Pentheus & the Bacchae film- propos­al for my next uni project

Published Categorised as Art & Design, History No Comments on Pentheus & the Bacchae film- propos­al for my next uni project


I wrote this propos­al for my next project at uni to send my tutor. I’m doing an MA in Sequen­tial Design. Basic­ally I can do anything I like, as long as it’s based on storytelling in art, and after the term I’ve just finished, you have to set your­self your own projects. So here’s what I’ll be work­ing on after Christ­mas (subject to any changes sugges­ted by my tutor)

So this is one of the films based on Ovid’s Meta­morph­oses that will make up my major project. It’s going to be an anim­ated film about 3 minutes long, anim­ated with paper cutout puppets done in the style of greek vases. It’s one of the nice blood-thirsty Greek myths.


My next project is based on a section of Book 3- the story of Pentheus & the Bacchae, I’m going to use the Euri­pedes play as a base more than the poem though, because I like that version of the story better.

Basic­ally Dionysus rolls into Thebes with his chaot­ic entour­age, Pentheus the local king refuses to let the people go and join in his rites, and has Dionysus arres­ted. Pentheus inter­rog­ates Dionysus, who puts a spell on him not to recog­nise the god, and Pentheus gets nowhere while Dionysus plays with him. Dionysus then uses his magic to escape the palace, caus­ing it to fall down in an earth­quake. Pentheus is unharmed, and when a myster­i­ous messen­ger (ie Dionysus in disguise) arrives and tells Pentheus that the women of Thebes, includ­ing his moth­er, are in the forest with Dionysus making milk and honey spring out of the ground, decor­at­ing their hair with snakes and tear­ing cows apart with their bare hands, he wants to go and invest­ig­ate.

Dionysus persuades Pentheus to dress up like a woman to infilt­rate the women-only rites. Pentheus goes into the forest, and climbs a tree to get a view of what’s going on. Dionysus then turns up, and points out Pentheus to his follow­ers, who rip him apart with their bare hands. Pentheus’ moth­er, still under the spell, goes home with his head as a trophy, until the spell wears off and the horror of what’s happened hits her.

One of the ideas often used to analyse the story (more in later times than in contem­por­ary Ancient Greek thought though) is to have Pentheus repres­ent­ing the Apol­lo­ni­an side of the Apollo-Dionysus dicho­tomy, but with Pentheus as a pale over-rigid copy of Apollo, who is usually Dionysus’ equal.

Pentheus repres­ents order, sobri­ety, the city, hard masculin­ity, logic over emotions, and the desire to impose order and logic on the chaot­ic, but without the light­ness and power that char­ac­ter­ises Apollo. He’s the king in the hier­arch­ic­al struc­ture of a city, with the women under his author­ity, and under the impres­sion that he is truly in control. He wants to organ­ise and control things because he is afraid of disorder, not because it’s in his nature like Apollo.

Dionysus repres­ents disorder, magic, altered states of conscious­ness, wander­ing from place to place, acting on pure intu­ition and emotion, and loose asso­ci­ations rather than hier­arch­ies, and is always accom­pan­ied by his group of Maenads/​Bacchae, women totally removed from the stand­ards of beha­viour expec­ted of them in Greek soci­ety.


I want to emphas­ise this aspect in the aesthet­ics of the film. Bacchae are a common decor­a­tion on Ancient Greek wine amphor­ae, and I’d like to have the film in the style of the vase paint­ings. There are two types of Greek vase paint­ing, red figure (black ink back­grounds, terra­cotta people) and black figure (terra­cotta back­ground, black ink people), and I’ll use the differ­ent styles to repres­ent the two differ­ent aspects of the story.

The city will be repres­en­ted in red figure pottery, it’s the later style and was considered more soph­ist­ic­ated at the time. I also thought the smooth, feature­less black back­grounds are a good fit for the feel of the city.

Black figure pottery is the older style, and I thought the rough­er look of the natur­al terra­cotta would be a good fit for the wild­ness of Dionysus.

Initially the city scenes would have the black back­ground, and the forest scenes the terra­cotta back­ground. When Dionysus is being inter­rog­ated though, the city back­ground will change to his colour to show that’s he’s in control. When Pentheus’ moth­er recog­nises what she’s done, the colour will change back to the city colour.

There won’t be any dialogue. I’m plan­ning to have greek words appear and disap­pear, like the letter­ing on the pottery, with words from the play, but not for people to under­stand or read (unless my audi­ence turns out to be surpris­ingly hot on their ancient greek), mostly for aesthet­ics, but some­times for storytelling effect. When Pentheus is firing ques­tions at Dionysus I want the words to contin­ue appear­ing in Pentheus’ colour, even though the back­ground has changed to Dionysus’ colour, to show how he’s trying to assert control (and fail­ing). The words will also be really tiny and packed in to show how point­less his words are, to contrast with Dionysus’ lack of an answer, and self satis­fied smirk. When char­ac­ters appear, their names will also appear in slightly scattered letters round their head, like they do on the vases. This will also be useful for identi­fy­ing Dionysus when he’s in a disguise.

So the story will be told mostly through the move­ment of the char­ac­ters, and also with sound. I’ve writ­ten a lot of theoretical/​historical stuff here, but I want to be able to use the look and feel from the art histor­ic­al context to commu­nic­ate the feel­ing of the story to the audi­ence without any prior know­ledge or explan­a­tion being neces­sary to under­stand it. Hope­fully this will work.

I was research­ing ancient Greek music, and I’ve got no wish to do some histor­ic­al recon­struc­ted thing with the sound, but to take a couple of aspects from it.

I happen to have two harp type things, which can be tuned however I want, which seem an appro­pri­ate instru­ment to use. The Ancient Greeks had strong ideas about what scales/​tunings went with what kind of settings, so my idea was to borrow some of those ideas to also increase the contrast between Dionysus and Pentheus

I think Dionysus’ bits would be tuned in the Phrygi­an mode
It was named after some moun­tain people in Asia Minor (where Dionysus is often said to come from in stor­ies) who the Ancient Greeks found a bit strange and exot­ic, and they thought listen­ing to music in this mode made you wild and excit­able. To modern ears it sounds a bit sinis­ter, and it gets used in jazz, which sounds about right for Dionysus.

Pentheus would be in Hypodori­an, because that was asso­ci­ated with milit­ary matters. Also the harp-thing’s already tuned like that. I think his bits will be in more rigid rhythms, and Dionysus’ looser.
A – B- C- D E-F-G- A

I haven’t given much more thought to the sound- I’m going to do all the anim­a­tion first and then do the sound after­wards to fit in. I know I want an eerie silence when the Bacchae look up to see Pentheus in the tree.

(this bit was aimed at my tutor, but hey, might as well be you fine read­ers too)

So what do you think of that so far? The way I’ve explained it does sound a little theory/​background heavy I know, but I can picture it in my head how it looks and is, and it will be easi­er to show when I’ve done sketches and a story­board. I’m hoping to have it finished (or nearly so) by the review of work day, because I’ve got a lot of free time coming up after Christ­mas.

Receive new posts via email.
Your data will be kept private.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.