First movement – The chorus tell of Cadmus’ abdication and wish happiness and wisdom to their new king and to the city of Thebes. Off-stage a voice suddenly cries: “The God Dionysus has entered Boeotia.” The chorus run off to welcome him.
The city of Thebes. On the right the royal palace. On the left the tomb of Semele upon which an altar-flame is burning. The city is almost empty since most of the citizens have gone off to Mount Cytheron to greet Dionysus. On stage are Cadmus, Tiresias, Agave, and Beroe. They discuss Dionysus and reveal their various attitudes towards him. Since his coronation, Pentheus has shut himself up alone in the palace where, according to Beroe, he has spent the time in fasting and prayer. Tiresias leaves to join the crowd on Mount Cytheron. The Captain of the Guard enters on his way to the palace to receive orders from Pentheus. Agave flirts with him but without exciting a response, and he goes into the palace. Her sister Autonoe joins her and they joke together about the Captain’s good looks and earnestness. The Captain comes out of the palace and reads a royal proclamation, forbidding the citizens of Thebes to believe that Zeus had a son by Semele. Soon Pentheus appears himself, goes to Semele’s tomb, extinguishes the altar-flame by casting his cloak over it, decrees death to any person who shall dare re-light it and returns to the palace, followed by the Captain. Cadmus is horrified by Pentheus’ action. Agave and Autonoe highly approve. Off-stage the sound of a string-instrument being tuned is heard, and presently a voice, which sings a serenade of invitation to go to Mount Cytheron and taste of its promised delights. Agave und Autonoe, hypnotised, dance away.
Second movement – Cadmus warns Pentheus against rash action. Pentheus re-iterates his determination to extirpate the cult of Dionysus, even if that involves punishing his mother. He orders the Captain to go with his men to Mount Cytheron and take into custody all he can find there. Pentheus reveals to his old nurse what he really believes and takes a vow to abstain from women and eating meat. Beroe prays to the Mother Goddess to protect him. The Judgement Hall in the Palace. The Captain brings in his prisoners, among them Tiresias, Autonoe, Agave, a woman slave of her household with a small daughter, and the Stranger. All are in a state of trance and hum continuously. Tiresias babbles hysterically about the relation of Dionysus to vineyards until Pentheus cuts him short. Pentheus orders the Captain to take away Agave’s slave, her daughter and any of the prisoners who are not citizens of Thebes and put them to the torture. Pentheus attempts to wake his mother from her trance by asking her who she is, who her husband was and what his own name is. In answer Agave sings an aria, describing her experience on Mount Cytheron, a kind of Wordsworthian mystical vision of nature. Beroe, having recognised that the Stranger is Dionysus tries to warn Pentheus but he will not listen to her. The Captain returns to say that torture had failed to extract any information from the prisoners. Pentheus orders him to confine Agave and Autonoe to their quarters, to set Tiresias free but to pull down his house. Pentheus, imagining the Stranger to be a priest of Dionysus, cross-questions him about the god, but receives riddling answers. Threatened with death, the Stranger sings an aria about Dionysus’s voyage to Naxos.
Third movement, 1st part – The Captain returns and Pentheus orders him to put the Stranger to the torture. Left alone, Pentheus expresses his rage and fear at what has taken place. The stage darkens. There is an earthquake and the sound of falling masonry. Pentheus’ cloak is plucked from Semele’s tomb by invisible forces, and the altar-flame shoots up once more. The glad shouts of the prisoners are heard as they escape and fly back to Mount Cytheron. The Stranger re-enters and offers to grant Pentheus a vision of what his mother and the others are really doing on Mount Cytheron. Repelled and fascinated, Pentheus orders Beroe to bring them his mother’s mirror. The Stranger holds it up, and Pentheus gazes into it.
Third movement, 2nd part – Pentheus, sick with disgust, but now completely under the hypnotic influence of the Stranger, is determined to go to Mount Cytheron and see for himself. The Stranger tells him that, in order not to be recognised, he must go disguised as a woman. Pentheus is horrified, but the Stranger brusquely orders him to go and change his clothing. Beroe, addressing the Stranger as Dionysus, pleads with him to spare Pentheus’ life. He ignores her. Pentheus re-enters, wearing one of his mother’s dresses. He calls for the Captain and tells him to line up the royal guards. Pentheus, accompanied by the Stranger, exits between their serried ranks. Left alone, Beroe breaks out into a wild lament. The Captain offers to go after Pentheus, but Cadmus says that would mean his certain death. Let the Captain rest, while he and Beroe keep watch through the night. He fears they will never see Pentheus again, and, if they do, they will wish they had not. If no news has come by the morning, the Captain may go and search Mount Cytheron.
Night in the forest of Mount Cytheron. The Bassarids are heard singing a hymn in praise of Dionysus. By the light of their dancing torches Pentheus can dimly be seen, perched on the bough of a tree from which he presently descends. A chorus of maenads (women only) invoke the god. A voice answers them, saying that there is a spy in the forest whom they should hunt down. Suddenly the light of their torches discovers Pentheus and they close in. Knowing his mother to be among them, Pentheus, using the same words he used when he questioned her in the Judgement Hall, begs her to remember who she is and that he is her son. The maenads answer every appeal with the word No. They rush upon him and out of the darkness comes his final scream. The voices of the maenads are heard retreating, as they sing a song in honor of Agave the huntress.
Fourth movement – Thebes again. Cadmus and Beroe are keeping watch. Soon Tiresias joins them. The chorus of maenads, among whom we can distinguish the voices of Agave and Autonoe, are heard approaching, singing the same song as in the last scene. Soon a crowd of Bassarids pour onto the stage. In their wake comes Agave who says: “Behold the head of the young lion whom I have hunted and brought home” and holds up the head of Pentheus. Silence. Still in a trance, Agave asks where Pentheus is. Cadmus talks to her quietly and she begins to return to a normal state. “What”, he asks, “are you holding in your arms? Is it a lion?” She looks and realises what she is holding. “How did this happen and where?”, she asks. Cadmus tells her. “What did we do and why?” “What you did”, replies Cadmus, “you can see for yourself. Why. Ask Dionysus.” The Captain and some of his guard enter, bearing the mangled corpse of Pentheus on a litter. Agave begs Cadmus to take a sword and kill her, half faints and is led to one side by Beroe. Agave, Cadmus, Beroe lament. Autonoe keeps saying “I didn’t want to do it. Agave made me do it”. Tiresias is smugly pleased that such a fate should have befallen the man who pulled down his house and says “The gods alone are holy, and what they will they do”. The chorus deny all knowledge of what happened on Mount Cytheron. They were somewhere else and saw nothing. Aria by Agave in which she bids farewell to her dead son, saying “We both did what neither would. The strong gods are not good”. The Captain and some of his men bear off the body of Pentheus. The music breaks off abruptly as the Stranger enters. He proclaims that he is the God Dionysus, decrees perpetual and separate exile to Cadmus and his daughters, and orders the Captain to set fire to the royal palace. As she is leaving, Agave turns and, in a final speech of defiance, bids Dionysus remember the fate of Uranus and Chronos. For him, too, Tartarus waits.
The stage is hidden by flames. From behind them the voice of Dionysus is heard summoning his mother Semele from the land of the dead to ascend with him to Olympus and become the Goddess Thyone. The flames die down. The ruins of Thebes are seen bathed in a brilliant Mediterranean light and covered with vines. Upon Semele’s tomb stand two rather strange-looking statues, representing Dionysus and Thyone. In front of them the chorus prostrate themselves in blind adoration.
W. H. Auden