The Greek Versus the Modern World of Art: The Bacchae and Venus in Fur

The Greek Versus the Modern World of Art: The Bacchae and Venus in Fur


Howard Adelman

In David Ives’ play, Venus in Fur, there is a running joke about the confusion between ambiguity and ambivalence. In Euripedes’ play, The Bacchae, the sexuality is very ambiguous; we are uncertain about how to interpret the performances. In Ives’ play, the interpretation is not ambiguous  – as Tom makes clear to Vanda over and over again – but the choices are ambivalent. With all his clarity of intention, Tom constantly reveals himself to be uncertain about which choices to make. Ambiguity is about interpretation; ambivalence is about choice and action. The Bacchae is a play about ambiguity; Venus in Fur is a play about ambivalence. Ambivalence makes you prone to surrendering your will to another and becoming the other’s bondsperson. In contrast, the actions in the Bacchae are direct, savage, erotic, bestial and absolutely ruthless. Venus in Fur has as its lead player a dithering playwright pretending to know what he is doing, where he is going and how to get there and the raw artistry of a true thespian, Vanda, who takes him there.

Compare Vanda of the play and Dionysus of The Bacchae, a play which came to the stage almost exactly twenty-five hundred years ago. Dionysus is a god in a human shape rather than a person who takes on the pretence of a god or an actress who transforms herself into a deity on stage. Dionysus is both male and female as well as both god and man even though Dionysus is referred to in the masculine form. So while Venus in Fur is about the human realm (as is Venus in Furs), The Bacchae is about the realm of the divine. In that Greek tragedy, the direction is never anything but un-ambivalent, a characteristic of the Greek divine realm; however, the messages delivered to humans are always ambivalent and full of double meanings. The Greeks did not produce nineteenth century moral fables with clear and dogmatic lessons that one could take away from a performance.

However, all three works of art have one common thread. There is no justice meted out at the end. Did Tom deserve to have his relationship with his fiancé shattered just because a tempestuous and highly skilled actress came late to his audition and took him off guard, or because he seemed so self-certain and proved he was not, or because he lost his way? Did Severin deserve to be so mistreated and cast off because he desired to be a total slave to a woman of beauty?  Did Pentheus, Cadmus and Agave deserve their horrible fates in The Bacchae?

We cannot answer these questions because they are the wrong questions to ask. In Greek drama, the punishment is not commensurate with the acts but, rather, is fated.

Watchers are there in the skies,

That can see man’s life, and prize

Deeds well done by things of clay.

But the world’s Wise are not wise,

Claiming more than mortal may.

Life is such a little thing;

Lo, their present is departed,

And the dreams to which they cling

Come not. Mad imagining

Theirs, I ween, and empty-hearted!

[Gilbert Murray translation of The Bacchae]

The same point is true of both Venus in Furs and Venus in Fur. Both are works of fiction in the Greek mould. In The Bacchae that fate is both majestic and horrific; in Venus in Furs, the complete degradation of Severin belongs to a purgatory of his own making. In Venus in Fur, the total reversal of the roles of the director/playwright/casting director and the auditioning actress is both magical and human-all-too-human. In the modern era, humans are supposed to be masters of their own fate. In the Greek world, they are simply playthings of the gods and inherently can never be masters. Only in the Hebrew world and the legacy it left can men aspire to be divine yet be fully human and responsible for all their actions even when men become idolatrous and are prone to worship at the feet of their vision of the divine feminine while, in reality, they continually make the same mistake and believe that power is equivalent to force. Woe it is when women are seduced into the same folly as in The Bacchae.

What if the women were actually divine or, under the spell of a divine god such as Dionysus? Would they abandon men as superfluous? Would they engage in bacchanalian revels? Would brave men take on the gods and declare war as King Pentheus does to rescue their women folk from a cult of absolute ecstasy? The twist in Euripides is that, as in Venus in Furs and Venus in Fur, an unarmed woman can defeat an army of men and make them submit. Further, in The Bacchae, man, in the role of King Perseus, is torn limb from limb by the savage bacchae when they are seduced by the wonders of sexual ecstasy. Perseus attempts to join the women by disguising himself as one of them and becomes their victim. But that is not the worst. His main butcher is his own mother under an ecstatic spell. Her fate is even worse than her son’s for she is brought back to “her senses” and comes to recognize that it was she who danced around with her son’s severed head.


