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The Politics of Ritual in WoIe Soyinka's The Bacchae of Euripides Robert Baker-White The title page of WoIe Soyinka's adaptation announces a contradiction: The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite.1 Euripides' Bacchae is a play, not a rite. Transforming this classical text from one form of cultural phenomenon into another raises fascinating questions about plays, rites, and The Bacchae, but at the outset Soyinka has made an extravagant claim by labelling the text as Euripides' and then adding the new descriptive tag. This is only the first albeit the single most significant contradiction one encounters in grappling with Soyinka's radical remaking of ancient drama. In his Bacchae, Soyinka employs a wide range of "alternative " theatrical strategies, which range from traditional African ritual to contemporary Western popular performance genres. The popular theatrical forms in question here—gospel singing, music hall, and the May dance, all of which carry associations of "populist art"—combine with ritual aspects of The Bacchae in order explicitly to heighten the play's populist thrust. The aesthetic identities of these populist forms are constituted in part by an impulse toward group-identification and by an attendant loss of sense of self for individual participants within the communal experience of the performance event. Soyinka's appropriation of traditionally popular theatrical forms in his adapted Bacchae blurs the line between what Victor Turner calls "the liminoid" and "the liminal"—between art-works with the potential to criticize cultural phenomena, and instances of the very phenomena about which such works might speak.2 Soyinka is a multi-faceted writer who straddles with considerable agility the worlds of African and Western thought. In this essay, I consider his adaptation of The Bacchae as an example 377 378Comparative Drama of literary drama in the tradition of English translation of Attic texts. I also focus on its reception (or potential reception) by a Western (more specifically British) audience. Sally Price, in Primitive Art in Civilized Places, warns about the moral dangers of Western condescension toward "primitive" or "third-world" aesthetic artifacts. Her book specifically cautions against those who would claim to understand too easily the inherently collectivist pull of "traditionalist" art: "for contemporary historians of art as well as for anthropologists . . . there is a growing recognition of the need for subtlety and caution in describing the delicate interaction between individual creativity and the dictates of tradition."3 This caution is certainly valid in evaluating Soyinka 's appropriation of his own native West African traditions in the text of his Bacchae. Yet although the text contains theatrical forms from a variety of traditional settings, my focus here is primarily on Soyinka's appropriation of relatively modern Western conventions. These conventions form a minor melody that combines with the larger theme of ritual action to produce a harmonic resonance specifically tuned to didactic purposes in Soyinka's adaptation. The characters and plot of Soyinka's Bacchae correspond with a rough equivalence to the Euripidean original. Dionysus comes to Thebes on a mission of evangelical retribution; he enchants his followers and confronts Pentheus; eventually, playing his familiar trick on the young ruler, he extracts revenge by inciting his murder on the slopes of Mt. Kithairon. Significant deviations from the classical text include Soyinka's fashioning of two choruses—the traditional bacchante chorus and a chorus of slaves—and a radically new ending, which culminates in a final image of ritual unity for the Theban community. Soyinka introduces the printed version of his adaptation by claiming a historical connection in ancient Athens between Dionysus and agrarian rhythms, and even more specifically between the new Eastern cult worship and peasant social groups. He calls the Dionysus story a "class-conscious myth." Worship of Dionysus "released the pent-up frustrated energy of all the downtrodden. In challenging the state Mysteries he became champion of the masses against monopolistic repressions of the 'Olympian' priesthood, mercantile princes and other nobility."4 Soyinka is adamant in pressing the relations between the myth and potent forces of social change. He accuses the Marxist classical historian George Thomson of a "distortion" when Thomson argues that ancient ritual provided an "illusion" of equality for its participants. Ac- Robert Baker-White379...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 377-398
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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