Euripides's Bacchae at the Agassiz Theater

An interview with the director, Kathryn Walker, on November 7, 1997.

PoR: How did you become involved with classical tragedy, and in particular, why did you choose to direct the Bacchae?

KW: This is the first play I've directed. I was a student here, at Harvard, and I did graduate work in Celtic Studies. I never had any particular interests in the 'Greek thing', because - even though one obviously read the plays and was impressed - I did not feel any heat coming out of it, that was really drawing me. I think it was because, like a lot of other people, I was put off by this rather rigid, nineteenth-century, traditional - and I suppose essentially British notion - that classics had to do with fleeing, manly, virtue-oriented heroes. The notion of what the classical period was about didn't really seize my attention. I was much more attracted by the sort of wild Irish passions as a student and I left here on a Fulbright and started acting in England. I was an actress for a pretty long time, then I got very tired of being an actress in the professional theater, because it's really quite uninteresting; there is nothing very much to do these days and if you want to do classical things, you're condemned to repertory theaters and provinces, and that didn't appeal to me either. So, I just let it go for a while, except that I've always cared mostly about language and speaking language, rather than acting in that sense, and all of the actors that I've loved and worked with have had that same thing.

And I really loved doing that and I came up here in Cambridge and worked with poets' theater and things like that and I also took up photography which is how I got back to the Bacchae because I take photographs with a very unconventional camera. It's a five dollar Chinese camera, it's sort of one step up from a pinhole, it's just a little plastic camera, and it has a little plastic lens, everything is manual, because I'm interested in taking photography back from this high, technical thing - that's all about film and paper and processing and data - and getting it back to using the emotion in some much more intuitive way just to see what the eye produces on its own. I've been doing that for a while and when I came back from India, where I've traveled with Diana Eck, my old friend, I'd taken a photograph that showed a figure isolated in space. Because my photographs get very blurry, you couldn't tell, if it was looking backwards or forwards and it was just standing in this field of negative space. And I was very interested somehow in the way it looked and I started to think about how I wanted to see these isolated figures, and the more I thought about them they started to have draperies, and they started to have ivy leaves and things. This word then came back to me from freshman art courses or something, the phrase "raving maenad."

So I went and looked it up in the dictionary and realized that these maenads were the devotees of Dionysus and that they are the same figures as the Bacchae. Well, one of the last shows I had done here, as an actress at Harvard, as a graduate actress, was this play, the Bacchae. I had played Agave in it. And I thought this is a strange sort of path to be led onto, so I reread the play. I had also been working on a video project, which was about the millennium; I had interviewed lots and lots of people about the significance of the year 2000, so was very interested in sort of millennial things and the idea of huge forces either coming together or coming apart at the end of this era. And it seemed to me in many ways that obviously this play is a millennial play, because we are seeing so many productions of it happening now and I think we'll see a lot of them before the year 2000.

As I was saying at the symposium1, when we did this play in the seventies here, it was done in a very hip, grim, existential way; it was sort of like "God is dead and we're happy here out by ourselves, you know, tough luck". It was very rock and roll - sort of Mick Jagger as Dionysus - something like "Let Me Introduce Myself." But when I read the play, partially because of my tremendous passion for the East, for India, and for eastern thought - the sort of richness of eastern sensibility and the richness and antiquity of their relations to the universe - I saw a huge amount of that in this play which I had never seen before. I suddenly realized that for me what was really going on in this play was Dionysus coming into a narrow, legalistic, limited, deterministic, manipulative, civic, rigid, controlled context and demanding that the mystery be brought back into that context; furthermore, that the people in that context regain a relationship to the mystery of consciousness, divinity, and the universe. This is not about anarchy, an abandonment of reason, or losing control. I mean those elements are certainly present in the experience of Dionysus, but also present in the experience of Dionysus is this kind of higher requirement to have a relationship with whatever Dionysus represents. He represents the truth about life itself, the implacable, inexhaustible, irresistible power of whatever the life force is. And the closest connection, that I have ever been able to make was in India, with figures like Kali and Shiva in which there is both the creative and the destructive, the dark and the light - and it's all happening at once. And there's no quarter given to rationalism, denial, or limitations. I was struck upon rereading the play as perhaps Euripides's last, final pronouncement of the confrontation with the astonishing fact of whatever this experience of being alive is all about. His intention is to say: "look, whatever it is, however dark it is, however dazzling it is, it's astonishing." And I think he's also saying that it is extremely difficult to approach it directly because you can be obliterated by it. That's certainly an element in this play.