Thou bearest in thine arms an head—what head?

AGAVE ( beginning to tremble, and not looking at what

she carries).

A lion’s—so they all said in the chase.


Turn to it now—’tis no long toil—and gaze.


Ah! But what is it? What am I carrying here?


Look once upon it full, till all be clear!


I see … most deadly pain! Oh, woe is me!


Wears it the likeness of a lion to thee?


No; ’tis the head—O God!—of Pentheus, this!

Thus, Cadmus, the old king, his daughter, Agave, her son and the grandson of Cadmus, the current King of Thebes, Pentheus, and his aunt, Semelé, Cadmus’ other daughter, become the twisted lengths of the same serpent fatalistically turning on itself. The play begins with a son of god, the only child of a divine being in human form, Dionysus, coming down to earth. Dionysus, was the love child of Zeus’ affair with Semelé. Dionysus is, in fact. the divine or half-divine half-human cousin of Pentheus swearing to wrack revenge before his mother’s tombstone for the slaying of his mother at the hands of the divine Hera and her fury at and jealousy of Semelé.

Behold, God’s Son is come unto this land

Of heaven’s hot splendour lit to life, when she

Of Thebes, even I, Dionysus, whom the brand

Who bore me, Cadmus’ daughter Semelê,

Died here. So, changed in shape from God to man,

I walk again by Dirce’s streams and scan

Ismenus’ shore. There by the castle side

I see her place, the Tomb of the Lightning’s Bride,

The wreck of smouldering chambers, and the great

Faint wreaths of fire undying—as the hate

Dies not, that Hera held for Semelê.

And you think modern drama can be complicated! But why pick on Thebes? The answer is presented at the beginning of the play. The people of Thebes thought that their King, Cadmus, had made up the story when his daughter became pregnant and said that the father of her child was Zeus. They believed their ill fate was a result of their king and his daughter’s lie when the real reason was their own lack of faith and their failure to recognize the divine origins of Dionysus. Pentheus himself refuses to worship with his people in accordance with the rites and ecstatic mysteries of Dionysus. As Dionysus says:

I cry this Thebes to waken; set her hands

To clasp my wand, mine ivied javelin,

And round her shoulders hang my wild fawn-skin.

For they have scorned me whom it least beseemed,

Semelê’s sisters; mocked by birth, nor deemed

That Dionysus sprang from Dian seed.

Only the old king Cadmus and his prophet, Teiresias, see and recognize the truth.

A little family history is helpful. Cadmus had four daughters. One, Autonoe, who taught the arts of prophecy and the healing skills of Asklepios, married Aktaion, the great hunter and grandson of the greatest female hunter in all of Hellas, Kyrene, a tomboy par excellence who won the kingdom of Libya by hunting down and killing a lion who had turned to making human beings its prey. Aktaion by chance on a hunt saw the goddess Artemis naked bathing in the company of her nymphs. In revenge for espying her naked, Artemis turned Aktaion into a deer and his own dogs tore him to pieces.

Behind this murderous act may have been the tale that Aktaion was really in love with his own aunt, Semelé, or because Artemis was acting at Zeus’ behest, or because Aktaion dared to compete for hunting perfection with Artemis herself, or in revenge for Aktaion’s attempted rape of his own aunt, or a long list of other possible motives depending on whose account of the story you take up. One of the many ironies is that Aktaion’s own sister, Makris, had been the nurse for the god-man Dionysus. Further, his own father, Aristaios, after being initiated into the Dionysian cult became a wanderer after Aktaion’s  death until he was lost forever – the same fate that lay in store for Cadmus, the old king..

