In the Dramaturg's Room:
The Bacchae in Conversation
with jennifer buckley, sarah gazdowicz, and laura moser
moderated by rob silverman ascher
In the fall of 2022, a production of The Bacchae: A Tragedy in One Act took the stage at David Thayer Theatre on the University of Iowa campus. An adaptation of the classic play by Euripides, The Bacchae: A Tragedy in One Act was devised by the British troupe Kneehigh Theatre Company in the early 2000s and retells the ancient Greek story of the god Dionysus' return to his homeland of Thebes. To help contextualize the many layers of the show—the original Greek play, its modern adaptation, and this latest production—for the audience and larger community, dramaturg Rob Silverman Ascher organized a talkback session to delve into questions about translation and adaptation, and what we stand to gain from returning to the classics in creative practice. What follows is a transcript of that conversation.
Rob Silverman Ascher: Welcome, everyone, and thank you for coming to this critical conversation on the Bacchae. My name is Rob Silverman Ascher, I am a third-year MFA candidate at the University of Iowa; I was also the dramaturg for The Bacchae. Central to the dramaturgy process, or at least my dramaturgy process, is contextualizing a show for its audience, and that is what we seek to do with this panel. I wanted to provide a space for those who have already seen the show, and those yet to see it, to dive a little deeper. Hopefully, your experience of the show, whether you’re seeing it tonight or you saw it last week, can be reframed and adjusted with a little bit of context. So, without further ado, I’d like to introduce our panel: Sarah Gazdowicz is a third-year directing MFA candidate and director of The Bacchae; Dr. Jen Buckley is Associate Professor in the English and Theater Arts Departments at the University of Iowa; and Laura Moser is an interdisciplinary PhD student who teaches in the UI Classics Department. Welcome, everyone.
What is unique about this particular production is that we’re not just doing an English translation of the Bacchae. We are doing an adaptation written more recently—altered, changed—so our discussion today is going to make stops at the various contexts that this production inhabits. I figured we’d start all the way at the beginning, going back to ancient Greece. The Bacchae was originally performed as an entry in the City Dionysia, and was written to glorify Dionysus. Laura, can you give us a concept of the importance of the City Dionysia in everyday Greek life?
Laura Moser: I can definitely try to do that. So, for anybody who’s not familiar, the City Dionysia is the name of an annual festival held in honor of the god Dionysus in ancient Athens (whenever we talk about Athenian drama we’re usually talking about the fifth century BCE, because that’s the period from which we have surviving plays). This festival was a way for the citizen body of Athens to show their devotion to the god Dionysus, who I think now is mostly famous for being the god of drinking and carousal and drunkenness—which is totally fair! Because that is what he represents as the god of wine; but we can also complicate that image of him a little bit, in part because of his important associations with theater, with performance, and with what it means to sort of stand outside yourself (which is related to but extends beyond the idea of that sobriety/drunkenness dichotomy), and the idea of being someone outside of yourself, and the kind of inherent duality and contradiction that we experience in human life. So, the City Dionysia was a space, in part, to worship the god through the act of theater. And one of the biggest features of how, over days of festivals and parades and processions and sacrifices, they would honor him was a big theatrical contest, where major tragedians would each produce a “cycle” of their work (usually three tragedies and a more lighthearted play known as a satyr play), and then jurors would be chosen from among the citizen body to vote on their favorite one—the best one.
So, that was the context of the play’s original performance, and actually the Bacchae is kind of interesting because it’s one of the later plays that survive from this period, and it was performed the year after its playwright, Euripides, died. And it won! So, we know at least that it had a big impact on the audience, its first audience, when it premiered in 405 BCE, and that people really responded strongly to it, and that it was in the context of a beloved artist no longer being with the community.
RSA: And the City Dionysia itself was a several-day occurrence; it started with a parade carrying giant phalloi, and it concluded with a ritual sacrifice of a bull on the stage of the theater, and then the plays began. So, it was a full community thing; it was not just a season of plays. It was very concentrated. Another interesting thing, also talking about the posthumous performance of the Bacchae, is that some scholarship (and this has been contested) says that Euripides died in exile in Macedonia—and he was known to be a bit of a skeptic, an element that makes the devotional element to the play a little complicated, based on this history.
