. Here is he is, our god, the god of theater. Also: the god of wine, the god of ecstasy. A terrific kind of god to worship, no? Absolutely. But not always a good guy. In The Bacchae, now showing in a vigorous student production in our theater, Dionysus is a handsome, cool ironic sort of cat. He's also a killer. He shows up at the top of the show, dressed in mortal flesh, telling us he's come to Thebes, his birthplace, to correct the slander spread by his aunts that Zeus was not his dad. He also plans to introduce his rites into the community.
But we learn soon enough from a chorus of ecstatic ladies of the town those rites are already well established, accepted not only by young women but by old men. In fact there is actually only one person in all Thebes who's a hold out, Pentheus, the arrogant young king of the city. The action of the play is Dionysus' revenge on the leader who refuses to accept him for a god. And It is vengeance with a vengeance, the most appalling imaginable, including murder, mayhem and a whole lot of body parts.
Violence and dismemberment are essential to Dionysus' identity. He was ripped from the womb by lightning, and later torn apart by the Titans--and then put back together again. His association with the grape vine, which must be regularly and severly pruned in order to yield its fruit, is clearly relevant here. So is his association with ecstasy and inebriation, getting "ripped" as we say---dismembered from our normal lives, and then carrying on in a fabulous thrilling way we might regret in the morning. We were really torn up last night .. . The link between theater and dismembering is a little less obvious---but it is true that theater too is reality dis-membered and then reassembled in an artful way by playwrights, actors and designers; and furthermore, good theater is something we re-member even after it is gone. Dionysus is our god for a reason.
Will that make you feel better about all the blood and torn limbs spilling all over the stage in The Bacchae? I very much doubt it. Nothing makes you or anyone else feel better at the play's end--the god gets his and the rest of us lose. The play is often thought of as the exiled and embittered Euripides exacting a kind of vicarious revenge on his city, and I suspect it is. But it must be said that many of the gods in Euripides are jealous gods. The one thing they really hate is you not worshipping them. Just ask Hippolytus when he refuses to honor Aphrodite-- she gets him good. For Euripides, love and ecstasy can lead to trouble, but nothing like the trouble you'll find if you avoid or resist their divine force. Aphrodite is going to punish you, Dionysus is going to tear you up. Better a wild fling than abstinence, because abstinence is denial--it leads to death.
So take heed all you Thebans who ignore the living stage. Take heed all you teetotalers. You refuse the charms of the grape and the religion of the theater at your mortal peril. I am an old man dancing. I say the god has come! I say do not let what happens to Pentheus happen to you. I cry, hail, Dionysus! I say open a bottle, and subscribe now!