Semelé was Cadmus’ second daughter. The greatest and mightiest god of all, Zeus, who fell head over heels in love with her and seduced her, then promised, like Severin, that he would do anything for her that she wished. What did she ask of him when she was pregnant? To test his love, she asked him to make love to her as he did with his own wife Hera, a request Hera herself had suggested when she visited Semelé in the guise of a Thebean nurse. Zeus was dumfounded on hearing the request but was bound to fulfill it. He returned on his chariot and threw a thunderbolt at Semelé, who, because she was human and not divine like Hera, was reduced to ashes. Thus, when Vanda in Venus in Fur enters the rehearsal hall to thunder and we hear her rail and swear at the gods for her misfortune, and later there is a reference to The Bacchae, the association of Semelé’s fate comes to mind, or, at least, the reversal of the fate, or even possibly Semelé’s rebirth as a Jersey fugitive with a potty mouth who would reverse the process and exercise her revenge on man.

Semelé’s six month old foetus was saved when Semelé was reduced to ashes; the foetus, “he babe-god hidden in the torn flesh of his sire,” was brought to full maturity by being sewn up for another few months in the thigh of Zeus. Thus was the one son of god born of both a woman and a man as well as being a child of both a human and a divine being. Perseus rejects the tale as a lie in spite of what his old grandfather, Cadmus, and his prophet Teiresias tell him.

This tale of Dionysus; how that same

Babe that was blasted by the lightning flame

With his dead mother, for that mother’s lie,

Was re-conceived, born perfect from the thigh

Of Zeus, and now is God! What call ye these?

Dreams? Gibes of the unknown wanderer? Blasphemies

That crave the very gibbet?

The third sister was Ino who, at the request of Zeus, adopted Dionysus. But Hera drove both Ino and her husband mad. Zeus intervened once again to save Dionysus from Hera’s jealous wrath and turned him into a goat to be raised by some nymphs. (Before this happened to Ino, there is a side story, a Greek version of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, a story of Ino tricking her husband into sacrificing her stepson on an altar as a sacrifice to god who at the last minute is saved by the substitution of a ram.).

The fourth daughter of Cadmus was Agave who plays a very important part in The Bacchae for she is the only one left of the bloodline whom Hera is determined to destroy. To be sure, all of Thebes must be destroyed. It is Hera, using Dionysus unbeknownst to himself, who lures the women, including Agave, into a cult of ecstasy.

For his kingdom, it is there,

In the dancing and the prayer,

In the music and the laughter,

In the vanishing of care.

Perseus is convinced by Dionysus (in disguise) to spy on the ecstatic rites in which the women are engaged. He thinks they are caught up in the worship of Aphrodite – that the dramatic frenzy is all about love and eros and he is determined to erase the cult of this false God, Dionysus. Behind the impression of Aphrodite is the work of Dionysus and behind that the vengeful, manipulative power of the scorned god, Hera. However, Perseus is discovered, torn to pieces by the women, after his own mother, Agave, cuts off his head and carries that severed head around in a dance of ecstasy. In irony, Dionysus becomes Hera’s tool for the destruction of Thebes.

And up they sprang; but with bewildered eye,

Agaze and listening, scarce yet hearing true.

Then came the Voice again. And when they knew

Their God’s clear call, old Cadmus’ royal brood,

Up, like wild pigeons startled in a wood,

On flying feet they came, his mother blind,

Agâvê, and her sisters, and behind

All the wild crowd, more deeply maddened then,

Through the angry rocks and torrent-tossing glen,

Until they spied him in the dark pine-tree:

Then climbed a crag hard by and furiously

The Bacchae of Euripides

Some sought to stone him, some their wands would fling

Lance-wise aloft, in cruel targeting.

But none could strike. The height o’ertopped their rage,

And there he clung, unscathed, as in a cage

Caught. And of all their strife no end was found.