LM: Yeah, that’s a really interesting point. The Bacchae is one of the plays that people look to when thinking about Euripides’ relationship with the divine, and the power of the gods, because Dionysus is this very formidable and complicated character within it. And I think one of the features of the play that makes it unique is the fact that Dionysus plays such a major role in it, which just isn’t the case for most of the surviving plays we have. Sometimes the gods will show up for a little while, sometimes they’ll show up in the end as a deus ex machina (that’s where that term comes from!), but usually they’re not the main character of a play in that same sort of way. So, I think it’s true that theorists have these different ideas about what Euripides’ stance was on the relationship between the mortal and the divine, and some readers look to the play (even though it’s so late in the tradition of what we have) as actually hearkening back to an earlier traditional view of tragedy as born out of this Dionysus-centric worship, because he plays such a big role. I think it complicates how we understand how people could have reconciled divine power with their own lives.
RSA: And that actually brings me to my next question. In this play, we witness the ascension of a demigod to a god, with the help of a cult of independent women. It’s something that Sarah and I talked quite a bit about in the process, and a big question is: what was (and/or is) the revolutionary potential of empowered common women? I’d like to bring that to the panel in a theatrical context and a historical context.
Dr. Jen Buckley: Well, it’s worth pointing out that even in what feels like the morass of COVID time we are not long past the centenary of women’s suffrage in the US, which was the result of decades and decades and decades of everyday work by common women eventually achieving the legislative goal. At the forefront of my mind right now is Black women’s leadership in the long civil rights movement, starting with Ida B. Wells’ anti-lynching campaign, through the women who co-founded the Black Lives Matter movement, to Tarana Burke’s instigation of the Me Too movement in more recent years. And in every case, we have major social movements that have resulted in maybe not quite as much change or achievement (change, yes; achievement, no) as we would like to see; it has been the result of groups of women, working together, and usually over decades, sometimes across the centuries, across time and space, to achieve common goals.
The application to the Bacchae is an interesting one, right? Because what happens in the play (sorry, spoiler alert!) is that Dionysus uses the revolutionary power of common women who have come together in a collective (in this case it’s a cult) to wreak vengeance on one of its members. And so even though the play in its form for us today presents us with an exciting vision of empowered common (and, in this case, a mix of common and noble) women, the way that works out in the play is not necessarily to these women’s benefit. And yet, one of the things that Kneehigh’s adaptation stresses is the sort of liberation of the body that’s achieved through this communal space of no shame: common women relieved of their bodily shame, their sexual shame, relieved of ageism, and in this communal female world achieving what feels to them like real power. Again, spoiler alert, it goes awry; it gets used—but the play does present us, in this adaptation with a sort of full-throated, in every sense, endorsement of that revolutionary potential. That’s where I might start.
RSA: And Sarah, we talked about how that really sets the stage for Pentheus, being this sheltered young king, very used to his boundaries, which is kind of a creed that he repeats, but he’s faced with this force.
Sarah Gazdowicz: I think it also has to do with the unexpected. What’s interesting about the Kneehigh adaptation is that we start in Pentheus’ world, which is different from the original text, where we have Dionysus come out and say: “Hello, this is who I am, these are my followers, this is what I’m going to do; enjoy the play.” And in this version, you see the—I don’t want to say the adversarial world, but the contrasting world first, which helps set us up to gain a deeper psychological understanding of those characters, especially of Pentheus. For Dionysus' world it is just not something Pentheus understands; it’s so far away from him. Something we emphasize, too, is what the characters connect, in terms of concepts of gender, to what is the masculine and what is the feminine. So, for Pentheus, a king is a masculine concept, and these are the masculine concepts behind kingship. And then for Dionysus, though he’s a man (both in the written adaptation and in this production), his energy is primarily feminine, and that is why with the women—and we talked a lot about this—it is a cycle of energy: they pour their energy into him, and he pours his energy back into them. As Jen said, the text emphasizes so much that it is a choice these women are making, and they literally tell the audience, “This is why I chose to do this,” so you can have no doubt as to the benefits that they gain from following Dionysus. And it’s that collective sharing, that cycle of energy, that eventually allows them to ascend. Even in the end we try to make sure that there’s a clear connection between what the Bacchae offer him and what he offers back to them, even though the dynamics have changed, because the dynamics of what it means to be a god are very different from what it means to be even a powerful leader.
