Savas Patsalidis[1]


(Un)doing frames: the Bacchic Paradigm

According to Longman’s Dictionary a frame is “a firm border or case into which something is fitted or set, or which holds something in place; [….] the main supports of which something is built or over and round of which something is stretched.” In theatre, a frame indicates the demarcation line, real or imaginary, between the spectacle and the spectator, the viewer and the viewed. The frame, in other words, is about boundaries, about limits as well as possibilities, about authenticities and hybridities, ins and outs.

In the conference’s call for papers there is a long reference to Hitchcock’s film Rear Window where the protagonist watches life passing by sitting by the window of his apartment until a murderous neighbor throws him violently into the picture itself. And the question is: away from his privileged position, is the viewer in a position to critically analyze or evaluate the situation itself of which he is now part of?

A crucial question, indeed, which I would like to tackle by briefly drawing on The Bacchae of Euripides, the first play that talks about frames and their undoing, the first symbolic stage representation of the “painful way in which tragedy (and spectatorship] come into being, “ as Segal very eloquently puts it (1985:171). For those who may not be aware of the play, allow me an extra word or two to discuss its plot and its possible relation to the topic of this conference.

The play’s agon starts when god Dionysus tempts king Pentheus to disguise himself and move to a wild mountainside (instead of an enclosed civic space of theatre), from where he can watch the ritualistic performance of the Maeneds and his mother Agave, inspired by the god’s hypnotic power to release the impulses governed “by what we usually conceive to be our real selves” (Segal 1985: 161; also Winnington-Ingram 1948). The arrogant and unaware Pentheus runs off to the mountain, hides himself behind a bush and watches the spectacle. As long as he keeps his “modernist” distance at the secure periphery of action, he safely judges and enjoys what is going on. Once the power of theatrical illusion gradually draws him into the show itself, things drastically change. By abandoning his secure viewing space and moving to the violent and less predictable center of the play, Pentheus’ subject position is totally altered. By incorporating his real life into art he is no longer the objective viewer but a participant. The intersection of the personal and the artistic blurs everything. His frightening cry, “Mother, I am yours, your son Pentheus” (1118-19), comes a minute too late. Inside the intoxicating ecstasy of the spectacle, “his identity is totally dissolved,” Segal comments. ”He does not have time to emerge from illusion to reality, as all spectators must do as they leave the theatre and return from the characters they identify or sympathize to their own selves” (1985: 171).

Playing Bacchic

This being said, let us now see to what extent the Bacchae’s symbolic representation of participation applies today. I would like to start by pointing out an oxymoron. Although we still remain in an age of theory and criticism, theatre criticism experiences a phenomenal decline. The problems it faces, instead of decreasing ,steadily increase everyday. Hartman puts the blame on the diasporic tendencies that dominate the age. He claims: “our picture of the dramatic universe is no longer that of great books clustered at the center, attracting into the orbit satellite and epigonal works of interpretation […]. Our concept of what is creative projects today a more eccentric or decentered map ” (1989: 89). All those things that gathered momentum in the 1960s, have overturned hierarchy, academy, canons. Most western concepts of creativity have undergone drastic changes. The format of stage performances now seem to be so porous, so ambiguous, open and variable, that no one can really claim any authority on the field. As heterogeneity increases, the less faith there can be in the power of criticism to explain and analyze it. Add to this the dynamic presence of bloggers and other electronic media users and the cry that is heard from all walks of the theatre world, why should we listen to critics or who needs them, does make sense.

And that is exactly the major challenge of a contemporary critic: to prove that in a democratic and demographically varied world, criticism is not only necessary but also useful. A daunting task, indeed! For it somehow asks us to reinvent our field, to think differently about what counts as theatre knowledge and critical responsibility. Just as the Romantics had called for a kind of poetry that could not really be called “poetry” in terms of the established forms and meanings of that concept, so contemporary reviewers must see that contemporary theatre criticism is calling for a discourse that could no longer be called “criticism” from the point of view of the very standards whose authority they call into question (Lucy 1997: 106).

