by Angeline Chiu
Having marked its thirty-second anniversary this year on June 11 (“Life moves pretty fast,” as Ferris himself might say), John Hughes’ 1986 film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off celebrates the idea of breaking from the demanding everyday world to embrace a liberating temporary carnival.1 At first blush, the plot seems straightforward: on a sunny spring morning, three suburban high school students—charismatic ringleader Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick), girlfriend Sloane Peterson (Mia Sara), and best friend Cameron Frye (Alan Ruck)—play hooky to spend the day cavorting in downtown Chicago. As a paean to cheerful adolescent rebellion the film pokes fun at humorless authority figures and the constraints of school, but Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is much more than a lark or simple fantasy escapism. The film may also be profitably considered as a modern, comic reflection of prominent themes and motifs in the Bacchae of Euripides. I am not suggesting that Hughes consciously based his movie on Euripides’ tragic masterpiece of 405 BC, but I submit that by better understanding the Bacchae, we can better understand Ferris Bueller and vice versa, and that by looking at their resonance we may gain a fresh appreciation of Dionysiac celebration and the appeal of the festival idea at large.2
A survey of the film reveals an intriguing affinity with Dionysiac and Euripidean themes. These center first and foremost on the protagonist, Ferris Bueller: the popular and playful high school senior readily emerges as a modern Bacchus figure. For instance, we recall that Dionysus was the patron of theatre, and in the Bacchae he famously disguises himself as the Stranger in order to engage with the adversarial Pentheus, king of Thebes, and ultimately to destroy him. Ferris makes repeated use of disguise and performance from his initial ploy to feign illness3 to his impersonation of Sloane’s father in order to liberate her from class to a brazen bluff as Abe Froman “the Sausage King of Chicago” to acquire a table at an upscale French restaurant.4 In each case, Ferris’s manipulation of identity and appearance is subversive play that undercuts the authority figure(s) in the scene, respectively his parents, school principal Ed Rooney, and a condescending maître-d.
More provocative still is Ferris’s leadership role as he gathers his friends and spearheads the “day off” as a departure from the everyday world with its concerns and obligations. The world of the high school becomes manifestly an unpleasant place of confinement, boredom, and the dulling of the senses and individual personality. The two classes that appear in the film are amusingly agonizing in their exaggerated depiction of high school: in Economics, a monotone-voiced instructor (Ben Stein in an iconic role) drones on relentlessly about tariffs as students sleep, fidget, or stare with glazed eyes in a series of close-up shots of their faces; in English, a teacher (Del Close) with oddly punctuated, slow verbal delivery lectures in front of a blackboard crammed with terms.5
When Ferris leads Sloane and Cameron on their day off, he takes them specifically to locations that offer perspectives and experiences that are radically different from Hughes’ version of dull mundane life. They are stimulating in various ways, but all the venues of the grand day out expand the three characters’ experiential horizons. At the Willis Tower Observation Deck, the three friends lean against the glass for a dizzying view over downtown Chicago and remark on what they see:
Sloane: The city looks so peaceful from up here.
Ferris: Anything is peaceful from 1,353 feet.
Cameron: I think I see my dad.
In the same vein, the three truants’ visits to the Art Institute of Chicago is a decision to consider both creative modes of expression and one’s own humanity. The sequence may seem superficially out of place or even out of character: not every high schooler cuts class and then goes to a museum. The three characters, however, interact with the art: they pose in imitation of Rodin’s portrait of Balzac and engage playfully with a troupe of young schoolchildren; Sloane and Ferris share a kiss in front of Chagall’s American Windows; Cameron finds himself face-to-face not only with Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte but also his own personal insecurities. In the museum sequence, the escape from normal life and the embrace of creative expression is a form of carnival release, and imaginative art as a means to contemplate and comment on very real human issues resonates with the core ideas of ancient Greek theatre, Dionysus’ own sphere.
