One may find Euripides’ The Bacchae to be an entertaining play, however, I consider it to be insufficient in exploring its characters, especially with the main role of Dionysus. From my limited experience with Greek mythology, there is often a recurring plot line involving unknowing mortals getting caught up in a god’s spiteful plan. This common model matches Dionysus’ appearance in The Bacchae. Granted the play was written with the intention of having actors perform it live, I found the development of Dionysus’ character and storyline lackluster.
Dionysus is first introduced in the Bacchae as a god who seeks revenge on his mother’s city that refuses to recognize him as a god. This is fairly simple characterization for Greek gods as their reputations often include a quick temper and conceited personality. Dionysus remains virtually static throughout the play, with these characteristics. He slyly plots against the doubting King Pentheus, and tricks him into dressing as a woman “Let me see you as a woman, a maenad, a Bacchant on your way to spy…” (Euripides, 151) Thus, leading the king to be attacked by the Bacchant women. Dionysus is likely an interesting character to watch performed on stage, but is a stagnant character on paper.
This could not be less true for Dionysus’ character in Percival Everett’s adaptation of the tragedy in Frenzy. Frenzy begins with listing the various names that Dionysus has, “Dionysus was Bakkos was Ikkahos was Bromius…” (Everett, 1). This invites the reader to immediately note the many layers of the god. This complex characterization continues throughout the book showing unexpected aspects of Dionysus’ character.
Dionysus is one of the twelve Olympians, although his bizarre birth causes him to be seen as an outsider amongst the other gods. The Bacchae mentions that Dionysus had to be sewn into Zeus’ thigh as his mother was killed while she was still pregnant, but Frenzy delves more into detail. Frenzy utilizes new character, Vlepo, to convey Dionysus’ beginning. Vlepo, who serves as his master’s eyes, is shown how Dionysus’ mother, Semele, is tricked by her lover Zeus’ jealous wife Hera and is violently killed, “On the bench where Semele had sat was a pile of ashes…” (Everett, 16). Not only does Frenzy create more detail in recounting the event, it also gives the reader insight about Dionysus’ mother in the process. Frenzy characterizes Semele as a stunningly beautiful and sweet woman. She is innocent—she has never seen her lover in full form and is easily tricked by Hera to do so. By describing his mother and emphasizing the rough start he had entering the world, Frenzy offers more depth to Dionysus’ character.
Dionysus’ morality in Frenzy contrasts with the original character in the Bacchae as well. In Frenzy, Dionysus isn’t portrayed as a villain seeking revenge. It’s as if he returns to Semele’s town to connect with his origin, rather than wreak havoc on the town’s disbelieving people. He still influences the women of the town to escape to the mountains, yet he seems uninterested in their obsession of him. He seems dissatisfied with being a god, yet unable to be truly human or possess human characteristics. He is looking for something to complete him and for what is up to the reader’s interpretation.
I believe Dionysus wants a place to belong.
This craving stems from his coming from both human and Olympian worlds. In Frenzy, Dionysus and Vlepo venture to the underworld to find Semele. Since he bribes the Queen of the Underworld, Persephone, Dionysus is able to locate his mother and bring her back to the living. The issue does not resolve so easily, however, as his mother struggles to recognize Dionysus as her son, “…my eyes have no memory, my heart possess no recollection… My son? You might as well be a column of rising smoke before me.” (Everett, 25) Semele was killed before she was able to give birth to Dionysus, explaining her lack of familiarity with him. Dionysus gives his mother with a new name to protect from Hera’s further wrath, and leaves her in the hands of the goddess Hestia. I assume that Dionysus wanted to set his mother free, expecting to find a piece of himself with her, the same way that adopted children yearn to know their birth parents as if it will give them a glimpse into their identity. However, Dionysus quickly realizes that she cannot give him the belonging that he wants.
Dionysus is a much more complex character in Frenzy than in The Bacchae. In my opinion, this allows for the reader to better understand the actions of Dionysus. I have found that I appreciate Frenzy’s Dionysus more than the original because I can relate to his very human emotion of wanting acceptance.
I am glad to have read The Bacchae, but I am even more glad to have read the expanded version, Frenzy. With Dionysus’ character being more detailed and easier to relate to, I am more interested in the story line. Frenzy adds and changes aspects of the original but all to magnify the original timeless tragedy.