RSA: Laura, would you mind putting in a Greek historical context?
LM: Well, something it’s making me think about is just how much an adaptation of the Bacchae can explore things that are present in the original play but that the original production didn’t—wasn’t able to, or just didn’t—fully confront, which is that question of gender. When we think about ancient Greek drama, I think it’s important to remember that it was put on by and for the citizen body of Athens, which meant free-born citizen males. Women were a group totally excluded—from the creation of tragedy, from (as far as we know) the watching of tragedy, and for sure from the acting in it: the embodiment of the play. So even though Dionysus—as a religious figure, as a god—has all these qualities of duality, including gender (and that’s a big part of the tradition and stories around Dionysus in myth), the play itself and the actual theatrical production, would have been a space where women were excluded.
RSA: Absolutely, and I think one of the strengths of adaptation and translation is the ability to alter and poke at these complications. This particular version of the Bacchae was conceived in 2003 by Kneehigh Theatre Company, a British troupe, specifically Cornish. Jen, can you speak to what the British theater world was like at that moment in time, specifically devised and very physical work?
JB: So, when we think about histories of collective creation and devised performance in the US, we tend to think of the first great wave coming in the 1960s, with collectives like The Living Theater and the Open Theater; in the UK, it could be argued that the 1980s and early 1990s is the golden age of collective creation and devising practice. Kneehigh is one of several companies founded during that era which have gone on to have remarkably productive and long creative lives, even as sometimes the core, and certainly the parameters, of these collectives have changed shape over the decades. So, for Kneehigh, like a number of other devising collective creation groups founded in that period (I’m thinking of a group called Forced Entertainment, which has gone on to have a similarly long and productive creative life), the Cornish part is important, right? Forced Entertainment is formed in Sheffield, way outside the commercial center, the London West End commercial center of British theater. Where even is Cornwall, in comparison to where we think of as the center of gravity, especially for playwright dominated theater, in the West End of London? I mean, far outside the circuits of even something like the Royal Court, where there was at that time, in the late 80s early 90s, another sort of golden age of British playwriting, in people like Mark Ravenhill, Sarah Kane. This is something other than that. And the location of these ensembles, outside the commercial and creative center of gravity of London theater, is important. So, these collectives tend to form around groups of artists committed to a creation practice that draws heavily on the experiences and the interactions of a particular group of people. The ensemble is not just a group; the ensemble is a more or less democratic creative practice. In practice, most of the long lived groups that came out of this wave of devising practice, including Kneehigh and Forced Entertainment (the other ones that come to mind are Complicité, DV8—which is more on the dance theater side—and Frantic Assembly) they end up coalescing around models that have artistic directors, people who keep the process of collective creation moving towards a shared goal, and end up serving as a kind of interface between the group and the public as they become increasingly successful and they start touring. Kneehigh’s process—which was led for a long time by Emma Rice, the artistic director during this really fertile period in their history—involved the company gathering together, moving apart, and gathering back together around a core concept. Sometimes that concept included a text, a play or non-theatrical text, sometimes it was more of an idea or a concept proper. Whether or not the central object around which they were gathering involved text, the ensemble members’ personal thoughts, feelings, experiences, around that object were what ended up informing the devising process. So even if, as with the Bacchae, there is a textual source, that source is always regarded not as an academic object of veneration, but as a sort of reservoir of feeling and experience that the company can move towards and away from together, in a way that produces a work that is distinctly theirs, that is the creation of the ensemble. This is in sharp, sharp, sharp relief from the playwright-dominated practice that still, I think, controls most of the commercial theater in the UK and, arguably, in the US, where the playwright’s text is what grounds, if not controls, the production. And so groups like this that have, over the decades, maintained this devising practice, are often grouped under what’s called Non-Text-Based Theater. And so I think we can argue that Kneehigh’s adaptation of the Bacchae, even though there is a source text (which is itself an adaptation; we’ll talk about that in a little bit!), it is part of this history—now I think becoming aesthetically dominant in the UK—of non-text-based practice, where the collective, often physically-based devising work of the ensemble, is what actually creates the work.