The same overarching idea continues with visits to Wrigley Field for a baseball game, the Chicago Board of Trade, and Chez Quis: all these break from stultifying routine yield atypical and invigorating experiences. As Ferris remarks, “Hey, Cameron. You realize if we played by the rules right now we’d be in gym?” Rule-breaking, the desire to break free, is an essential element, particularly as rules in the film are inextricably linked with school, constraint, misery, and boredom. This pattern then finds its ultimate expression of in the climactic parade scene to be discussed later.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Ferris’s depiction as a Dionysus figure is his role as an object of veneration. The “cult of Ferris” begins at school: students repeatedly speak admiringly of him (including spreading wild rumors of his beneficence7), and his adherents spontaneously mount a fundraiser for him when they think he needs an organ transplant. More tellingly, the high school’s English Department sends a lavish “get well soon” floral arrangement to Ferris’s home. (In fact, the Bueller home soon overflows with flowers sent for Ferris; bouquets and balloons clutter the foyer and even bedeck the stairs.) Aside from his popularity on campus, Ferris’s influence reaches into the neighborhood and then into the city at large. The suburb’s water tower proclaims “Save Ferris,” implying that the local community supports him, and an external shot of Wrigley Field also shows “Save Ferris” on the marquee, hinting that all Chicago follows in Bueller’s train.8 Ferris becomes a magnetic, larger-than-life, and even borderline magical figure. In this sense, complaints or concerns about the cost or impracticality of Ferris’s antics9 miss the point of his modern mythological characterization. At the same time, Ferris exerts a powerful social influence that enraptures his supporters as much as it enrages his great adversary, Principal Rooney.
Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) swiftly becomes a Euripidean Pentheus figure in his relentless determination to persecute Ferris, whom he sees as a threat to orderly society—i.e., society under his control.10 Whereas Pentheus sought to clamp down on Bacchic behavior in Thebes, Rooney attempts to exert his authority over the high school: like Euripides’ headstrong king who is bewildered and angered by Dionysus, Rooney regards Ferris as a social menace that must be crushed in order to reassert his own supremacy. As the movie opens, a conversation between Rooney and his quirky secretary Grace (Edie McClurg) clarifies Rooney’s antagonism toward Ferris:
Rooney: What is so dangerous about a character like Ferris Bueller is he gives good kids bad ideas.
Rooney: The last thing I need at this point in my career is fifteen hundred Ferris Bueller disciples running around these halls. He jeopardizes my ability to effectively govern this student body.
Grace: Well, makes you look like an ass is what he does, Ed.
Rooney: Thank you, Grace. I think you’re wrong.
Grace: Oh, well, he’s very popular, Ed. The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, dickheads—they all adore him. They think he’s a righteous dude.
Rooney: That is why I have got to catch him this time—To show these kids that the example he sets is a first-class ticket to nowhere!
Rooney’s hostility is clear, along with his fear of losing control (“He jeopardizes my ability to effectively govern this student body”): he worries that Ferris’s appeal will influence other students and turn them into similarly uncontrollable “Ferris Bueller disciples.” Rooney’s choice of the word “disciples” gives Ferris’s social sway a distinct whiff of the religious, of a dangerously unruly cult that threatens the insecure principal’s authoritarian leanings. At the same time, Ferris’s extensive appeal is clear: it is the unifying factor among many disparate—and likely mutually exclusive—groups of students who “… all adore him. They think he’s a righteous dude.” The word “righteous” appears here primarily as high school slang to mean “cool” or “excellent,” but its older, preexistent association with religious virtue is still in usage, creating a playful (if perhaps unintentional on the filmmakers’ part) juxtaposition with Rooney’s sarcastic use of “disciples.”11
Rooney’s unyielding enmity toward Ferris—particularly set against the wider world’s embrace of him—becomes increasingly extreme and reminiscent of Pentheus’ crusade against Dionysus. The inflexible Rooney refuses to accept Ferris, and he, like Pentheus, soon comes to personal grief in his obsessive attempt to crush his adversary. In trying to catch Ferris in flagrante delicto playing hooky, Rooney leaves campus and searches first a local pizzeria and then the Bueller residence; along the way, he becomes increasingly disheveled and undignified.
The humor is largely slapstick, but the common result is Rooney’s degradation: he mistakes another teen for Ferris and she spits her drink in his face; while he stumbles around the Buellers’ property he flounders into a mud puddle and loses a shoe; he accidentally turns the water hose on himself; he is kicked in the nose by Ferris’s sister who mistakes him for a burglar; he parks his car illegally and sees it towed away, forcing him to walk until he is recognized by a passing school bus driver. She then gives him a humiliating lift in which he has to walk past rows of staring students and sit next in the back where he sees rude graffiti mocking him. In Rooney’s final scene, he glances across the bus aisle only to see “Save Ferris” prominently emblazoned on a student’s binder. Rooney’s attempts to quash his foe have ended in the loss of his own dignity and authority, while Ferris remains as much a figure of veneration as ever.
