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Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll: the story of Dionysus: Prologue

Euripides, son of Mnesarchus had never wanted to be a playwright. True, he had a gift for words, and even as a small child would amaze his doting parents with some of the plummy little phrases he would come out with, but to make a living from words? No, he did not think so. What he had really wanted to do, but had never got the chance, was to be a natural philosopher. What happened when you kept dividing something up? Was there a point at which you could divide no further, or could you keep going for ever? And what was light? Was a light beam infinitely fine like a stream of water, or was it a hail of tiny bullets, too small to be seen individually? If the latter, then what were the bullets made of? We could see light, but otherwise, why was it so insubstantial? Why could you not collect it and weigh it like water or sand? These were the sort of questions that interested him. As for Helen of Troy’s motives in shacking up with Paris or whether Oedipus deserved to be punished for shagging his mother, well, quite frankly, he could not care less. They were all just annoying reprobates who, assuming they ever existed in the first place, had mostly got what they deserved. Good job too, he thought, and he had no idea why the Greek public kept wanting him to write plays about them. Oh, and the gods! His children, at the age of four, were more grown up than the gods. If the universe was really run by these unstable, selfish, violent, greedy, vengeful, undisciplined, randy, good-looking monsters then the human race, not to mention all the other species, really was in trouble. Euripides, however, was never really convinced that it was. It seemed a lot easier for someone to say “the vengeful god Apollo refuses to allow me to pay you” than “I’m a cheapskate theatre manager who wants to see how much he can get away with”. Much easier to blame others for your own deficiencies. Even better when they probably do not even exist, as then there is no comeback. No, here he was, aged seventy-five, having spent his whole life trying to do what everyone else seemed to want him to do, and it was clear to him that if he did not do what he wanted to do himself now, then he probably never would. But what? That was the question. As he paced pensively up and down his study, he heard the noise of revellers outside. He poked his head out to see a group of young people wearing robes and ivy crowns, grasping wooden staves topped with pine cones – the thyrsus, as it was called. They were chanting rhythmically, or a least as rhythmically as was possible given that they were all totally drunk.

‘Dionysus,’ he thought. ‘The festival of Dionysus. Better bar the windows as these drunken hooligans will probably be on the rampage later.’ He closed the shutters.

‘Dionysus,’ his thoughts continued, as though reading an encyclopaedia entry. ‘Dionysus. Son of Zeus by Semele. Inventor of wine and numerous orgiastic rituals where people or animals would be torn to pieces by frenzied supplicants. Became one of the Olympians at Zeus’s bidding.’ He furrowed his brow.

Stupid, crazy, evil bastard!’ he found himself saying. He knew he was being impious, but he just did not care any more.

His grudge against Dionysus was in any case somewhat personal as in the Dionysian dramatic festivals, his plays had never seemed to win anything. One festival that particularly rankled was the one in Athens in 439 BC, where he had been beaten into third place. The first prize had been taken by ‘that patronizing git Sophocles’ (as Euripides liked to think of him) with his play Nancy, which had followed Sophocles’s familiar giddy formula of insanity, guilt, murder and revenge. The body count was exceptional even for him: twenty three stiffs, of which eleven were suicides. Obviously patricide, fratricide, infanticide, suicide, murder, falling on swords, taking or administering poison, cannibalism where parents would sample haute cuisine comprised largely of their children, knifing people in their sleep and pushing them off cliffs were all things that the common folk just could not get enough of, this no doubt being related to a subliminal wish to dispatch their own “nearest and dearest” in a suitably gruesome manner. Even more humiliating, second place had been taken by Loed Febba, a ‘self-important little twat’ (as he called him) whose largely plagiarized stage pyrotechnics did nothing at all for Euripides other than to raise a groan and a sneer. His own, a version of the Judgement of Paris, was, though he said it himself, full of brilliant little insights into the nature of the relationship between the gods and mankind, and asked some really important questions about our perception of ourselves and of reality. Unfortunately, though, hoi polloi did not like it, which as far as he was concerned, at least, was proof, if proof was needed, that they were all just morons.

‘Dionysus,’ he repeated once more. ‘Fits in well with the other Olympians. Like his dad, Zeus: that disgusting, lecherous old tyrant. Like Zeus’s wife, Hera, that vicious, vindictive old cow. Like their dad Cronos. I mean, wasn’t he supposed to have cut his own father’s balls off with a sickle? Excuse me, but, ouch! ... and Hermes, what was he but a shifty, untrustworthy troublemaker?’

‘Is anything wrong, sir?’

Euripides had been reeling off the names of various gods and heroes, saying out loud what he thought of them and all the whiles cackling like a maniac. The noise had attracted one of the servants.

‘No. I’m fine. Just thinking out loud. Tossing around a few ideas for a new play, don’t you know. That’s all.’

‘Very good, sir,’ said the servant closing the door, still not much the wiser, and seriously wondering whether the Athenian playwright was not losing it completely.

Euripides’s thoughts continued.

