The Bacchae (also known as The Bacchantes) is a tragedy by the ancient Greek playwright Euripides. It premiered posthumously at the Dionysia in 406 BC, where it won first prize.
The Dionysus in Euripides' tale is a young, spiteful god, angry that his mortal family, the royal house of Cadmus, has denied him a place of honor as a deity. His mother, Semele, was a mistress of Zeus, and while pregnant, she was killed because she looked upon Zeus. Most of Semele's family, however, including her sister Agave, refuse to believe that Dionysus is the son of Zeus, and the young god is spurned in his home. He has travelled throughout Asia and other foreign lands, gathering a cult of female worshippers (Maenads or Bacchantes), and at the start of the play has returned to take revenge on the house of Cadmus, disguised as a blond stranger. He has driven the women of Thebes, including his aunts, into an ecstatic frenzy, sending them dancing and hunting on Mount Cithaeron, much to the horror of their families. Complicating matters, his cousin, the pompous young king Pentheus, has declared a ban on the worship of Dionysus throughout Thebes.
Dionysus first comes on stage to tell the audience who he is and why he decided to come to Thebes. He explains the story of his birth, how his mother Semele had enamoured the god Zeus, who had come down from Mount Olympus to lay with her. She becomes pregnant with a divine son, however none of her family believe her, thinking she had instead had an illicit relationship. Hera, angry at her husband Zeus' betrayal, comes to Semele and tells her to ask Zeus to reveal himself in his godhead. Semele persuades him and the moment she sees him she is killed, for no-one can see a god in his true shape. In the moment of her death, Hermes swoops down and saves the fetus of Dionysus before he too was burnt. To hide the baby from Hera, Zeus has the fetus sewn up in his thigh until the baby is grown. However, the family of Semele believes that she was killed because she claimed untruthfully to have been visited by a god to exempt herself for her illicit affair. Her sisters Agave, Autonoe, and Ino, and her father, Cadmus, still believe this when Dionysus comes to Thebes. Dionysus must vindicate his mother Semele.
The old men Cadmus and Tiresias, though not under the same spell as the Theban women (who include Cadmus' daughters Ino and Agave, Pentheus' mother, have become enamored of the Bacchic rituals and are about to go out celebrating when Pentheus returns to the city and finds them dressed in festive garb. He scolds them harshly and orders his soldiers to arrest anyone else engaging in Dionysian worship.
The guards return with Dionysus himself, disguised as his priest and the leader of the Asian maenads. Pentheus questions him, still not believing that Dionysus is a god. However, his questions reveal that he his deeply interested in the Dionysiac rites, which the stranger refuses to reveal fully to him. This greatly angers Pentheus, who has Dionysus locked up. However, being a god, he is quickly able to break free and creates more havoc, razing the palace of Pentheus to the ground in a giant earthquake and fire. Word arrives via a herdsman that the Bacchae on Cithaeron are behaving especially strangely and performing incredible feats, putting snakes in their hair in reverie of their god, suckling wild wolves and gazelle, and making wine, milk, honey and water spring up from the ground. He tells that when they tried to capture the women, the women descended on a herd of cows, ripping them to shreds with their bare hands. Those guards who attacked the women were unable to harm them with their weapons, while the women could defeat them with only sticks. Dionysus wishes to punish Pentheus for not worshipping him or paying him libations. He uses Pentheus' clear desire to see the ecstatic women to convince the king to dress as a female Maenad to avoid detection and go to the rites, as is shown in the dialogue:
Stranger: Ah! Would you like to see them in their gatherings upon the mountain?
Pentheus: Very much. Ay, and pay uncounted gold for the pleasure.
Stranger: Why have you conceived so strong a desire?
Pentheus: Though it would pain me to see them drunk with wine-
Stranger: Yet you would like to see them, pain and all.
Dionysus dresses Pentheus as a woman and gives him a thyrsus and fawn skins, then leads him out of the house. Pentheus begins to see double, perceiving two Thebes and two bulls leading him.
The god's vengeance soon turns from mere humiliation to murder. A messenger arrives at the palace to report that once they reached Cithaeron, Pentheus wanted to climb up an evergreen tree to get a better view of the Bacchants. The blonde stranger used magic to bend the tall tree and place the king at its highest branches. However, once he was safely at the top, Dionysus called out to his followers and showed the man sitting atop the tree. This, of course, drove the Bacchants wild, and they tore the trapped Pentheus down and ripped his body apart piece by piece.
After the messenger has relayed this news, Pentheus' mother, Agave, arrives carrying the head of her son which she herself had pulled off. In her possessed state she believed it was the head of a mountain lion; she proudly displays it to her father, eager to show off her successful hunt, and how brave she had been. She is confused when Cadmus does not delight in her trophy, his face contorting in horror. By that time, however, Dionysus' possession is beginning to wear off, and as Cadmus reels from the horror of his grandson's death, Agave slowly realizes what she has done. The family is destroyed, with Agave and her sisters sent into exile. Dionysus, in a final act of revenge, returns briefly to excoriate his family one more time for their impiety. Cadmus and his wife Harmonia are turned into snakes. Tiresias, the old Theban prophet is the only one not to suffer.
Harry Partch composed an opera based on The Bacchae titled Revelation in the Courthouse Park. It was first performed in 1960, and a recording was released in 1987.
Another opera based on The Bacchae, called The Bassarids, was composed in 1965 by Hans Werner Henze. The libretto was by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
Caryl Churchill and David Lan used the play as the basis of their 1986 dance-theatre hybrid A Mouthful of Birds.
The Bacchae 2.1, a theatrical adaptation set in modern times, was written by Chuck Mee and first performed in 1991.
A feature film version was directed by Brad Mays in 2002; it was based on his critically-acclaimed stage production that featured Pentheus' transformation, the orgy and his death as integral parts of the staging. Further opening up the play, the feature film begins with a naked and pregnant Semele begging Zeus to save her.
DIONYSUS: 'It's a wise man's part to practise a smooth-tempered self-control.'
DIONYSUS: 'Your (Pentheus') name points to calamity. It fits you well.'
MESSENGER: 'Dionysus' powers are manifold; he gave to men the vine to cure their sorrows.'
DIONYSUS: 'Can you, a mortal, measure your strength against a god?'