Like the Bacchae that condenses into a single action the long and complex process by which the Dionysiac ritual, in the form of tragic art, restores man to himself as a bearer of his human self-awareness even as it threatens him with the loss of his humanity or his firm personal identity, the act of criticism, as I understand it, should also be a similar act of liberation and self awareness. To reach that level, however, it requires on behalf of the reviewer not only the desire to change but also a real vision of his/her relationship to and responsibilities within the corporate structures of postmodern life. Unlike the old Theban king, the postmodern reviewers must be more aware and careful not to allow themelves to dress up as (an)other, to lose themselves in likeness and resemblance, that is, lose sight of the “like’s” of Dionysiac art. They must always bear in mind that no matter what their viewing angle or subject position is, their job is not only to evaluate a show but also to reflect on the relation between imagination and reality, truth and fiction. Trying on different roles, masks and costumes, critics are in danger of being torn apart, mainly emotionally but literally as well, since their various forms of participation will sooner or later force them to wear different masks that will end up as the empty mask, the “disembodied prosopon Agave holds in her hands,“ as Segal acutely observes (1985: 166; also Otto 1965).

Put simply and bluntly: the critic/reviewer cannot adequately unmask the spectacle and whatever goes into its making, if s/he himself wears a mask. By leaving the secure moorings of everyday life (like Pentheus who leaves the safe, fortified walls of Thebes), the critic enters the wild, that is s/he enters the problematics, ambivalences and economics of representation. This crossing of the boundaries of social status, theatre function and of individual personality inevitably turn him/her also into a doubler, a doubler that stands in a complex and ambiguous relation to one another, as the opposite and the same.

Playing power

British critic Irving Wardle quotes Gore Vidal who, describing the personality of Mary McCarthy, said that she is “a great critic, uncorrupted by compassion” (1997: 131). I would like to rephrase a bit and say that once a critic crosses the demarcation lines s/he is sooner or later corrupted not necessarily by compassion, but certainly by speculation. S/he gradually forgets that his/her main job is to objectively comment on the power and aesthetics of illusion and theatrical experience and not surrender to its interior or exterior temptations. For if s/he surrenders to the temptations of the field, if s/he allows himself/herself to act under the spell of money, public relations, power, control, personal interests etc., in the end s/e will lose himself/herself, his/her true vocation. And if s/he ever returns to “sanity” and the reality of his/her own experience, s/he will recognize, like Agave, the horrendous thing s/he did. That it is not a lion’s head s/he is holding in his/her hands but the theatre’s head (“the greatest pain”).

A critic knows that reviews in mass-circulation newspapers still provide “a prominence that makes them by far the most widely circulated and consumed form of written performance representation” (Reason 2006: 184). In other words, a critic still plays, even against the odds, a crucial role in the symbolic production of literature (Janssen 1997: 275). Ideally speaking, his/her decisions determine to a great extent which texts or productions in a given season are held to be legitimate forms of theatre, what rank in terms of quality they are supposed to occupy within the hierarchy of dramatic works and what statements count as proper and relevant ways of characterizing these texts. In brief, his reviewing affects the lives of artists, students, people who pay to see a show, and their way of defining dramatic literature and human nature, which means that it is not only an act of writing but also an exercise in ethics, it is about our choices and the nature of our choices, which means that it can be an act of violence if not handled properly.

What Euripides says through Pentheus’ tragedy illuminates our discussion as well: there are limits as to what one can do. The act of criticism may allow critics to enact their power, but most importantly it should also invite critics to reflect on the limits of that power. Critics, like theatre, may not enjoy the power they used to, but they still are an integral part of the world and of dramatic fiction; in other words, they partake in its making through their viewing, and as privileged viewers who partake in the very process itself though their writing. No matter how hard they try, they cannot situate themselves outside the reach of power, be it the power of their class, religion, family, profession, delusions or bank accounts. What should permeate in their thinking and writing is not how to manipulate people but how they can turn their readings and viewings and class experiences into productive knowledge for a society immersed in consumer junk and drowning in images of false liberation.

The issue at stake then is how their criticism can create the anomalous arguments that would widen and deepen the critics’ as well as the reader’s (and viewer’s) responsibility. This of course is more easily said than done. For to reach that deconstructive state, critics should first and foremost deconstruct their own social role, that is acknowledge their allegiance to the system of power by asking themselves how they are positioned within the culture and how they are used, how their work is used and how they lend themselves to those uses. Only then can they go on and offer a just and constructive deconstruction of the artistic and social body that would help “remake the public conversation” and create “a climate in which it seems normal to care” (Kalp 2003: 52).