But then he offers us the chorus of adepts, the chorus of Asian maenads, and they tell us what to do with this requirement. And that is to turn it into a kind of alternative language to the language of the polis - of consensus reality and collective communal life - to find another vocabulary to express our being. This is the vocabulary of ritual and poetry and myth and theater and gesture and mask and dance. All of those things across the border break the boundaries, just as Dionysus does, and take us into other dimensions, endowing us with a way to inhabit them through a much more allusive, suggestive, and ineffable language and its set of symbols. So that is what drew me to this play. That's what I hope to do with this production and that's the reason that with choral odes, for example, there is this kind of layering of the voices and meaning, so as to suggest that there are ways of hearing with parts of ourselves other than the linear way of hearing through the ears. You can sometimes hear them clearly and sometimes you can't, but you're in it; you're somehow in the midst of it, you're engulfed by it, and to me, that was the main thing I was trying to get at with this production: that we have other kinds of intelligence that we're not using.

For me, that was the reason to do it at this millennial moment. If we don't start using those other kinds of intelligence, if we don't find a way to integrate them in our lives, in our cities, in our communities, in our ways of being in the world, then we will break in the way Pentheus broke, because I don't think we can live without them. And I think that we're getting there now, especially in American culture. This high, late, corporate thing is so soulless. How can people thrive in it, when they are so manipulated by the market-place in every aspect of their lives. Their thought-process is endlessly invaded by a market-generated manipulation to get them to do something, to be something, or to buy something. There's so little privacy, there's so little contemplation, there's so few places you can go to really connect with that mystery, which is the real truth of our lives. No matter how much science finds out, it doesn't get anywhere close to explaining what we're doing here or why we have these phenomenal brains, and these phenomenal bodies, and this kind of extra element - whatever you choose to call it - our soul.

PoR: Why did you decide to use the translation by C.K.Williams?

KW: I think this is an extraordinary translation by C.K.Williams and the more I worked with it the more extraordinary I found it to be. And the real reason I loved it and continue to love it as much as I do is because of his treatment of the choral odes, which I think is just ravishing. It's so beautiful. And the choral odes were, in some ways, the most important element to me, because I think that if Euripides positions himself anywhere in this play, he does it in those odes. I'm not a classic scholar, so my response to this play is purely intuitive and enthusiastic, as opposed to profoundly informed as Froma [Zeitlin's] or Helene [Foley's] would be. But I think that's a legitimate way to approach the play too. This dark, beautiful, extraordinary masterpiece that's just escaped the net of meaning for centuries now. Nobody can really say what's going on in this play and yet everybody who encounters this play has a sense of being somehow profoundly reminded of something - you can't quite say what it is, but you can't ignore it either. But there's something about being in the presence of it which puts you very close to it, as I was saying in that introduction of the symposium: one really feels that one is seated in this play at the extreme point of religious experience and existential clarity. There's something very, very central and dense going on here, something like a star, or sun, or planet.

This play seems at once to just pull everything down into its darkness, just strip away all meaning; as Froma [Zeitlin] was saying, it doesn't return you to some kind of civic order - as these plays usually do with a catharsis- in order for the ritual, that has been established in the play, to be then useful and productive in a city. This play does not do that; this play ends in desolation. Of course, there are pieces of it missing; so we don't know everything that Dionysus may have said at the end of the play. However, from what we do know, it does - like a black hole - just suck everything into itself. You're left with this sense of everything having been stripped and purged. Gone. But, at the same time, at the other side of that annihilation, quite inexplicably is this sense of a white hole pouring out some kind of radiant, empowering, ineffable energy. You can't say what it is, but you don't come away from this play feeling desolate. You come away from this play feeling somehow a presence or a connection to something - an immanence.

PoR: What do you think of Pentheus?

KW: I think that he has an extraordinary destiny just as Dionysus says he does, because he, of all the characters in the play, actually touches God. He is actually touched by divinity. And I think that in a quite involuntary way he does have a sublime experience. I think that he has pure enlightenment. He sees the god in his essential form. He sees him as a bull. That's a kind of essential epiphany of enormous dimension. He pays for it, because he is not an initiate. He gets there, but he doesn't get back. I feel that what the chorus of Asian women is there for is to show you that you can get there and back. They've been there and back. And they tell you how to do that, they show you that there are these various routes to enlightenment.

