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The Bad Boy of Athens

Medea

by Euripides, directed by Deborah Warner
at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, New York, December 10, 2002–February 22, 2003

The Children of Herakles

by Euripides, directed by Peter Sellars
at the American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge, Massachusetts,January 4–22, 2003

1.

In the early spring of 411 BC, Euripides finally got what was coming to him. The playwright, then in his seventies, had always been the bad boy of Athenian drama. He was the irreverent prankster who, in his Elektra, parodied the famous recognition scene in Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers. He was an avant-garde intellectual who took an interest in the latest theorists—he is said to have been a friend of Socrates, and it was at his home that Protagoras (“man is the measure of all things”) first read his agnostic treatise on the gods; in works like The Madness of Herakles, he questioned the established Olympian pantheon. Stylistically, he was a playful postmodernist whose sly rearranging of traditional mythic material, in bitter fables like Orestes, deconstructed tragic conventions, anticipating by twenty-five centuries a theater whose patent subject was the workings of the theater itself.

But no aspect of the playwright’s roiling opus was more famous, in his own day, than his penchant for portraying deranged females. Among them are the love-mad queen Phaedra, whose unrequited lust leads her to suicide and murder (the subject of not one but two Hippolytus plays by the poet, one now lost); the distraught erotomane widow Evadne in Suppliant Women, who incinerates herself on her dead husband’s grave; the ruthless granny Alcmene in Children of Herakles, who violently avenges herself on her male enemies; and the wild-eyed Cassandra in Trojan Women. The list goes on and on. And, of course, there was Medea, whom the Athenians knew from established legend as the murderess of her own brother, the sorceress who dreamed up gruesome ways to destroy her husband Jason’s enemy Pelias, and whom Euripides—not surprisingly, given his tastes in female characters—decided, in his staging of the myth, to make the murderess of her own children as well.

And so it was that, shortly after winter was over in 411, the women of Athens had their revenge on the man who’d given womanhood such a bad name. Or at least they did in one playwright’s fantasy. In that year, the comic dramatist Aristophanes staged his Thesmophoriazousae. (The tongue-twister of a title means “Women Celebrating the Thesmophoria”—an annual, all-female fertility festival associated with Demeter.) In this brilliant literary fantasy, Euripides learns that the women of the city are using the religious festival as a pretext to hold a debate on whether they ought to kill the playwright in revenge for being badmouthed by him in so many works over the years. Desperate to know what they’re saying about him, and eager to have someone speak up on his behalf—something no real woman would do—Euripides persuades an aged kinsman, Mnesilochus, to attend the festival in drag, spy on the proceedings, and, if necessary, speak in the poet’s defense. The plan, of course, backfires, Mnesilochus is found out, and only a last-minute rescue by Euripides himself—he comes swooping onto the stage, dressed as Perseus, in the contraption used in tragedies to hoist gods aloft—can avert disaster. Peace, founded on a promise by the playwright never to slander women again, is finally made between this difficult man of the theater and his angry audience. The play ends in rejoicing.

Many contemporary classicists—this writer included—would argue that the females of Athens were taking things far too personally. Athenian drama, presented with much ceremony during the course of a public and even patriotic yearly civic festival, structured on the armature of heroic myth, rigidly conventional in form and diction, was not “realistic”; we must be careful, when evaluating and interpreting these works, of our own tendency to see drama in purely personal terms, as a vehicle for psychological investigations. If anything, Athenian tragedy seems to have been useful as an artistic means of exploring concerns that, to us, seem to be unlikely candidates for an evening of thrilling drama: the nature of the state, the difficult relationship—always of concern in a democracy—between remarkable men (tragedy’s “heroes”) and the collective citizen body.

In particular, the dialogic nature of drama made it a perfect vehicle for giving voice to—literally acting out—the tensions that underlay the smooth ideological surface of the aggressively imperialistic Athenian democracy. Tensions, that is, between personal morality and the requirements of the state or army (as in Sophocles’ Philoctetes), between the ethical obligations imposed by family and those imposed by the city (Antigone); and the never-quite-satisfying negotiations between the primitive impulse toward personal vengeance and the civilized rule of law (Oresteia). Greek tragedy was political theater in a way we cannot imagine, or replicate, today; there was more than a passing resemblance between the debates enacted before the citizens participating in the assembly, and those conflicts, agones, dramatized before the eyes of those same citizens in the theater. Herodotus tells the story of a Persian king who bemusedly describes the Greek agora, civic meeting space, as “a place in the middle of the city where the people tell each other lies.” That’s what the theater of Dionysus was, too.