RSA: Absolutely, and thank you for giving this stylistic context, which is really vital for understanding that, when you see this production on stage, what is on the page is maybe a quarter of that. I had that realization during a run towards the end that there’s at least fifteen pages of the script that just has to be made by the director and the creative team; those are thrilling moments.
To revisit these British contexts: looking at the political landscape of England at the time, this is mid-Blair, correct?
JB: Yeah. In the context of ’60s and early ’70s collaborative creation in the US, one could argue those practices are part of a cultural zeitgeist, right? A countercultural zeitgeist of the moment. But in the context of ascendent neoliberalism in the UK and more broadly (what would eventually turn into a sort of resurgence of Toryism in the UK that is, I hope, at or past its apex right now), the move towards ensemble-based production, often outside the financial capital of the UK, the commercial model undergirded by London finance, is a kind of political act. Not every group I mentioned would describe it in that way, but devising practice, non-text-based practice outside of London in the context of rising neoliberalism and the move towards resurgent Toryism—there is a politics to the practice, whether or not the companies themselves would claim any particular position on the political spectrum, as a group or as individuals.
RSA: Yeah, absolutely. And I think there’s you know this early- to mid-2000s world of theater is, I think, just thinking about, for instance—Sarah and I both took Jen’s Modern British Drama course, and thinking about the plays from that era, or that chunk of time even, the early 2000s, there’s a big reckoning with what England is. Jez Butterworth‘s Jerusalem, absolutely top of mind—that is a towering piece of work.
JB: Yeah, I mean of course the British Empire had been in dissolution, most of it achieved through freedom fights won by formerly colonized people, it must be said. But even as the British Empire slowly devolves, the end of the century and the beginning of the 21st century is a moment of intense reckoning about what the UK is, what the UK means, after empire—and that “after” is a very loaded term. And what we’re seeing since 2003, of course, is the movement towards a resurgent white nationalist conception of the UK that led towards Brexit, and the alignment of a sort of new far-right lined up with all the other resurgent far-right movements across Europe. So, that kind of reckoning is ongoing, and what it’s producing for the UK is tremendous political and economic turmoil, all of which is sort of tied to Britain’s realignment of itself in a post-empire world, trying to create empire by other means.
RSA: And I think these questions about what an empire is are very much a part of this text.
So, this play weaves around the kind of interrelated concepts of adaptation and translation. I’d love to hear from each of you about what you find to be the differences between the two; why alter and adapt, as opposed to just translating? Do you adapt while you’re translating? What leads to these different modes of approaching a text?
LM: I’m tempted to start where Jen already took us, which is the point that this text is an adaptation already. That the Bacchae is an original play by Euripides, but it’s drawing on so many sources, and a long tradition that came before it.
JB: Yeah—I mean, especially for classical plays that have survived in the forms that we have them, many of the textual sources we have are not complete, they’re fragmentary, their provenance is unclear, right? The idea that these can be the “master” text dictating the actual production, doesn’t make sense even on a textual level, but yes; for the playwrights themselves who were writing for the City Dionysia, the audience knew the stories that were being told in the plays. The criterion for the success of the play was the manner in which the familiar story was being told. And they’re drawing on mythology, they’re drawing on religious practice, they’re drawing on oral storytelling, they’re drawing together and adapting across various media into a new theatrical performance, which is itself valued in relation to other tellings of the same tale. So the idea that there’s an “original” is just not applicable at all.