As mentioned, this is not an easy task.. As part of a humanist tradition, intellectuals have always defined their work as specifically against the reigning social order. Going through the professionalization period (after World War II) intellectuals started downplaying their relation to the institutional environment surrounding them. They stared “avoiding looking at historical and political forces, forces that are economic and material and not at all reducible to spiritual or literary values” (Ohmann 1976 and Merod 1985: 65-6). “Institutionalization” gradually weakened the critical spirit that characterized writing in the early decades of the 20th century. The gap between literature and the world became bigger and bigger. Today, most lintellectuals (critics included) are after a stable career and good working conditions. And once given legitimacy in institutions (committees, panels, councils, projects, universities, etc), that is enter the frame and move towards the centre, they find motivation to cross-examine their own authority either absent or faltering. What prevails is pacification, that is the reconciliation of their work to political reality (Merod 1985: 65). They do not feel that they can help ameliorate social ills, as Ohmann points out (1976: 86). Any kind of involvement that seems to compromise critical sobriety is played down. Yet the issue persists, Jameson (1981), Said (1979) and others from the New Left claim. It is a force that cannot be ignored, especially by a critic who also happens to be a teacher who is helping students to map a critical approach of their own, to explore institutional conditions, not merely to decode or deconstruct them (Merod 1987: 12); a teacher who trains critical readers and writers and prepares those who will move into positions of power and authority.

The act of compromise

I certainly do not equate drama analysis with political analysis. I can see the dangers of understanding theatre and criticism in wholly political or radical terms. I do not believe that there is a pure (performance) text, a fixed and final form of the written or the performed text which criticism is forever in the process of acquiring. The text always exists in a variety of historically concrete forms and our job as critics is to produce our own text. And we do that, willy nilly, “according to convention, expectation and most significantly pragmatic necessity” (Reason 2006: 184). In this context, reviewing is an inherently compromised form of writing, “whether by its origins or circumstances of production, its mainstream focus or its lack of greater ambition or self-reflexivity” (Reason 2006: 184). “Compromise”, of course, is not the best word to hear. For some it may sound even dirty, especially in a university class of twenty-something-year old students. Yet it is important. Whether it is ethical or not it all depends on how one negotiates compromising. How each one of us, directly or indirectly, strikes his own deal with the status quo and his beliefs. As Wardle, once again, observes, some set out to turn things upside down and remain faithful to the very end to their original idealism. Others “gradually capitulate until there is nothing left of their original aspirations.” There are others who “make common cause with the artists they admire, and become their spokesmen; what they write may be illuminating; but they have exchanged criticism with public relations” (Wardle 1997: 122). These people feel alright with themselves and with whatever they do. No second thoughts, no regrets. They think that within the contemporary context of postmodern cultural production they are doing the right thing. Some will also say that writing is one of many roles a critic should play, which is true, but not necessarily ethically acceptable or reliable.

What’s left for criticism?

Before I shift gear, let me say this. I do not have the illusion that theatre, let alone theatre reviewing, can, in any way, change the world or endanger its frames. The pulse of all nations is now registered in its television iconography, its reality shows and talent shows. The unity of people comes much faster and easier through the new electronic media than through watching a two-hour live performance (also Klaic 2008: 226-27). Social practices shift all the more further from public to privatized, home-centered activities. People spend more time in front of a computer screen and less engaging in face-to-face contact with other human beings. In the midst of all these crossings and overlappings, I still feel that there is some room left for theatre criticism to step in and make an impression, bring back some balance by effectively criticizing the faults, shortcomings and anxieties of our era, artistic or otherwise.

I like the way Wardle describes the act of criticism as an act of theft. A thief, the British colleague remarks, “is an independent operator” (1997: 122). He moves into a place, takes whatever he wants and then walks away. Whatever was ours, it is now his. What he makes of it is his own problem. Likewise, a playwright steals from life, a director and an actor steal from the playwright, and the critic steals from the production. What they make of it, it is also their own problem. Our main task as critical thieves is to understand all the compromises we have to make and be consistent, Wardle concludes. “In order to set foot in the premises, [the critic] has to discharge his obligations to the artists, the readers, and to his editor—and then, having thus gained access to the premises, he takes the things he wants” (1997: 122). That, of course, requires “a sense of vocation. The need to take [….] You don’t need to make friends, if friendship gets in the way of the job. You don’t mind being an outsider. You have an incurable itch to take things apart and see how they work. You thrive on disagreement, it is your nature to find fault.” When these qualities abandon you, is time to look for something else, Wardle advises (1997: 122).