A practical point of contact between Pentheus and Rooney occurs when Rooney approaches the Bueller residence. Having first tried to peek through the windows, he then pokes his head through the pet door, only to discover—to his horror—that he has come face to face with the growling family dog. This is a scene of comic comeuppance as the hunter becomes the hunted, but it also has its Euripidean echoes. Rooney trespasses into a private space and the sphere of Ferris, calling to mind Pentheus’ cynical, voyeuristic, even sacrilegious intrusion into the sacred Bacchic rites in the woods outside Thebes. The intruder then encounters a savage presence bent on tearing him to pieces, a force he cannot reason or argue with, only suffer from. For Rooney it is the Buellers’ Rottweiler viciously chasing him into the bushes, but the incident parallels Pentheus’ terrifying encounter in the woods with ferocious, irrational Maenads who rend him limb from limb. In the film, the sparagmos takes on a comic cast, but the idea remains that the persecutor of the god attempts to invade the divinity’s sacred space and as a consequence suffers at the hands of the god’s violent adherents. Rooney manages to escape with only a limp.
The Parade Scene:
The capstone of the film, and the greatest example of Dionysiac themes in it, is the climactic parade scene in downtown Chicago.12 Ferris comes into his own as a modern Bacchus, creating a vast scene of orgiastic and socially transcendent carnival release when he leads a Bacchic celebration of joyous song and dance. The scene begins with a rather staid parade celebrating German-American heritage. Then to Cameron and Sloane’s initial horror but later entertainment, Ferris commandeers a float and the parade itself as he grabs a mic and sings Wayne Newton’s 1963 classic “Danke Schoen.” It is a humorous twist on the original parade’s identity as a celebration of German influence, but it is also only the beginning: Ferris next launches energetically into the Beatles’ 1964 “Twist and Shout,” an act greeted with shrieks of joy from the crowd that quickly swells in size.
The enthusiastic dancing throng of “Ferris Bueller disciples” soon includes construction workers on scaffolds, businessmen in skyscrapers (exemplified by Ferris’s own father when he hears the celebration far below), and all kinds of people in the crowd, united in their shared Bacchic involvement. Even the old join in as the original heritage parade’s silver-haired, sash-wearing VIPs dance in their box, and in that celebration they find pleasure and rejuvenation much as aged Cadmus and Tiresias do in the Bacchae. The scene overall is marked by its inclusivity amid cheerful chaos: the strict line between parade and spectator, so prominent at the beginning of the scene when security escorts Cameron and Sloane away from Ferris’s float, breaks down as everyone becomes a participant and the entire street one giant dance floor. The choice of song could scarcely be better, for the lyrics of “Twist and Shout” evoke the wild celebration for which Bacchic worship was famous. Furthermore, in a grand coincidence of 1980s props echoing ancient iconography, Ferris’s gold-and-black spotted sweater vest resembles a leopard skin and the drum major’s baton that he holds aloft echoes the classic Dionysian thyrsus.
The parade scene presents an image of carnival Bacchanalia and what it can accomplish. It does not substantively change the world—afterwards, everyone returns to their normal lives, and Ferris does not advocate perpetual festive anarchy—but it does do something for the participants; it affords them a moment to let go of normal constraints.13 The film parade reimagines ancient Bacchic ideas with its raucous music, shouts, frenzied dancing, and the exuberance of female worshippers: the Maenads of myth and Euripides find their modern equivalent in Ferris’s bevy of beer hall girls, another group associated with drinking, sensuality, festival, and distinctive outfits. The image of Ferris surrounded by his wildly gyrating Maenads and cheering, dancing, singing people of all ages and walks of life resonates powerfully with Dionysiac myth. If indeed all Chicago favors Ferris, then this is a scene of transcendence, of revelation and communion, a new twist on ancient mystery as Ferris, a modern Dionysus, comes to revel with his followers.
After 2400 years Euripides’ Bacchae is still compelling in its presentation of the clash between Dionysus and Pentheus, play and discipline, irrationality and order—it is a classic. After 30 years John Hughes’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off has achieved a status of its own as a pop culture staple in its depiction of Ferris and Rooney, freedom and constraint, work and play. I would submit that while one takes a tragic approach and the other a comic one, both at heart take up the endlessly relevant, fundamental give-and-take between different aspects of human life, as well as the visceral social desires for control/command and escape/carnival, and that this is a large part of what drives these two very disparate yet very similar works’ timeless appeal—and that to understand them in relation to each other bolsters our grasp of what makes them both great.
All images are of the film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off © Paramount Pictures Corp., and are reproduced with permission. All Rights Reserved.