LM: I think that’s so important when thinking about modern adaptations of ancient plays, because sometimes the easiest thing to jump to is, “Oh, is it a faithful adaptation, or is it an unfaithful adaptation?”—which is a very original-centric way of looking at what an adaptation is. We can complicate that by reminding ourselves that an original is itself drawn together from so many sources, and unstable, and not one fixed thing; it’s true of all texts, but especially when talking about dramatic texts. I mean, when I assign the Bacchae in my class, I assign it as a text on a page, but even that’s an adaptation of what its true “original” form is; and it’s also a translation, because my students don’t read it in ancient Greek. So, there are these layers of how an original comes to us. An adaptation like Kneehigh’s of course has translation as part of it, too; whether the adapters are looking at existing translations of the play or have more access to the original Greek, they’re still participating in that process and in those layers of interpretation that go into translating, both in the sort of narrowly defined sense of taking a text from one language into another, and in this more expansive sense of re-speaking a text to a new audience and a new context. I think for me it always comes back to this question of, how can we really talk about how “faithful” or not a translation or adaptation is, unless we believe in this kind of illusion or fantasy of a fixed original that came from a single genius? It was interesting to hear Jen talk a little bit about these two modes of theatrical production—this playwright-centric versus a more ensemble, embodied experience—there seems to be a thread, a parallel, coming out there.
JB: In Translation Studies, which is a whole robust and exciting discipline in academic study, and in Adaptation Studies on the literary side, over the past 20 years there’s been a strong pull away from the notion of fidelity, of a pure original source, and much more interest in the process of change, in that which changes. And so even within the academic world (which Emma Rice and Kneehigh have no interest in—I want to make sure to note that, too!), fidelity is no longer the reigning concept. It’s a given that texts, objects of study, language, art forms, move and shift—as they should—as they move from culture to culture. I’ve read and listened to some of Rice’s comments on the process of adaptation, and she says that she actually doesn’t like the word “adaptation.” She is somewhat controversially anti-academic in her practice; she’s like, I honestly don’t care what you scholars think of this; in fact, I’m actively uninterested. What she is interested in, her preferred word, is “storytelling.” And she draws her notion of what we would call adaptation from oral folk culture, from myths, from fairytales, from regional English oral performance cultures, in which the value of a story is the manner in which the individual storyteller is making it new every time, in their voice and in their body. And for her, that’s the practice of adaptation that matters. This got her into some trouble; she had a very brief and tumultuous tenure running the Globe theater in London, and Shakespeareans do not like it when you say, Oh, what’s with this idea of a “pure” text? No such thing, not interested. Shakespeare, whatever! Storytelling! But she’s committed to her practice, and what she and her colleagues have produced—both in Kneehigh and outside of it—I think absolutely justifies this more creative and flexible and ensemble-oriented approach to making new.
SG: Listening to this, I just can’t help but think about another play that was created through devising, a play about storytelling and how storytelling changes, which is Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play. That play is about the fact that stories will inherently change because we change, and our circumstances change. What begins as a story that is connected to a movie called Cape Fear and a show called The Simpsons, and these very standard characters, by the end has nothing to do with either of those things, but is this incredibly important story about the fight between good and evil that we’ve told forever, that people have told forever, and—is it true to the original material? No. Do you have to know the movie Cape Fear in order to understand the jokes? No; at that point, no one cares. It’s got this energy, and it’s told through lighting and mask and music, etc. I think that goes back to the storytelling question: we’ll retain the things that are most important to us, and we will inherently just discard the rest. And is that a bad thing? No! Because in a weird way, I think if stories get too weighed down with what we deem specifically to be important, they will sink. So if you allow them to shed those things, then they’ll survive for longer, and they’ll have more meaning for more people, over a longer period of time. So, I think your question made me think of that immediately— what adaptation or a focus on storytelling can do in terms of a story’s longevity.
