Words, Names and Gods

So, a week in, and as always, it’s a whole new world. The alchemy of having the company of actors in a room together, sharing ideas and insights, and just getting used to the sound of the text is a wonderful and constantly surprising thing. We spent our first two days working on table-work — which seemed even more important in this play than usual. And, of all the research we did and all the discussions we had, we spent the most time, I think, on pronunciations.

The Bacchae is, obviously, full of names — of places and people, heroes and gods — and one of the first questions I came up against when we read the script aloud was: “how should we approach these names?” It seems arrogant in the extreme to me to translate the name of a god into a standard American pronunciation — doesn’t a deity deserve to have his name spoken in his own language? Ah, but which language? There is some debate as to how disimilar Ancient Greek is from Modern Greek — so should these names be spoken in the modern Greek, which is slightly less magical but more familiar, or in the Classical pronunciation? Or, should this become a moot point as we flatten it all out to an American pronunciation?

I feel strongly that we want to use the Greek, not least because it is distancing for us. We all know what we think Zeus is… but when we hear it in the Classical Greek, which sounds closer to ZAY-os, we have to rethink our familiarity with this god. Maybe what we remember from a Classics class in high school or college isn’t actually enough to fully grasp the full character of the god.

The Dionysos that we meet in The Bacchae has little in common with the jolly God of wine and excess that we think we understand. He is a primal force, a dangerous and unpredictable presence who sweeps those around him onward into elation or despair. He is change. I find it fitting that when we hear his name, it is slightly different from how we expect it to be.

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