The men and women on stage are fully under the influence of Dionysos, so that the arguments in favor of self-restraint and civilization generally remain unspoken. Fabre knows that the bloody excess, the cruelty and self-destructive actions on stage will evoke these arguments automatically from his audience. But at times they are given voice on stage, as well. Hecuba in chapter 2 is the first to do so, in her plea to Odysseus to spare her daughter’s life and end the cycle of violence. The second, more ambivalently, is Pentheus in his speech promising all good citizens of Thebes that he will rid the town of the lewd, uncivilized, and destructive cult of Dionysos that has seized its women like an illness.
While the stand-off between Dionysos and Pentheus and even to a remarkable degree the words of their speeches are drawn directly from Euripides, Fabre makes significant modifications to their characters. In lieu of Euripides’ inexperienced, impudent and reckless young king, Fabre (and performer Marc Moon Van Overmeir) portrays Pentheus as a seasoned, hard-working leader, albeit one with a pronounced inclination to authoritarianism. Pentheus’ speech is a good example of how the authors, with tremendous restraint and effect, adapted a relatively small number of lengthy speeches from classical tragedy to sketch out both characters and meta-plot in “Mount Olympus.”
The speech begins in “Mount Olympus,” as in the Bacchae, with the sentence “I happened to be out of town … but reports reached me of some strange mischief here.” If I remember correctly, however, the authors/editors of Fabre’s texts for “Mount Olympus” added here, where I place the ellipsis, the phrase “working hard and risking my life to protect your economic interests abroad.” This interpolation (in Overmeir’s cogent delivery) characterizes Pentheus as a seasoned, confident leader; ties him in to the other heroes of “Mount Olympus,” suggesting he was off waging war on behalf of the city; and in particular suggests he was off waging war for our economic benefit. The addition is fully in keeping with Euripides’ style—a blasé confession of realpolitik by a politician. It spells out an argument central to both Euripides and “Mount Olympus”—that heroes act for wealth or honor. And it makes Pentheus absolutely fit for the 21st century, without vitiating the character as developed by Euripides.
This one phrase allows us to see Pentheus as a business leader, as well as an Aeschylean warrior/ Euripidean politician / hero. What Fabre is focusing on in “Mount Olympus” is power, specifically male power. And that power is expressed in Europe and America today no less in the board rooms of banks and multi-national corporations than in the corridors of government or the battlefield. The close ties between merchants or bankers or land-owners on the one hand and warriors and princes on the other goes back to time immemorial. Consider Aeschylos’ metaphor for war as the “money-changer of bodies” (in Agamemnon). Think of the Venetian Empire, the Dutch Empire, the British Empire—first came the trade routes, then the navy to defend them. The phrase may even refer to a German president, Horst Köhler, who in 2010 resigned after being criticized for suggesting publicly that Germany should wage war when necessary to protect trade routes.
The salient feature of the bond between war and money in the late 20th and early 21st century is perhaps not its unusual strength and resilience, but its near invisibility. The division of labor between professional soldier and professional banker is so complete, the distance between boardroom power centers and oilfields and battlefields is so great, that we actually need someone like Jan Fabre to remind us of their unity of purpose more than ever before. We need him to remind us that the wars being fought around the globe from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Syria and the Sudan are being fought, with real blood, directly or indirectly, in large part for our economic (not our human) interests.
Thus the character of Pentheus in “Mount Olympus,” as a hero/king invoking the safety, morality, and economic well-being of his people while incidentally magnifying his own public image, is utterly convincing, utterly contemporary, and even appealing in a way. We may quibble that Pentheus goes too far in the direction of authoritarian repression of individual liberty; but the conduct exhibited by those under the sway of Dionysos could scarcely be tolerated by any political leader, no matter how liberal, and scarcely be condoned by any moralist other than one who owns an S&M club. As portrayed in “Mount Olympus,” Dionysos’ victims really are hurting each other and themselves.
On the level of language and speech-acting, too: the monologues in “Mount Olympus” (dialogues in the narrow sense are rare), while preserving the lofty tone of classical tragedy, display a succinct, matter-of-fact diction and realpolitik sensibility that sound perfectly at home in the 21st century. Another of Fabre’s subtle interpolations in this same speech of Pentheus is the sentence: “sometimes freedom requires a policeman on every corner to protect people from themselves.” This does everything mentioned above and even adds a dose of biting Euripidean humor.
Fabre does something similar for all the characters of Greek drama who appear in the course of “Mount Olympus.” The heroes are stripped of any claim they may have had to moral high ground or nobility of purpose in the plays of Aeschylos and Sophocles; but also of the cowardice and hypocrisy Euripides would have layered them with. We are left with raw, naked heroes, who rape and kill and sacrifice their own health in a monomaniacal pursuit of honor and satisfaction restrained only by other heroes or their own mortality. We cannot help but feel sympathy for men, like Ajax, who have committed horrible “crimes” and ruined themselves while or after fighting our enemies. We may wish they could defeat our enemies and then learn to exercise the values of restraint, humility and forgiveness preached by Socrates or Jesus Christ. But we recognize that Socrates and Ajax are incompatible types. Ajax kills our enemies for us and expects only honor and obedience from us in return. Socrates lets himself be killed rather than killing in breach of his values. Which leaves us alone to die with him as martyrs. Socrates expects every one of us to be as brave as Socrates in the face of death. Few of us are.