I am not a fool who fails to understand the critics’ delicate presence in this postmodern and ever changing media machinery, not to understand the compromises one has to make. Yet I feel that the more critics enter the frame the more they lose their sense of vocation; the more they hesitate to knock a friend; the more they doubt about their opinions; the more they become an interested party and thus vulnerable to external forces. Wardle is very clear when he says that reviewers “cannot survive if they depend on handouts instead of relying on themselves” (1997: 124). A reviewer sells best when s/he sells his/her opinions alone. S/he does not rely “on anyone else’s assessment of excellence, astonishment, mendacity or mediocrity” (Kalp 2003: 56). Whatever is given to him/her from the outside is only superficially or temporarily useful. A good reviewer watches closely what is going on, fills up his/her imagination with the richest array of theatre art and communicates an insight that s/he has worked it out for himself/herself.

If we think that a healthy theatre is the one that opens its doors to life outside, then healthy criticism is also the one that constantly asks questions about its status and its relation vis-à-vis an ever changing general public. After all, we all change. If we look at the sort of writing that first engaged us we will see how our sense of the most attractive disciplinary practices and possibilities have changed over the years in response to particular instances of practical and critical changes. Our readers also change. What does not change, though is our duty to them. And part of our job is to show them that criticism is still a serious business. It is “about questioning, the risks of daring to question and the responsibilities of those who question” (Merod 1987: xi). If we uncritically embrace the logic of the slogan “anything goes,” then we lose sight of what our responsibilities are, we lose sight of the social significance of our work which is to help re-educate the new audience, teach them how to appreciate theatre and through theatre appreciate communality. Criticism, like theatre, should continue in its own way the debates people have in their daily life and at get togethers. Especially now that we are becoming more and more stay-at-homes, we are in need of plays, performances and reviews that create this feeling of collectivity and also genuinely illuminate people’s daily lives. Writing (and creating in general) should always carry with it an accountability and responsibility for what one says and does.

In conclusion

I have to end sometime, so let it be with a last reference to The Bacchae. For us who watch a show from a secure distance, and remain distanced till the end, the anagnorisis can function “as part of this paradoxical ‘pleasure’ that [a play] confers. For a participant like Agave the anagnorisis may signal a deeper knowledge of the god. For Pentheus though, who remains trapped in the fusion of spectator’s and actor’s roles, the moment of anagnorisis coincides with the moment of his death” (Segal 1985: 162).

I am not in favour of criticism that argues in black and white. Nor am I in favour of any debate that converts even the minimal difference into an antithesis. We cannot be at odds with everything. And our job is to balance between particularities of places, characters, faces, aesthetics and ideologies and macro-interdependencies; a balancing that can bear better fruits if it questions prevailing values and trends and opposes the crude and all embracing materialism of the age. And that requires above all moral integrity, a cultivated mind unbiased by personal involvement or unfair predispositions, unfair comparisons, unsupported judgements and inconsistent standards.

I understand that critics have other responsibilities besides writing. They can be producers, translators, freelancers, dramaturges etc. They hold a very delicate position (inter-critical) in a world of mixings and decenterings. My main fear is that by staying too long inside the framed spectacle, critics undermine their critical position and jeopardize their interpretive skills. They lose sight of the very object of their observation, the “truth” that theatre bestows through its fiction. So, the question is not whether a review is objective or not, outside or inside the picture, but whether it is speculation free or not.


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[1] Savas Patsalidis is professor of theatre theory and history at Aristotle University in Greece, theatre reviewer for a Greek daily newspaper, board member of the Hellenic Association of Theatre Critics and Vice President of ITI (Athens). He is the author of eight books on theatre and editor of eight more. His most recent publication is a study of theatre and globalization. He is currently completing a book on the reception of ancient Greek theatre in the United States.

Copyright © 2011 Savas Patsalidis
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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(Un)Critical (Re)positionings