Stevie Smith and The Bacchae

In Novel on Yellow Paper, Stevie Smith names her protagonist Pompey Casmilus. Casmilus is a name for Hermes – the mythical messenger.

So what kind of messenger is Smith’s Casmilus?

Pompey played the second messenger, we learn, in a school production of Euripides’ The Bacchae. A play, Smith remarks enigmatically, which is ‘perhaps…not very suitable for children, if you have that point of view about children.’

It goes like this. Proud young King Pentheus bans the worship of Dionysus in Thebes. As punishment, the angry god disguises himself as a mortal and comes to the city. Here, he drives the women into a divine frenzy, and they disport drunkenly in the forest. Pentheus is obviously very worried, and in his mortal disguise, Dionysus persuades him to disguise himself as a woman, and go and spy on the frenzied maenads. Pentheus takes some convincing, but eventually relents. Dionysus dresses him up, and he goes off.

A messenger – that’s Pompey – returns to tell us what happened. Which is that the women ripped Pentheus limb from limb.

So in some ways, Pompey had the most important part. Pentheus doesn’t die onstage – we have to learn the news from the messenger. It’s in Pompey’s speech that this, the climax of the play, can be said to “happen”.

But in Novel on Yellow Paper, Pompey never quite delivers this all-important message.

When she’s retelling the plot of The Bacchae. Smith reworks the climactic moment to leave herself out:

[Pentheus] gets to the bend and looks down.

There is Dionysus looking taller and bigger, and different. And laughing. Like it wasn’t so much a laugh, as something he can’t put a name to, not so much a laugh, but it is a laugh, but a grin, something like he’d seen before, with all those teeth. Ha ha, he was just pulling a funny face, that was all, he certainly was a boy with funny ideas, it was nothing at all of course about his being bigger, it was just a trick of the distance. So: Goodbye, shouts Pentheus: Goodbye, and thanks a lot. And: Goodbye, shouts Dionysus: Goodbye Pentheus, give my love to Agave.

And Pentheus is never seen again alive.

So the messenger vanishes with his message. Instead, we’re left with this curious, half-incomprehensible laugh – Pentheus only knows that it’s ‘something like he’d seen before.’ A message half-apprehended, barely understood.

Like all Smith’s messages, it’s not where we expect. And we don’t quite know what to make of it.

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