Euripides’ Bacchae in the Age of Trump

A scene from the Guthrie’s production of the Bacchae
Photo by Dan Norman

What does a play by an ancient Greek poet have to do with the society we live in today? A conference called “Euripides’ Bacchae in the Age of Trump” sought to discuss and compare the ancient Greek tragedy and today’s modern political and social climate. It was scheduled to take place at the University of Minnesota this spring before being canceled due to COVID-19.

The conference was planned in conjunction with a Guthrie Theater production of the play translated by Aaron Poochigian, a University of Minnesota PhD recipient in classics who also earned his MFA in creative writing from Columbia University. It was sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts, the Department of Classical & Near Eastern Studies, the Department of Cultural Studies & Comparative Literature, and the Department of History.

A Conference on Politics and Society

The Bacchae is an ancient story of a society under religious, political, and social stress. Many modern academics see this stress as eerily similar to that of today’s society.

Much of the play is seen less as a historical artifact and more as an allegory for how politics and society should not look. The conference aimed to have attendees confront questions that cover the intersection of political power, religious experience, sexuality, and fear, while trying to understand what an onstage performance of the Bacchae means in the modern age.

Poochigian was lined up to give the first talk of the conference: “Tradition and Innovation in Euripides' Bacchae.” He sums up another reason that the play is worth studying: “The story of oppressed people eventually becoming triumphant is highly cathartic. Great works of drama are perennially relevant.”

A Play Coming to Life

Poochigian’s translation came to life through the performance of the Bacchae, which ran at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis before COVID-19 canceled all Twin Cities performances. The play was directed by Anne Bogart, an American theater and opera director. Bogart has been praised for helping modern audiences understand and empathize more with the play’s ancient themes.

Poochigian made “the translation both the most musical and most accessible translation available.” For him, it was important to preserve the rhythmic correspondences in the choral odes to keep the odes energetic throughout. In a translator’s note, he explains that his text is “exceptional in that it is intended for live performance. This emphasis means both that the translation is comprehensible on a first hearing, and that it preserves, formally, the incantatory quality of the poetry in the original.” There’s a magical quality that comes to life in a performance. “Nothing gives me greater pleasure than hearing actors recite words that I have come up with as translations,” he says.

SITI Company, who performed the play, is an ensemble-based theater company that focuses on “the creation of new work, the training of young theater artists and a commitment to international collaboration.” SITI also places a large emphasis on cultural exchange and, ultimately, their morals and values align very well with the commentary the play invokes.

The Star Tribune also named the Bacchae “one of the hottest arts and entertainment events to catch in the Twin Cities in 2020." 

The Importance of Ancient Stories

“Euripides’ Bacchae in the Age of Trump” was planned to feature many other speakers, including Mary-Kay Gamel (University of California, Santa Cruz), Elizabeth Scharffenberger (Columbia University), Justina Gregory (Smith College), and Courtney Friesen (University of Arizona) Leon Ingelsrud, who plays First Messenger, and Stephen Duff Webster, who plays Cadmus.

“This conference seeks to define what the Bacchae means for us at this particular moment in history,” says Poochigian. By looking at the play as a piece of guidance for our society instead of an ancient Greek text with no modern crossover, we can begin to see the importance of ancient stories and attempt to understand the lessons they reveal. 

This story was written by an undergraduate student in Backpack. Meet the team.

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