Euripides (480-406 B.C.) was a misunderstood genius. He is said to be the author of around 92 plays, but he only won the big theatrical competition at the festival Dionysus five times. His final win was for his undisputed classic, The Bacchae. Unfortunately, Euripides didn't get to enjoy this final triumph. Being dead kind of got in the way. His son ended up directing the play for his deceased father. To add insult to injury, Euripides died by being ripped apart by a pack of wild Macedonian dogs, or at least that's what some people say. It would be a pretty ironic ending for the playwright, considering all the dismembering and body ripping that goes on in The Bacchae, one of the last plays he wrote before he died. Some scholars say that this grisly story of his death is fictional. We hope they're right. Euripides deserved better.
Poor Euripides was always getting picked on. Aristophanes lampooned him mercilessly. The comic playwright made fun of Euripides's use of language and his characters' tendency to spout the new fangled philosophies of Socrates. Like his buddy Socrates, Euripides's ideas were hard for mainstream Athens to swallow. This was due in part to his progressive ideas. He was anti-war, sympathetic to slaves and women, and so critical of traditional religion that many believed him to be an atheist. Athens, while being in general much more "enlightened" than may places, just wasn't ready for these "liberal" ideas.
Euripides was known to be kind of a loner. He spent most of his time writing in a cave on the island of Salamis. Eventually the lack of appreciation for his work and his disgust with Athenian politics (especially the destructive Peloponnesian war) may well have been what drove Euripides to leave Athens. He spent the last months of his life in the court of the King of Macedonia, where he proved them all wrong by penning his undisputed classic, The Bacchae, and perhaps met a pack of dogs with a taste for playwrights.
In Poetics Aristotle rates Euripides as much lesser tragedian than Sophocles, pointing out Euripides's haphazard plots and un-heroic heroes. Sometimes these criticisms are true, but we wonder if Aristotle ever stopped to think that Euripides had another agenda all together. While his rival Sophocles was towing the traditional line, Euripides was busy inventing entirely new genres. In retrospect, we can see that it wasn't necessarily that Euripides didn't know how to write a traditional tragedy; he was just dissatisfied with the form altogether.
Euripides's loosely plotted plays with happy endings created the genre of romance. His focus on the emotional lives of his characters along with his comparatively natural sounding dialogue foreshadowed by thousands of years the creation of modern realism. By blending comic elements with tragic, Euripides basically created tragicomedy. In The Bacchae, for example there are all kinds of funny moments. We're pretty sure Pentheus prancing around in lady's clothes got a few chuckles, even though the audience would have been well aware that he was about to be ripped limb from limb by his own mother. This blending of the humorous and horrific was revolutionary.
When The Bacchae got its Athenian debut, we bet everybody way back in 405 B.C. was like, "Hey, why didn't we pay more attention to this guy?" Sophocles definitely gave Euripides some respect. In honor of his deceased rival, Sophocles dressed the Chorus of his own play in black. If there is a Hades, we hope Euripides can look up and see that history has vindicated him. More of his plays are extant (still around) than any other ancient Greek playwright. Euripides is now known as one of the greatest and most innovative playwrights to ever walk the Earth. We're glad the man has finally gotten his due – he was basically a one man dramatic revolution.
If you want to learn more about Euripides and his work, check out TheatreHistory.com.
Why Should I Care?
Have you ever had trouble letting loose? You should talk to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and revelry. We wonder what songs Dionysus sings in the shower. Maybe he's into a little Beastie Boys – "You got to fight for your right to party!" Perhaps he's more into Kiss – "I wanna rock and roll all night and party every day!" We're positive he bobs his head to some Nelly every once in a while – "It's gettin' hot in here. So take off all your clothes." What we're trying to get across here is that this guy really likes to throw down. It's his job after all. Boy, does he do it well in The Bacchae. He inspires every single woman in Thebes to throw a big dance party in the woods.
Of course, the revelries that Dionysus inspires in The Bacchae are much different than your average party. Dionysus's followers don't just party for partying's sake. Their wild gatherings are sacred rituals. With the acceptance of Dionysus into their pantheon of gods, the Greeks recognized the importance of such events. They recognized that society must create an outlet for release. If we as humans don't build in time to let loose, to get a little crazy once in a while, all that control can build up in negative ways.
On other hand, the play also shows the dark side such festivities can create. Dionysus rituals get totally out of hand. The participants get so wrapped up in his wildness that horrible violence results. It seems to us that this struggle to find the balance between control and release is one that will never leave human society, making the play just as timely today as it was when it was first written.