PoR: But it's not a "trip", is it? Aren't these routes embedded in the rituals of ordinary everyday life?

KW: On the one hand, they are; on the side of humility, the bacchic experience is embedded in ordinary life. On the other hand, it is a trip on the side of ecstasy. These two sides of the odes, the sides of peace and of violence are written in exactly the same meter. They are inseparable, which means they are inseparable in the gods in some way.

PoR: Could you elaborate on this dual nature of Dionysus? How can peace and violence, two contradictory forces, emanate from the same source?

KW: Well, are they contradictory? That's the question! And Dionysus seems to be reconciling their apparent contradiction in his very being. The reason I have those two figures up on those two chairs [on stage] is that when I was reading the play, I couldn't help but notice that there were these two very different voices speaking in the odes. The one is speaking this gospel of humility and the gospel of the simple life; a very Buddhist gospel, and in some ways, a Hindu gospel. And then that other figure is meant to be a sort of Magna Mater, a figure out of the era of the goddess, which was very intense in Crete. When they decoded Linear B, Dionysus was all over the place in Crete, proving finally that he was not some late-coming barbarian god from the East, who disrupted the manly order of the orthodox Greek pantheon, but, in fact, he was the oldest. And also he's always an effeminate god; he has lots of characteristics that are quite unconventional for the Greek pantheon that I think associate him with much earlier kinds of worship: pre-Hellenic stuff on Crete, goddess worship, and also that sort of Shivite things that came out of India, and apparently were widespread from the Ganges plain to Portugal and England of the Neolithic and Bronze Age. I mean that's the theory of Alain Danielou2 . He thinks that they are the same figure and there is certainly a lot about them that is rather stunningly similar. That old ubiquitous religion that was everywhere before the invasion of the Indo-Europeans and the Aryans. The nomads with their sky Gods and their hierarchical systems brought this new pattern and imposed it on the old pattern, in which the divinity was imminent and probably a goddess - or at least the goddess's figure was largely in it.


PoR: This idea connects with the theme of this year's Point of Reference. We are intrigued by the ways cultures evolve through time like palimpsests of cross-overs, always maintaining the identity of a discrete whole and yet always sharing their parts with disparate others. How do you think the Bacchae fits in this context?

KW: That's very much the point that I wanted to make in this production. This clear-cut division between the classics and Sanskrit studies, for instance, is changing. That material about Shiva and about the dynamics of Hinduism was very new to Froma because we don't have these kinds of scholars yet who can do both. But the days are coming and it is happening now. And I think that once we have scholars who are comfortable in both Greek and the classical world and Sanskrit and the Eastern world, then they shall become able to explore these connections. I think cultural anthropology is really moving in that direction more and more. Anyway, I think classics right now is at a most exciting time. If I had to do it all over again, I think I might do that, because so much is being re-evaluated: these wonderful women scholars who have brought these wonderful new perspectives into the study of these texts. I found them wildly exciting and they confirmed my desire to try to bring some of this perspective into this production. But to answer your question, I do think that all of this is fostering conviviality on a grand-scale between the East and the West. And it is also helping us to realize that the roots go deeper. There's always been this idea that everything started in the West with classical Greece with the fifth century, when, in fact, the roots of what produced this glorious thing in the fifth century are so ancient and so deep and come from so many different sources. This really needs to be acknowledged. And this would be helpful in overcoming this unpleasant, linear chauvinism that we've lived with for so long about what's East and what's West.

PoR: What is for you Euripides's message to our generation? How could this life force inform our worldview today, for example, as regards ecology or religion?

KW: I do think that Dionysus comes out of the 'goddess'. And I do think that the whole idea of the imminence of the deity in the earth is a very ancient and encompassing idea because it isn't just about some sort of beauty or goodness; it's about the whole spectrum of what this earth is about. It's savage, it's glorious, it's tender, it's terrible, it's beautiful, it's frightening, it's dangerous, it's nurturing. It's all of these things, it's not just some of these things. It's alive, basically, in the way that Dionysus is alive. The essential feature of Dionysus is the movement of energy through things; the movement of the sap through the vine, the movement of water everywhere, the movement of blood through the body, the palpitating of the heart. Everything that leaps and moves and spurts and lives and changes; that's what Dionysus is about. So he is very much, I think, associated with the earth. But he's also about what happens next to what comes out of the earth. It's altered, it's changed, it becomes wine, it becomes the human choice in some way. And, in terms of the earth as a living thing, the chorus says that everything that has always been true comes always and ever out of nature. To do what we're doing to this planet is to evoke the wrath of the Mother - sooner or later. It is the same wrath of Dionysus, who is thus dangerous and strikes down those who do not offer him reverence.