Then, “Hither,” cried Agâvê; “stand we round

And grip the stem, my Wild Ones, till we take

This climbing cat-o’-the-mount! He shall not make

A tale of God’s high dances!” Out then shone

Arm upon arm, past count, and closed upon

The pine, and gripped; and the ground gave, and down

It reeled. And that high sitter from the crown

Of the green pine-top, with a shrieking cry

Fell, as his mind grew clear, and there hard by

Was horror visible. ’Twas his mother stood

O’er him, first priestess of those rites of blood.

He tore the coif, and from his head away

Flung it, that she might know him, and not slay

To her own misery. He touched the wild

Cheek, crying: “Mother, it is I, thy child,

Thy Pentheus, born thee in Echion’s hall!

Have mercy, Mother! Let it not befall

Through sin of mine, that thou shouldst slay thy son!”

But she, with lips a-foam and eyes that run

Like leaping fire, with thoughts that ne’er should be

On earth, possessed by Bacchios utterly,

Stays not nor hears. Round his left arm she put

Both hands, set hard against his side her foot,

Drew … and the shoulder severed!—not by might

Of arm, but easily, as the God made light

Her hand’s essay. And at the other side

Was Ino rending; and the torn flesh cried,

And on Autonoë pressed, and all the crowd

Of ravening arms. ‘Yea, all the air was loud

With groans that faded into sobbing breath,

Dim shrieks, and joy, and triumph-cries of death.

And here was borne a severed arm, and there

A hunter’s booted foot; white bones lay bare

With rending; and swift hands ensanguinèd

Tossed as in sport the flesh of Pentheus dead.

His body lies afar. The precipice

Hath part, and parts in many an interstice

Lurk of the tangled woodland—no light quest

To find. And, ah, the head! Of all the rest,

His mother hath it, pierced upon a wand,

As one might pierce a lion’s, and through the land,

Leaving her sisters in their dancing place,

Bears it on high!

In comparison to The Bacchae and even Venus in Furs, we can see how tame Venus in Fur is. It is not ecstatic. It is not an orgy of denigration and death. It is human-all-too-human and the better a contemporary play for it because it is self-conscious of its own history and weaves that history as the foil for the story of the theatre itself. The play portrays a tale which is the essence of theatre itself – and perhaps politics – seduction and role playing. The director/playwright at the very beginning of the drama when still alone describes the ecstasy, the moment of epiphany, when he comes across the correct actor for the part. For the audition itself is more than anything about a master and slave relationship and the moment when the right slave is selected to become master of the role and, in effect, turns the playwright into his or her servant.

I experienced it myself when my play Root Out of Dry Ground was put on the stage over fifty years ago. But it was only when it was played before an audience that I could tell that the actress playing one part was inadequate and also when some of my own written lines were false. Like Ives’ character, Tom, who only recognizes the true voice when it is performed – what Tom in the play called “the moment” – even though it does not match the one in his head, one feels both humbled and enthused for one has written a play that becomes its own thing and no longer belongs to you alone. Ives’ play is, in the end, a paeon of gratitude to actors and not his own skills as a playwright and/or director. For the actor is the physician to the gods who, like the Hebrew forefathers, comes before the divine in an audition, lays his or herself bare and simply says, “Here am I!”

One can only weep tears of joy and enthusiasm when the director and the actors pull off such a tremendous coup in an outstanding production of a superb script. For David Ives worships at the feet of Dionysus and recognizes that thought and reason and wisdom have their limits. What counts is comedy and joy. And true respect for the power of women. That is the message of the Chorus of the The Bacchae and of the true cult of Dionysus.

A God of Heaven is he,

And born in majesty;

Yet hath he mirth

In the joy of the Earth,

And he loveth constantly

Her who brings increase,

The Feeder of Children, Peace

No grudge hath he of the great;

No scorn of the mean estate;

But to all that liveth His wine he giveth,

Griefless, immaculate;

Only on them that spurn

Joy, may his anger burn.

Thus does David Ives undercut and critique the fantasy of the femme fatal and the worship of Aphrodite as a frozen, cold alabaster or statuaria marble statue.