RSA: And that kind of connects to something that we talked about in the rehearsal room; downstairs in the lobby there are eleven questions that Sarah and I collaborated on; we called them the “BBQ,” the “Big Bacchae Questions,” and put them up in the rehearsal room, for the cast to just kind of glance at and consider. And one was about how the powers that be will embrace or fold in cultic religion—whether that’s Christ as a radical Hebrew priest, or whether that’s Dionysus as this person on the outskirts of Greek society—how those things become the belief system. And I think what you’re saying about taking and discarding is how we get to where we are now, with any belief system. So I think, linking that back to the Bacchae, and then this storytelling of the Greek text, it’s just very exciting to think about what the people in Kneehigh gathered from the Euripides play and then kind of turned upside down and wrinkled and threw away. That’s what’s so exciting about this text for me, as someone working on it.
Moving on to our next question; Sarah, what was the impetus for this production? This is your thesis production, meant to sum up your time here at the University of Iowa, and sum up who you are as an artist; what was the impetus and what did your research process look like?
SG: It’s interesting, because the impetus always begins with: this is the deadline by which you must present to us five plays, and you go, okay! And this one came up because I’ve always loved Kneehigh’s work, and I find the way that they work and the stories they’re drawn to really interesting, and how they tell them, very compelling. And so I was reading through a collection of the pieces, and this one came up, and I was really intrigued by the fact that there’s this “god-tongue” in the play (which in our play has been translated into Spanish and into Twi, but in the original production was Hungarian). And then, just reading more about what centrally seems to be happening for Dionysus, and it’s a desire for recognition: I’ve come here, and this is what I need from you; I need you to recognize me as your kin, and I need you to recognize me as a god. And if you do that, everything will be fine. And this is what Pentheus refuses to do. He makes references to a madness of women running wild, calling Dionysus a foreigner, this idea of: you are distinctly an “other,” I cannot recognize you, I cannot give you any modicum of power or space. I was really intrigued by this idea that people—all people really want is for you to reflect back at them what they tell you they are, rather than having people decide, This is what I see, and this is how I perceive you, and therefore this is the category in which you must exist. So I feel like the play is really really focused on that idea, and this idea of reclamation, and a desire for Dionysus to reclaim where he came from and who he is—in this really messy history, with a messy family and a messy birth and his mother’s messy death—and it’s horrible. But we tried to make a space for that. So, it prompted me to think about messiness and intersections in my own upbringing, and my own cultural background, and I went in what wound up being a strange direction in terms of research, by delving into my family background. My mother’s from Ecuador, and my father’s family is from Poland; I’ve been to Ecuador several times, but I grew up not speaking Spanish, I grew up divided from that culture in a lot of ways, and my father himself was very divided from Polish culture. So, we went to Poland together this summer, and sometimes you go someplace, and you get there and you realize, Oh, everything is messy, everything is an intersection of so many different histories that clash together over a long period of time. There’s this deep-gut feeling of wanting to fix things, or wanting things to be correct, and for me that research has led me to believe that you have to be happy with the mess, and you have to find peace with the mess for yourself—and that’s it. So I decided that I wanted this production to be about that intersection, through its influences, and through its images, but also be about celebrating the messiness of what it means to be human, all the intersections of the things that people perceive us to be, versus the things that they don’t see on the surface, but that we are underneath. I wanted to try to give that to the actors as well, and for the actors to be able to say, these are the messy parts of myself that not everyone gets to see, and I’m bringing it to this world, and I’m bringing it to these characters. Because we need those spaces to express those parts of ourselves.
RSA: I think this theme of mess, both physical and in the kind of ether around an event, is very much expressed in this joyous raucous chaos that then, you know—the dominoes start falling, and there’s this real shift in tone in the middle of the play. Which I think shows what happens when you’re not comfortable with the mess, how wrong things can go. It’s been amazing watching this piece grow, and identifying the moment where everything hinges, and the turn happens; it’s like being on a roller coaster. Every time I go to a run, and every time I’ve seen a performance, I always get so excited. Because the mess is not being accepted. So, these themes of recognition, and taking people for who they are, are just really exciting—and also the production is good fun at many points, which is also I think part of the Kneehigh.
