Monday 15 March 2010

I was a teenage Maenad

If the ancient Greeks had invented Asbos, they probably would have slapped a few on the Maenads.

Maenads were female followers of Dionysus, god of wine and ecstasy in ancient Greece, and their name means "raving ones". They liked to get drunk, hold wild parties out on the hills and fields and weren't averse to getting into fights - particularly with any men trying to sneak into these largely women-only events.

I wasn't actually one of them - I'm not quite that old - but I did play the part of a maenad in a school play back when I was a teenager.

I went to a rather old-fashioned all-girls school. It was the kind where pupils were all supposed to wear the correct uniform with school hats, ties and blazers, and you got into trouble if you wore make-up.

It was also the kind of school that tried to instill some sort of classical education on its students. I guess that is how the new, trendy drama teacher managed to persuade the head teacher it was a good idea to put on The Bacchae, by Greek playwright Euripides, as the school's annual play. I'm not quite sure she approved of what unfolded.

But, seeing as my school days obviously took place many years ago, why I am writing about this now?

Well, I saw on the Pagan Calendar that March 15 is the Roman festival called Bacchanalia, celebrating Bacchus, the Roman name for Dionysus. This made me look back at that performance, which possibly more than any other event of my youth taught me that pagan gods are more fun to worship than any other kind.

In Greek mythology, Dionysus was the son of Zeus, King of the Gods, and the mortal princess Semele, of the Theban royal family. Hera, Queen of the Gods, with a long history of not being very charitable about Zeus sleeping around, had Semele killed. However, Zeus rescued the baby Dionysus, who grew to be a powerful god in his own right.

Semele's sister Agave and Agave's son Pentheus believed that Semele had lied about her affair with Zeus and denied that Dionysus was a god.

The play is essentially about how Dionysus gets revenge on the people of Thebes and on Agave and Pentheus for denying him. He arrives in Thebes disguised as a mortal priest of Dionysus with an entourage of maenads and attracts the women of Thebes - including Agave - to join his revellers on the mountainside.

Pentheus, now King of Thebes, is furious. How dare these women leave their wifely and womenly duties and go running about on the hillside, by all accounts enjoying a jolly wild time? He sends his soldiers to capture the women and their priest and throw them in the dungeon.

Dionysus willingly lets himself be captured and tries to persuade Pentheus to call off the troops and come to some peaceful solution. Pentheus will have none of it. He intends executing the priest and driving the women home at the pointy end of his troops' spears.

Dionysus returns to his original plan. Escaping from jail, he frees his followers and uses his powers of the mind to entice Pentheus out onto the hillside alone. Pentheus, it transpires, would secretly love to see what those naughty maenads get up to and Dionysus leads him on, persuading him to hide in the trees as a voyeur.

But that's only the start of it, because not only is Pentheus hidden really badly, Dionysus also uses his powers of illusion to make him look like a mountain lion. The meanads hunt down the poor peeping Tom, believing him to be some dangerous wild animal, and rend him limb from limb with their bare hands.

The play ends in tragedy as Agave, proudly carrying what she thinks is a lion's head back to Thebes, realises her mistake and sees that she has killed her own son. Dionysus reveals himself as a god and sends her and her remaining family into exile.

So what did I find so enthralling about the play?

Well, if you ignore the horrific ending, it is about female empowerment. It is about women throwing off their traditional roles, and the shackles of authority, and enjoying themselves. Even if you don't believe that the maenads had the supernatural strength and magical powers they are portrayed as having, they are plainly doing what they want and being quite capable at it.

But, to me, the play's spiritual message was more than that of feminism, it was that of liberation from entrenched religious views too. This was a play about a young, sexy god who was worshipped with wildness and freedom, with dancing and music, with wine and with ecstasy (the emotion, not the drug, I had never heard of that drug when I was a teenager).

And it was the production itself that did the trick. I was part of the chorus - the maenads themselves. The drama teacher wanted us to see Dionysus more as we might a rock god than some ancient classical deity. He wanted us to shout our lines as though we were at a concert screaming for our idol, putting all the power of our lungs and emotions into it.

When we didn't shout loud enough in the school hall, he took us out onto the sports fields and made us scream enough that people on the far side could make out what we were calling.

We took to this with gusto. We practised every break time in the playground; we shouted our lines from platform to platform at the train station on the way home; we practised in the streets and parks. I think everyone in the area must have been heartily sick of the noise we were making. Certainly the school headmistress made sure no play like that was ever performed again at our school.

But, method acting or not, for that short few weeks, I think all the girls in chorus really did become maenads. And it was a wonderful feeling.
"We laboured for our Lord in many guises;
We toiled, but the toil is as the prize is...
Let the heart keep silence that defies us;
For I sing this day to Dionysus
The song that is appointed from of old."
The Bacchae and Other Plays (Penguin Classics) pictured above is available from Amazon. The picture above of Dionysus and the Maenads, 1901. from Heritage-Images is also available from Amazon.


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