Ben Whishaw with waist-length hair in a yellow frock
A fannish friend of mine just gave herself an enormous, enviable treat for her birthday: She went to London for a few days and, while she was there, she saw The Bakkhai at the Almeida Theatre, with Ben Whishaw as Dionysos and Bertie Carvel as Pentheus.
I’ve only been a fan of Whishaw for a couple of years; after seeing him in the last Bond movie, Skyfall, as a youthful new Q, I was stunned by his work in the short-lived show The Hour and by his performance as Richard II for the BBC’s Hollow Crown series. Whishaw is a talented actor whose lithe, wispy, unpredictable character makes him a prime choice to play the god who won’t perform masculinity; I wish I could see this production myself.
But my relationship with the play goes back a lot further than my fondness for Whishaw or my identification as a polytheist. I was a precocious and voracious reader as a child, as I am now, the sort of person who cannot stay away from a display of books. Every time my grandmother’s senior citizens club held a bazaar as a fundraiser, I came home with armfuls of books, literally. It was at one of those bazaars that I picked up the “condensed” version of Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede, a book which made a permanent impression on me; at another, I brought home three volumes of Norton anthologies, one prose, one poetry, and one drama.
I don’t remember anything I might have read in the poetry or essay volumes. But I was nine or ten years old, and I found The Bacchae, as it was spelled then, in the drama volume, and read it.
I’m not sure what I made of that play at such a young age. Looking back over four decades, I know now that being able to understand the words in some way and even explain a story does not mean grasping the meaning of it. Certainly there is much about Euripedes’ tragedy that I do not really comprehend even now. Yet the play made a deep impression on me, right next to Godden’s novel of cloistered nuns, reruns of Star Trek, my weekly exposure to the Prayer Book and the Hymnal. It was an encounter with Dionysus.
I encountered the god again as a teenager, browsing in a bookstore downtown that is long gone; I think the building itself might have recently been demolished to make room for something else. If memory serves, I ran into a rather odd acquaintance of mine, a priest of the Polish National Catholic Church who was a friend of my parish priest, and we had a strange stilted conversation. I went home that day with a book called The God of Ecstasy: Sex Roles and the Madness of Dionysus, by Arthur Evans.
Evans (not the same Arthur Evans who excavated the palace of Knossos on Crete) was writing primarily about same-sex, male-to-male relationships in Greek and Roman history, what was considered acceptable behavior and what was not. A goodly part of his argument was his own translation of The Bacchae, with photographs from a production he directed in San Francisco. The actor who played Dionysus was costumed as a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence, which is how I first learned of that order.
Thirty years later, I still have that book on my shelves. I haven’t touched it in years, but I read that version of the play over and over, poring over the pics–Dionysus as the coy Sister in a traditional wimple and veil, Dionysus as the manifest god, his body painted gold, his face revealed as a massive bull mask crowned with ivy.
For years I’ve admired Dionysus from afar, so to speak. I’ve admired him in fictional men who don’t play by gender rules. I’ve come back over and over to the story of Ariadne, abandoned by a hero, chosen by a god; it stands alongside the story of Persephone as one of the myths most significant to me. I’ve watched him from the corner of my eye the way the nerd girl in the teen movie watches the bad boy in the leather jacket, the curly-haired guy who smokes where he shouldn’t and is always surrounded by girls.
In the past year, I’ve honored Antinous as syncretized with Dionysus, with Apollon, and with Hermes, among many other gods (and in the company of quite a few goddesses). As I’ve grown closer to Antinous and made connections with other deities, I’ve also realized I want to get closer to Dionysus. I’m working up my nerve to go chat up the cool weird guy standing out in the rain, petting a stray dog, the boy in the leather jacket surrounded by pierced and tattooed girls, the hot lead singer in the band, the god I met when I was only a child. I might be grown up enough now to be his friend.