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  • Utopia and Uneven Space in Wole Soyinka's The Bacchae of Euripides
  • Kay Gabriel

The Bacchae is remarkable for its antinomies of time and space. Euripides' play stages a conflict between established regimes—the house of Cadmus, the pantheon of Zeus—and incipient ones, doubly registered in the establishment of Dionysiac rites in Thebes and the entry of Dionysus himself as a new god into the canon of religious worship. These structures and characters become indices for certain forms of social struggle; The Bacchae interrelates them when these struggles come to a point of rupture. The play supplies spatial corollaries for its temporal poles: while the drama is set in Thebes, the chorus of Theban maenads on Cithaeron, Pentheus's plan to lead an attack against them, his departure up the mountainside led by the god in disguise, and the two messenger speeches that report the Bacchic rites all vividly conjure images and narratives of the mountain. These antinomies of space and time pair off in analogic fashion: we may say that Thebes is to Cithaeron as Pentheus is to Dionysus, or as what is relates to what is to come.

What is at stake in adapting The Bacchae at a given conjuncture1 and what elements of the parent text are important in the act of adaptation? While for The Bacchae, the points of contact between Euripides' play and the social upheavals of the past half century may seem apparent enough—and here we might think of the invocations of mass movements, [End Page 163] counterculture, sexual desire, and gender fluidity raised by Richard Schechner's adaptation Dionysus in 692—my reading takes a different approach. I hold that the dimension of space in Euripides' play is dynamically related to a social crisis in a text where Thebes and Cithaeron are pressed into service as indices of the social processes they foster.

The imbrication of representations of space, social process, and crisis in The Bacchae thus points up the political urgency in adapting Euripides' play. Amid the upheavals and revolutionary crises of the twentieth century, this urgency framed the vexed political and artistic question of how to represent a utopian desire for the total reorganization of social relations. This is the chief problem that underpins Wole Soyinka's 1973 adaptation, The Bacchae of Euripides, an adaptation that dramatizes, in more explicit terms than its Euripidean parent text, what is at stake, socially and economically, in the Bacchic cult. The spatial antinomies of the parent text thus become, in Soyinka's adaptation, metonyms for the conjuncturally determinate form of a socially and economically uneven geography.3 While this dimension of Soyinka's play resists an allegorical reading that would neatly align the political and economic conflicts of the plot with specific external counterparts, the play dwells on the structures of exploitation and the utopian promise of the new Bacchic religion, both pointing towards and gesturing outwards from the rifts of its historical moment.

I will examine Soyinka's play as it theorizes these rifts and begins to imagine a utopian resolution of this social crisis sutured to the representation of space. In brief, I argue that Soyinka produces a formal argument for the production of peripheralized space as a feature of the uneven development of a capitalist political economy. This spatial imagination devolves onto a crisis that Neil Larsen argues characterized the Bandung era of third-world liberation:4 the cleft between anti-imperial national liberation projects and the socialist horizon of internationalism. The dissatisfactions of Soyinka's climax both foreground and leave the form of this crisis provocatively unresolved. [End Page 164]

Soyinka, a Nigerian writer of Yoruban heritage, gained prominence in the post-independence Nigeria of the 1960s. He became infamous for his political activities, including the armed takeover of a radio tower after the election of General Yakubu Gowon in 1965. When civil war threatened the country two years later, Soyinka met with the military leaders of secessionist Biafra; he was thereafter imprisoned by the Nigerian regime for twenty-seven months, the duration of the civil war. In 1971 he went into voluntary exile, eventually returning to England where he had completed his studies at Leeds...


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