PoR: And especially someone like Cadmus, who is a pious liar; surprisingly, he receives a harsh punishment.

KW: And I think that if we go on abusing and being indifferent to this power - this divinity in which we live and away from which we cannot exist, which is the planet itself - we'll pay for it. This is not about a relation to divinity which has to do with perpetuation. This is about a relationship to divinity which has to do with awe and acceptance. It's not about manipulating some jealous 'God' into getting him or her to do what you want. It's about recognizing what the actual terms of life are. And all you have to do is read the paper to find out that we are already starting to feel - as they say in the Chorus - that the first step of the god hardly seems to stir and yet it does stir. And we are starting to see some of the repercussions of our sacrilege towards this planet. There are problems with the atmosphere which are not going to be resolved. And in some way that's the first step of the god or the goddess; we are starting to feel it. As he says in his great distance he hardly seems to stir, but it's stirring now.

And just as Pentheus is given many chances in this play to reconsider, we are still being given chances to reconsider, but whether we will or not remains to be seen. We may just finally become victims of our blindness. I mean, we are being led by robots in many ways: single-minded, profit-driven, narrow . . . robotic systems almost. Baudrillard says that once you set these things in motion, they move forward, they have no direction whatsoever, they are completely without meaning, they are totally out of control; and yet they are relentlessly and - apparently - unstoppably on their way into some future that we haven't even contemplated. We've set them in motion and now they roll. None of us knows what it means. None of us knows why, what it's for - it's just happening. That's the terror of Post-modernism. That is certainly the essential characteristic of the new era.

Another characteristic of the new era is that there is a kind of burgeoning consciousness among a lot of people - you know, all these recondite texts that were hidden for so long are now just globally swamping as a collective intelligence. You can read anything you want; you can read the forbidden texts of every Tibetan system there is. And I do think that's impacting on consciousness in a certain way too. It's just a question of who gets there first. It's just that the robots' toys are bigger and stronger than the fragile toys of consciousness and spirituality. It's scary; it's as scary as this play. We live in an era that is as scary as this play. We live in more or less exactly the terms of this play. We are not at the end of it yet; we are somewhere in the middle. We are Pentheus still; Dionysus is still saying: "We can work this out, friend."

PoR: How do you see this bridge between your life in theater on stage and off-stage?

KW: Well, the theater in ancient Greece was a holy ground; it was the sacred precinct of Dionysus. It was a holy place. It was a place where you were able to cross boundaries from conventional life into zones that were revealing and transforming and empowering. That's what the theater is supposed to be about. I don't think there is a whole lot of that theater left around, but there is some and one has to believe it will come back because I think that it is a basic grammar of human consciousness that people really want. People want ritual, they want to have things revealed to them through illusion and through transformation - people need it as a guide, as a solace in life. I wanted very much for this theater, the Agassiz theater, to feel like a sacred zone. It is indeed a sacred little theater - an awful lot of wonderful stuff has gone on in that beautiful, little, still effectively-unchanged theater. I did want it to be entered by Dionysus and I wrote to C.K.Williams and he liked this. I said, "I really want this audience to feel that they're as much in the presence of Dionysus as they are in the presence of Euripides." I want people to feel the power of divinity, the danger, the beauty, the reality of it.

1 The symposium on the Bacchae took place in the Agassiz Theater on November 4, 1997 as a panel discussion featuring : William Alfred, playwright and Professor Emeritus of Dramatic Literature at Harvard; Diana Eck, Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies at Harvard; Helene Foley, Professor of Classics at Columbia University; and Froma Zeitlin of the Department of Classics at Princeton University.

2 Gods of Love and Ecstasy: the Traditions of Shiva and Dionysus by Alain Danielou published in 1992 by Inner Traditions International: Richmont, Vermont.

Mihalis Boutaris just graduated from Harvard University and is now a graduate student at the University of California at Davis.