This is the context in which we must interpret tragedy’s passionate females—as odd as it may seem to us today. The wild women to whom Aristophanes’ female Athenians so hotly objected weren’t so much reflections of real contemporary females and their concerns—the preoccupation of Athenian theater being issues of import to the citizen audience, which was free, propertied, and male; we still can’t be sure whether women even attended the theater—but rather symbolic entities representing everything “other” to that smoothly coherent citizen identity. (Because women—thought to be irrational, emotional, deceitful, slaves of passion—were themselves “other” to all that the free, rational, self-controlled male citizen was.) As such, Greek drama’s girls and women—pathetic, suffering, angry, violent, noble, wicked—were ideal mouthpieces for all the concerns that imperial state ideology, with its drive toward centralization, homogenization, and unity, necessarily suppressed or smoothed over: family blood ties, the interests of the private sphere, the anarchic, self-indulgent urges of the individual psyche, secret longings for the glittering heroic and aristocratic past.

For this reason, the conflicts between tragedy’s males and females are never merely domestic spats. Clytemnestra, asserting the interests of the family, obsessed by the sacrifice of her innocent daughter Iphigenia (an act that represents the way in which the domestic and individual realms are always “sacrificed” to the collective good in wartime), kills her husband in revenge, but is herself murdered by their son—who later is acquitted by an Athenian jury. Antigone prefers her uncle’s decree of death to a life in which she is unable to honor family ties as she sees fit.

To be sure, this is a schematic reading, one that doesn’t take into account the genius of the Attic poets—men, after all, who had wives and mothers and daughters, and who were able to enhance their staged portraits of different types of females with the kind of real-life nuances that we today look for in dramatic characters. But it is useful to keep the schema in mind, if only as a counterbalance to our contemporary temptation to see all drama in terms of psyches rather than polities.

Two recent productions of works by Euripides illuminate, in very different ways, the dangers of failing to calibrate properly the precise value of the feminine in Greek, and particularly Euripidean, drama. As it happens, they make a nicely complementary pair. One, Medea, currently enjoying a highly praised run on Broadway in a production staged by Deborah Warner and starring the Irish actress Fiona Shaw, is the playwright’s best-known and most-performed play, not least because it conforms so nicely to contemporary expectations of what a night at the theater should entail. (It looks like it’s all about emotions and female suffering.) The other, The Children of Herakles, first produced a couple of years after Medea, is his least-known and most rarely performed drama: Peter Sellars’s staging of it in Cambridge, with the American Repertory Theatre, marks the work’s first professional production in the United States. That this play seems to be characterized far more by a preoccupation with dry and undramatic political concerns than by what we think of as a “typically” Euripidean emphasis on feminine passions is confirmed by classicists’ habit of referring to it as one of the poet’s two “political plays.” And yet Medea is more political than you might at first think—and certainly more so than its noisy and shallow new staging suggests; while the political message of The Children of Herakles depends much more on the portrayal of its female characters than anyone, including those who have been bold enough to stage it for the first time, might realize.

2.

By far the more interesting and thoughtful of the two productions is the Cambridge Children of Herakles. Euripides’ tale of the sufferings of the dead Herakles’ refugee children, pursued from their native land by the evil king Eurystheus and forced to seek asylum in Athens, has been much maligned for its episodic and ostensibly disjointed structure: the Aristotle scholar John Jones, writing on the Poetics, summed up the critical consensus by calling it “a thoroughly bad play.” But the imaginative if overcooked staging by Peter Sellars, who here effects one of his well-known updatings, suggests that it can have considerable power in performance.

The legend on which this odd drama is based was familiar to the Athenian audience, because it confirmed their sense of themselves as a just people. After his death, Herakles’ children are pursued from their native Argos by Eurystheus—he’s the cruel monarch who has given Herakles all those terrible labors to perform—and, led by their father’s aged sidekick, Iolaos, they wander from city to city, seeking refuge from the man who wants to wipe them out. Only the Athenians agree to give them shelter and, more, to defend them; they defeat the Argive army in a great battle during which Eurystheus is killed—after which his severed head is brought back to Herakles’ mother, Alcmene, who gouges his eyes out with dress pins. (There was a place near Athens called “Eurystheus’ Head,” where the head was supposed to have been buried.) The legend was frequently cited in political orations of Euripides’ time as an example of the justness of the Athenian state—its willingness to make war, if necessary, on behalf of the innocent and powerless.

And yet Euripides went to considerable lengths to alter this mythic account precisely by adding new female voices. In his version, the two most significant actions in the story are assigned to women. First of all, he invents a daughter for Herakles, called Macaria; in this new version of the famous patriotic myth, it is not merely the Athenians’ military might that saves the day, but Macaria’s decision, in response to one of those eleventh-hour oracles that inevitably wreak havoc with the lives of Greek tragic virgins, to die as a sacrificial victim in order to ensure victory in battle. The playwright also makes Alcmene a more vigorous, if sinister, presence: in this version, it is she who has Eurystheus killed, in flagrant violation of Athens’s rules for the treatment of prisoners of war. The play ends abruptly after she gives the order for execution.

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