Readings — From the December 2017 issue

God Among Men

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From Bakkhai, a translation by Anne Carson of the play by Euripides. The book was published this month by New Directions. The adaptation was produced in 2015 by the Almeida Theatre in London. Carson is a poet, translator, and essayist. Pentheus is the king of Thebes. Dionysos is the god of wine, fertility, pleasure, madness, and frenzy.

pentheus: Release his hands.
He’s in my net, he won’t escape.
Well,
stranger,
you’re not bad-looking.
Obvious why you appeal to women  — and that’s
your main demographic in Thebes, am I right?
With that long flowing hair I can see you’re no wrestler!
Indoor man, am I right?
Like to keep
your skin white,
out of the daylight,
soft to the touch  — whose touch is it you dream of in those long afternoons, those dim back bedrooms?
But no,
first,
who are you?
Where are you from?

dionysos: That’s easy. You’ve heard of the flowery hills of Tmolos I’m sure.

pentheus: Yes I have. The hills around Sardis.

dionysos: That’s where I’m from. Lydia my homeland.

pentheus: And what about this mystery religion of yours? Where’s that from?

dionysos: From Dionysos, son of Zeus.

pentheus: You have some Zeus who plucks new gods out of the air?

dionysos: The same Zeus who plucked one out of Semele, right here in Thebes.

pentheus: Did he come to you as a dream in the night or in your waking hours?

dionysos: My eyes were wide open. He teaches the mysteries personally.

pentheus: What form do these mysteries take?

dionysos: That’s a secret. Not for the uninitiated.

pentheus: And for the initiated, do they do some good?

dionysos: You cannot know that. But it is worth knowing.

pentheus: Aren’t you a shrewd manager of data! Pricking my curiosity, am I right?

dionysos: The mysteries are serious. They hate a trivializer.

pentheus: You say you saw the god face-to-face. How did he look?

dionysos: However he liked. I don’t control that.

pentheus: You’re cagey, you keep deflecting my questions.

dionysos: Good answers are wasted on a fool.

pentheus: So are we the first place you’ve brought your new daimon?

dionysos: Oh no, people are dancing for Dionysos pretty much everywhere else.

pentheus: Foreigners all lack sense, compared to Greeks.

dionysos: Well, there’s more than one kind of sense. It’s true they enjoy different customs.

pentheus: And are your mysteries performed at night or in the day?

dionysos: Mostly at night. Darkness is serious.

pentheus: Yes it is, seriously corrupting, for women.

dionysos: Can’t corruption be found in daylight too?

pentheus: Oh stop being clever! There’s a penalty for that!

dionysos: Stop being superficial. You slight the god.

pentheus: I can’t believe your arrogance, you casuistical Bakkhic little show-off!

dionysos: And there’s a penalty for that? What? Scare me.

pentheus: First thing would be a crew cut.

dionysos: But my hair is holy, I grew it for the god.

pentheus: Then I’ll put you in jail.

dionysos: The god will let me out.

pentheus: Sure, whenever you call him, I suppose.

dionysos: He’s already here now.

pentheus: Where? I don’t see any god.

dionysos: Right where I am. You don’t see because you aren’t serious.

pentheus [To Guards]: Seize this man! He mocks me! He mocks Thebes!

dionysos: I warn you, don’t do it.

pentheus: I’m the one who gives the orders here.

dionysos: You don’t know what your life is, or what you’re doing, or who you are.

pentheus: I am Pentheus, son of Agave, son of Echion!

dionysos: That is the saddest name I’ve ever heard.

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