SG: That is fully the Kneehigh. I feel like I read an article in which they basically said, Oh we like to say that we probably don’t have two degrees to rub between us, but the plays are deeply emotionally intelligent, and they take big risks, and the risks are major tone shifts. We can say, Well, that’s such a large shift, that can only confuse an audience—and it doesn’t. It really guides them towards exactly the kind of emotional story they want to tell. Kneehigh hits the heart first, and then the brain later. They’re very successful at that; that was something I felt like I really discovered in the process, that was built into the script. You’d have to go out of your way to mess that up.
RSA: So, one last question from me, and this is a purposely very broad question, because I want to hear the variety of responses, but: why revisit the classics? Why not just leave them in the dustbin of history? Because, there seems to be a recurring question about this, along the lines of, Why are we doing all these plays by these old dead white men who owned property? And I won’t editorialize, but I think that’s such a bizarre question to come at your theater consumption from.
SG: I have big feelings about this. The reason why I think we come back to classics is because… we just come back to classics. I think sometimes we force ourselves to—and then that’s where things feel inauthentic, or things feel stodgy, or things don’t work. But if you really love something, if it really speaks to you, and you want to bring out the thing that touches you and that you want to give to other people, then that’s a reason to come back to it. Maybe that’s a reason to do the text as it is, and find different threads through one particular approach, or maybe it means you take it and you disassemble it, and you put it back together and you create this new version of the story, you tell it a different way. But if there’s an idea that genuinely means something to you, that you want to say it—and there are plays I feel that way about! I think that I will forever try to figure out a way to do (I’m a Shakespeare lover) Richard II, which is this dense play; through most of it you think, Who is this? What do they want? But there’s something in the fore about this character that the play revolves around that is so moving to me, and I really want to find a way to bring that out of the play, without needing all the other stuff. I want to do it because it speaks to me, and I want to communicate it to other people.
JB: Thank you—that’s really beautiful. I teach a number of introductory drama courses in the English department that have the teaching of classic plays (and sometimes classical plays) baked into the structure of the course, so I have to confront this question every three semesters or so. And I don’t see any necessarily inherent, unchangeable, universal value in the classics—I don’t. In any classics, including classical plays. But to jump off of what Sarah said, one of the things studying the classics and adaptations of the classics with my students has revealed to me over and over again, is that these are plays which, in brutally stark terms, teach us how to live and how to die, together—as a public act: a shared reckoning. And these plays are brutally clear in how they teach us these lessons together and, importantly, in shared public space; from fifth-century Athens to our own time, it’s that shared complicity, that collective being in an audience watching these stories, participating in these stories in some sense, that those lessons move into our bodies and not just our minds. (Some people couldn’t participate—I understand!) And the adapters that go back to these works over and over again, works that might seem to have very little relevance for contemporary audience... I just finished teaching a set of adaptations of a late Medieval morality play that’s filled with Catholic dogma, called Everyman. What could this play possibly offer 21st century playwrights and audiences, especially queer playwrights? Turns out: a lot! These really starkly posed questions of how do we live, and how do we die, in ways that we can stand behind and justify—these plays go at these questions directly, and I think that’s why people come back to them over and over again, even if what they draw out of them is different in different eras.
LM: I love the way you both answered that question—and I love that question, because I think about it all the time as a translator of ancient Greek. And sometimes, I’m not sure that there is an inherent value to it, or that everyone needs to read these classical texts. When it comes to the word “classics” (with a capital C or lowercase c) we have all these assumptions about what that means, and I guess that is why I think they’re worth going back to: because they’re not finished meaning. I think the way that we receive the classics has often been through the interpretations of others. Some of these ancient texts have been translated by people for thousands of years, so we think we know what they mean, but that’s only what they’ve meant to those people. So I think there’s the same reason to reread and retranslate and readapt and retell stories: they’re not finished meaning; they’re not a closed, fixed thing. And I think being participant to the making of their meaning is the best reason to go back to the classics; not because we think they have so much to offer us, but because we have something to offer them.
JB: And in that way, Kneehigh’s adaptation is exemplary. And Sarah’s adaptation of Kneehigh’s adaptation is also exemplary. It’s doing that process.
RSA: I agree—there shouldn’t be one answer, because people are always going to find different threads. And that is, I hope, what comes out of your experience of seeing The Bacchae.