Bacchae: "an excessively high price to pay for being reluctant to emerge from the closet"?

Ruffell, I. (2022) Bacchae: "an excessively high price to pay for being reluctant to emerge from the closet"? In: Olsen, S. and Telò, M. (eds.) Queer Euripides: Re-Readings in Greek Tragedy. Bloomsbury Academic: London, pp. 239-248. ISBN 9781350249622

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In his review of the National Theatre of Scotland's 2007 production of the Bacchae, Guardian critic Michael Billington, while praising the showmanship of the production, objected at length to its gleeful engagement with sexuality and gender, its elements of camp and its use of humour. True tragic sensibility, he argued, only arrived with Agave's recognition of her dismembered son. Unable to reconcile the traumatic outcome of the production with its earlier style and content, Billington's comments betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the play, and, furthermore, suggest that a queer reading of the play is necessarily to trivialize it. Yet, although such a stance in some respects seems out of step with the scholarship on the play—there have, after all, been many treatments of the transgressive nature of Dionysus and of Pentheus' fate in the play, not least in relation to gender—it is in others reminiscent of the swerves and unease displayed by most interpretations of the play. Thus it has been argued that the play is not really about gender or identity at all, or is about theatricality and spectating but not identity, or is about democracy, or makes the concern with gender and identity purely abstract (either in social or ritual terms), or aporetic, or even monstrous. There is still a reluctance to engage in psychological readings of Greek tragedy, and it is not surprising that many psychological (and particularly psychoanalytic) readings ofBacchae have been unconvincing when one considers the historical problems of these discourses with transgressive expression of gender identity or of sexuality. By contrast, this paper puts issues of gender and identity centre-stage, and argues specifically that the the play can and should be read as a foundational exploration of trans identities and experience. The play explores multiple modes of engagement with Dionysiac experience and in particular cross-gender roles and behaviour, but in the majority of cases these are neither genuine (Cadmus), voluntary (the women of Thebes) or acknowledged (Pentheus). The compulsion narrative that the play famously arrives at is one that is familiar cross-culturally in fiction on trans themes, but the set-up combines on the one hand Pentheus' attempt to sustain an aggressive masculinity, expressed both through violence and an obsessive but essentially fantastic heteronormativity, and on the other extensive flirtation between Pentheus and Dionysus. The fascination of Pentheus with the Lydian stranger hovers between a desire for the god or a desire to be the god, above all in gendered terms. Dionysus, then, is not only deluding Pentheus and forcing him to suffer humiliation but also giving him exactly what he wants. And yet Pentheus still struggles to maintain a grip on masculinity and power; he is never fully able to step apart from it. Disaster and pitiless judgment follow. One Theban escapes this calamity—Teiresias. The unconscious of this play is the story of the multiple transitions of the blind prophet, who has lived as both man and woman. It is thus no surprise that he is the one character to accept fully the blend of masculine and feminine that is embodied in the Dionysus of this play. The play thus demonstrates the importance of coming to terms with trans identity and of acknowledging it personally and socially. Such an analysis uses modern categories, and to that extent is anachronistic, but actually resolves many of the problems of the play when seen in its historical context. Given the extent to which the current political pushback on trans rights involves an attempt to erase or deny trans history, it needs stressing that this is not, in fact, to read against the grain. Rather, Bacchae represents one landmark in a long history of attempts to embrace alternative forms of gender expression.

Item Type:Book Sections
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:Ruffell, Professor Isabel
Authors: Ruffell, I.
College/School:College of Arts > School of Humanities > Classics
Publisher:Bloomsbury Academic

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