1: For its cultural significance Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was selected for inclusion in the National Registry of Films in 2014 in association with the Library of Congress. Recent examples of the film’s enduring influence as cult classic include the 3-day-long Ferris Fest celebrations (http://www.ferrisfest.com/) in Chicago over May 20-22, 2016, to mark the movie’s 30th anniversary; Smithsonian magazine’s June 1, 2016 online feature “How Ferris Bueller's Day Off Perfectly Illustrates the Power of Art Museums: Three decades after it premiered, the coming-of-age film remains a classic” (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/how-ferris-buellers-day-perf…); and a humorous meta-cinematic nod to Ferris Bueller’s post-credits scene in the post-credits scene of the 2016 Marvel superhero film Deadpool directed by Tim Miller (US premiere on February 12, 2016). Eagle-eyed fans of both film and baseball have even pinpointed the exact date of the “day off” based on footage of the Chicago Cubs-vs.-Atlanta Braves game seen in the film: (http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=12877).
2: See too Mikhail Bahktin’s famous formulation of the “carnivalesque” in Rabelais and His World. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1968.
3: Ferris notes this himself as he breaks the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience: “Incredible! One of the worst performances of my career and they [his parents] never doubted it for a second.” This begins a series of moments in which Ferris addresses the viewer and introduces a theme of metatheatricality and a sense of collusion or participation with him. He makes the audience complicit in his day off and transforms viewers into, as Principal Rooney says later in the film, “Ferris Bueller disciples.”
4: The name of the restaurant is itself a joke: Chez Quis, which is pronounced in the film so that it sounds very much like "Shakey's", a famous pizza chain.
5: His words (inadvertently to him) underscore the oppressive atmosphere as he attempts to elicit responses from the inert class: “In … what … way … does the author’s use of the prison symbolize the protagonist’s struggle, and how does this relate to our discussion of the uses of irony?” The teacher proceeds to take up a piece of chalk and draw bars through the word “prison” on the blackboard.
6: In terms of geography, the film inverts the play. In the Bacchae, Dionysiac worshippers leave Thebes to cavort in the woods; in the movie, Ferris and his friends leave their suburb to revel in downtown Chicago. The idea of escaping to a different location with different rules remains the same though the construction of liberty as a location varies.
7: As one schoolgirl gushes, “I heard that if Ferris dies, he’s giving his eyes to Stevie Wonder. He’s such a sweetie!”
8: The extent of Ferris’s influence is played for laughs later as his sister Jeanie attempts to call the police: “There is an intruder, male, Caucasian, possibly armed, certainly weird, in my kitchen. My name is Bueller … [pause] … Look, it’s real nice that you hope my brother is feeling better, but I’m in danger, OK?” In another scene, a headline in the Chicago Sun-Times reads, “Community rallies around sick youth.” The newspaper does not mention Ferris by name, but the news item teases the audience even as it is a sight gag about Sloane in its original context.
10: Ferris’s resentful elder sister Jeanie (Jennifer Grey) has her own subplot as an adversary who becomes a convert. She is thus initially a Pentheus figure who eventually abandons that role in contrast to Rooney.
11: Rooney’s rant focuses on student support of Ferris, but he has more to concern him: if the English Department’s aforementioned delivery of flowers to the Bueller home and Grace’s own indulgent description of Ferris’s popularity are any indication, “Ferris Bueller disciples” include not only students but also faculty and staff, more people over whom Rooney has authority. Bueller thus jeopardizes Rooney’s “ability to effectively govern” the entire school.
12: Recall that this scene is so iconic that a reenactment of it featured prominently in the 2016 Ferris Fest program.
13: Note Cameron’s character arc in particular. His day off in Ferris’s company ultimately leads him to confront his own personal anxieties and take charge of his own life. At the start of the film, Ferris had told the audience in confidence: “If anyone needs a day off, it’s Cameron. He has a lot of things to sort out before he graduates. Can’t be wound up this tight and go to college—his roommate will kill him.” Cameron begins the film being sick in bed, but his physical illness is a reflection of deeper emotional and psychological trauma: nervous and unhappy, he is unable to enjoy the day off, much less life, until he embraces Ferris’s exuberant approach, depicted in Cameron finally dancing at the parade. By the end of the film, he even plays a prank on Ferris and, most significant of all, finds the internal fortitude to face his issues with his father. He thus goes from earlier saying, “I can’t handle anything—school, parents, the future” to be able to say with confidence at movie’s end, “I am not going to sit on my ass as the events that affect me unfold to determine the course of my life. I’m going to take a stand. I’m going to defend it.”
Angeline Chiu is Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Vermont where she teaches a carousel of classes that include Shakespeare and the Classical Tradition, mythology, ancient drama, and all levels of Latin. She is the author of Ovid's Women of the Year: Narratives of Roman Identity in the Fasti (Michigan, 2016) and recently served as associate producer and house manager for UVM Classics' new musical production of Euripides' Helen.