Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Lillah McCarthy as Dionysus

Euripides's masterpiece The Bacchae won a posthumous first-place prize for the author when it originally premiered at the City Dionysia in 405 BCE. However, it was not generally performed after the collapse of the classical world. In fact, the play's premiere in English did not occur until 1908, when the role of the great god Dionysus was played by none other than the actress Lillah McCarthy.

David Bullen has an excellent article on this production in the most recent issue of Theatre Notebook. Originally, Dionysus would have been played by a man, of course, given the conventions of Greek drama, and throughout the twentieth century, the part has almost always been cast as male. However, Bullen puts McCarthy's portrayal in the context of nineteenth-century actresses like Elizabeth Vestris who expanded the repertoire of female performers by taking on traditionally male roles.

The 1908 production lasted only two matinees, due to a dispute between translator Gilbert Murray and director William Poel, who was famous for his stagings of Elizabethan classics but appears to have been unsuited for a Greek revival. In spite of the fact that the chorus was supposed to consist of frantic maenads, Poel had the women speaking the chorus's lines stay virtually still for the entire play, while other dancers playing maenads danced in a small space at the center of the stage.

McCarthy herself complained about Poel cutting many of her lines and having her stand like "a statue in Ivory & Gold." This was quite a change for the vigorous actress who had originated the role of Ann Whitefield in Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman. The production was apparently so far away from the Dionysian passion Murray imagined that the translator withdrew his consent. McCarthy asked Murray for permission to re-stage the piece if she could find a new director, but alas, nothing came of those plans.

Bullen argues that the ill-fated production still had an effect on British drama, though, including influencing Shaw's Misalliance. Shaw originally crafted the part of Lina Szczepanowska in that play for McCarthy, though the part ultimately went to another performer. Lina literally descends from the heavens in Misalliance (albeit in an airplane rather than on a cloud of glory) and introduces a new Bacchic energy into the lives of a rather staid English family. As Bullen notes, the play is not an adaptation of The Bacchae, but it is certainly influenced by it.

Even more important to Bullen is the play's engagement with the women's suffrage movement, which was backed by many of the artists involved in the production, McCarthy included. Sometimes simply performing a role can be a political act, and the on-stage maenads in many ways reflected the frenzied protests of suffrage advocates off the stage.