Invitation to World Literature
The Bacchae The Bacchae – Expert’s View
Experts' View: The Shock of the Old
An excerpt from The Bacchae, by Euripides
Pentheus and the captured stranger, whom he does not yet know is the god Dionysus
“Pentheus: Untie his hands. We have him in our net. He may be quick, but he cannot escape us now, I think.
So, you are attractive, Stranger. What fair skin you have, you must take care of it. No daylight complexion. No, it comes from the night, when you hunt Aphrodite with your beauty. Now then. Who are you, and from where?”
“We know that this character is the god Dionysus, but Pentheus doesn’t.”
“He takes Dionysus, prisoner in disguise, as a mortal and tries to keep the women under control.”
“What Pentheus brings is suspicion, is just simply an unwillingness to bend. So Pentheus has ordered his men to arrest this effeminate stranger and bring him to be interviewed.”
“That passage is the crux of the entire play in a way. You know, that’s the first encounter between Pentheus the Boy King, and Dionysus the Boy God. Pentheus is kind of very attracted to him. You know, it’s so brilliantly written, because Pentheus says ‘Oh, well, you know, you have this fair complexion like women because, because you’re a creature of the night.’ Euripides is already showing you that Pentheus is obsessed with sex. He’s so fascinated by sex, but he can’t ever admit it.”
“And you think you’re negotiating with a human, but in fact you’re negotiating with something far more powerful.”
“Euripides offers us no simple solutions, no comforting answers, and at the same time it’s a kind of a negative wisdom. Don’t think logic is going to help you here. We have to sort of break through the very structures we put in place that keep the society together.”
“There’s an element of mystery, there’s an element of something which is bigger than ourselves.”
David Damrosch Sums It Up
Euripides’ contemporaries seem to have been both fascinated and unsettled by him—rather as Pentheus is by Dionysus, in fact. In Aristophanes’ comedy The Frogs, staged the year after Euripides’ death, Dionysus himself journeys down to the underworld hoping to revive Euripides, as there are no good playwrights left in Athens. Yet he finds Euripides in heated argument with his great predecessor Aeschylus, who accuses him of having debased his art by focusing on low themes. Euripides proudly replies that he has taught women and slaves to speak, and “to think, to see, to understand, to love, to twist, to connive, to suspect the worst, to overthink all things”—to which his morally upright rival replies that the gods should have cut him in two before he’d done so. His plays are as unsettling today as they were to their first audiences.
Unit 1 The Epic of Gilgamesh
The first known human story is that of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. Images of artifacts from ancient Iraq mix with beautiful illustrations, dance, and costume to tell of the relations between gods and mortals, the search for friendship, love, and immortality. Featured cast members include Assyriologist Ben Foster, comic book illustrator Jim Starlin, and poet and playwright Yusef Komunyakaa.
Unit 2 My Name Is Red
Both an historical novel and a graphic murder mystery set among the miniaturists of the Ottoman court. With its focus on Istambul, a major crossroads of the world, it tells of the artistic/cultural contest between Europe and the East. Cast members include the book's Nobel-prize winning author, Orhan Pamuk, and its English translator, Erdağ Göknar.
Unit 3 The Odyssey
Odysseus must travel the known and unknown world before he can return home to his beloved island kingdom of Ithaca. What does this ancient story say to readers today? In this program, Odysseus's story is given ancient and modern historical and philosophical context, and illustrated with centuries of art. Featured are theater director Mary Zimmerman, actor-director Tim Blake-Nelson, and psychologist/author Jonathan Shay.
Unit 4 The Bacchae
The city of Thebes is torn apart by the conflicting demands of reason and religion, as the disguised god Dionysus returns to his home town demanding to be worshipped. Opposing him is the young king Pentheus, who is doomed to suffer the ultimate punishment for his disbelief. Featured speakers include world-renowned playwright/author Wole Soyinka, actor Alan Cumming, and Daniel Mendelsohn of Bard College.
Unit 5 The Bhagavad Gita
This epic tale of the warrior-prince Arjuna confronting a life-or-death dilemma during civil war presents a unique and powerful philosophy of duty, discipline, and serving a higher purpose. Beautiful illustrations connect the story with its rich history and culture. Featured speakers include Sheldon Pollock, Professor of Sanskrit Studies and acclaimed composer Philip Glass.
Unit 6 The Tale of Genji
This portrait of court life in medieval Japan follows the life and exploits of the great Genji. Written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady of the Japanese court, it provides an insider's view of Japanese court life, the official and behind the screen. Art, clothing, music from the time of the novel illustrate the obserations of authors Jane Smiley and Chiori Miyagawa, among others.
Unit 7 Journey to the West
The powerful and mischievous Stone Monkey King brings chaos to heaven and earth. Freed from a mountain prison in order to guard a Chinese monk on his journey to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures from India, Monkey seeks his own spiritual transformation. Modern performance, contemporary art, and Buddhist philosophers provide a rich context to the ancient tale. Featured cast members include playwright David Henry Huang, storyteller Diane Wolkstein, and translator Professor Anthony Yu.
Unit 8 Popol Vuh
The Mayan book of creation, the dawn of life, and the glories of gods and kings. This magnificent epic was saved from destruction at the hands of the Spanish by Quiché chroniclers. Once repressed, the story is now interwoven with the history of today's Mayan people. Featured speakers include archaeologist Richard Hanson, humorist Mo Rocca, and Guatemalan artist Shuni Giron.
Unit 9 Candide
A satirical novel following the travails of Candide, a hopeless optimist whose faith in his tutor's mantra that his is "the best of all possible worlds" is tested beyond all limits. Voltaire's challenge to the aristocracy of his day proves refreshingly amusing and biting today. Original illustrations, songs, and comic book figures plumb the depths of this satire. Featured speakers include director Harold Ramis, actress Kristin Chenoweth, and cartoonist Chris Ware.
Unit 10 Things Fall Apart
In this foundational modern African novel, Chinua Achebe's story follows the lives of people trying to understand which belief systems deserve their loyalty. The protagonist, Okonkwo is a tribal leader who battles neighboring villages, the English, and his own demons in early colonial Nigeria. The perspectives of readers from around the world reveal the novel's universal themes. Cast members include playwright and professor Tess Onwueme and theater director Chuck Mike.
Unit 11 One Hundred Years of Solitude
Gabriel García Márquez's multigenerational saga of the Buendía family in the isolated town of Macondo inaugurated the boom in Latin American literature in the 1970s and marked the beginning of magical realism. Writer Sandra Cisneros and scholar of Latin American literature, Ilan Stavans lend their thoughts and voices to the discussion of this epic novel.
Unit 12 The God of Small Things
Fraternal twins Rahel and Estha struggle to reclaim their lives after their childhood is destroyed by tragic circumstances. As past and present merge in this narrative of Indian society and politics, the many layers of the caste system are mirrored in the poetic and inventive language of the author. Featured speakers include Simon Gikandi of Princeton University, author Evelyn Ch'ien.
Unit 13 The Thousand and One Nights
Shahrazad must hold the interest of her despotic husband the sultan with nightly tales, lest she lose her life in the morning. This wellspring of storytelling, circulating from medieval Persia to Egypt to Iraq, like its wily raconteur lives on in many modern adaptations. Art, performance, and film images are employed to show the collection's broad span of influence. Featured speakers include Marin Alsop, musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Aly Jetha and Shabnam Rezai, co-producers of the 1001 Nights animated series.