saddest play in the world,” and it was only through directing it that she realized that it was “deeply hilarious too.”


Speaking with Bohn also made me more sympathetic to her approach to Pentheus—I agreed with her that the role of Agaue had been unfairly glossed over in the past, and that modern productions of the play should try to do her character justice. Yet I still wasn’t quite convinced that turning Pentheus into an abusive and antagonistic cad was the right directorial choice, given the ambiguity of his role in the play’s text. 


Regardless of textual quibbles, I think that in performing Bacchae on a college campus, Bohn and her team did essential work. As Workman told me, “Most people have had some kind of Dionysiac experience, maybe or even especially at age eighteen.” College, as we all know, is a morass of ecstatic experiences, unorthodox gender politics, and moments of unmitigated terror. It makes sense, then, that in reading and performing Bacchae we see reflections of ourselves. In those sublime moments of self-recognition, past and present become one and we all want to dance for the god.


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