‘Right. That’s it. I don’t give a bugger what the public thinks. I don’t give a bugger about being struck down by the gods. I’m going to say what I really want and to Tartarus with the consequences.’ He ferreted for a clean sheet of papyrus.

THE BACCHAE,” he wrote, in big letters, at the top of the page. “A Dirty, Lecherous, Drunken Little Sod Named Dionysus Gets His Comeuppance”. Yes, he liked that. Or should it be “bastard”? He was born out of wedlock, so he would not be saying anything wrong. “A Dirty, Lecherous, Drunken Little Bastard Named Dionysus Gets His Comeuppance” was even better, he decided. This would be the story of how the god Dionysus, after his destructive rampage around Asia, came to Thebes, his birthplace, tried to involve the local youth in his insane drug and alcohol-based rituals but was stopped in his tracks by the righteous King Pentheus, his cousin, who killed him in battle, shoving Dionysus’s thyrsus up his arse for good measure. Pentheus was then carried back to Thebes shoulder high to be greeted by his cheering subjects, overjoyed to be rid of the disruptive divine lunatic. This was more like it. Why pretend that creatures like Dionysus are worthy of respect when, quite obviously, they are not?

Having found a subject he really liked, Euripides was on a roll, and two inky days later had nearly finished the first draft. A lot of people would ask him generally about the creative process, but as far as he was concerned it was all incredibly simple. Suck it and see. Try something. If it works, put it in, if not, leave it out. As for putting words into the mouths of characters, well, what would you say if you were in their situation? Not hard. Mix it all up, throw in some truly rotten, groan-making puns and what do you know? A new epic by the Great Master. It was true, not everyone could do it, but, on the other hand, a surprising number, given half a chance, could do just as well, did they but know it. Euripides often surprised himself at the speed at which he could write. Ion: four days; The Women of Troy: three days; Electra: knocked up in Georgiou’s in Temple Row between lunch and dinner on two successive rainy weekdays, to name but three. People used to think that he went to that cave near Athens to write, as though one needed to live like a hermit to commune with the Muses, but as far as he was concerned, it was just a bolt hole to escape his crazy first wife. He was not sure that he even wrote a single line there, although that was not what he told people at the time, obviously. That cave had been a great place to experiment with magic mushrooms.

Once finished, he decided to read the whole thing from start to finish. First, the Prologue:

Zeus, King of the Gods, would shag anything at room temperature. He was as bad as those dogs that try to do it with your leg when you walk in to someone’s house. Maybe worse.

Yes, that was good. A great way to start a play, and he found himself laughing like a madman as he read the words. This laughing stopped when he realised that he was not alone in the room. A burly gentleman with impressive facial hair was seated in the corner watching him. Funny, but his appearance was exactly as he had imagined Zeus.

Yoo-rip-ides,’ the stranger began, sounding like a disapproving schoolteacher. ‘Yoo-ripides. It would seem that the two of us have a few things to sort out.’

‘Gods! How did you get here? Who are you?’

‘Got it in one. I am one of the gods. Let me see if you can guess which one.’

‘Er ... Zeus ... maybe ... perhaps?’ said Euripides in a falsetto he never knew he was capable of.

‘Well done. Two correct answers. Now tell me what you know about Zeus.’

‘Well, he’s, er, the king.’

‘Excellent! Now what do kings do?’

‘Rule? Like, they’re the ones in charge, maybe?’

‘Exactly! They're the ones in charge! And how do you think one of these “king” people is going to react when some second-tier playwright writes some crappy little play that takes the piss out of him?’

‘Er ... he’s not going to be happy? Maybe?’

‘Correct! He is not going to be happy. In fact, he is going to be very, very unhappy.’ With each utterance of the word “very” Euripides felt an unbelievable stab of pain through his whole body.

‘I’m sorry, sir, er, Your Holiness! I’m really sorry! I didn’t mean it! I’ll rewrite it! Make it much better! Honest I will.’ The playwright’s abject grovelling was a pitiful sight. Zeus brought his face right up to that of Euripides.

Just show some fucking respect, alright? That’s all I ask.’

Zeus vanished. Euripides was just beginning to recover when he appeared out of thin air again.

‘Oh, and another thing. This stream-of-consciousness dialogue that you go in for is very annoying. If you gave your characters a bit more depth your plays would be a lot more interesting, although,’ he added with a smirk, ‘I still doubt that I would go to see one unless I had to. You know, like the wife’s birthday or something. You’re better than that boring prat Aeschylus. I’ll give you that, at least. As a cure for insomnia he’s even more potent than Nubian narcoleptic nettles.’

When he was sure that the god had finally gone, Euripides, trembling, tossed the manuscript into the fire, fetched a clean papyrus and picked up his stylus again. ‘Alright. I’ll re-write the play, and make it really respectful to the gods. Really, really respectful.’ But as he wrote he was slowly, but inaudibly mouthing the words, ‘Dirty, lecherous bastard who would shag anything at room temperature,’ repeating them like a litany.