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.
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.
Classicists have always thought the play is “political,” but only because there are scenes in which various male characters—the caustic envoy of the Argive king, the sympathetic Athenian monarch Demophon, son of Theseus—debate what the just course for Athens ought to be (to come to the aid of the refugees and thereby risk war, or to incur religious pollution by failing to honor the claims of suppliants at an altar). But it’s only when you understand the political dimensions of the tragedy’s portrayal of women that you can see just how political a play it really is. The contrast between the two female figures—the self-sacrificing Macaria, and the murderous Alcmene; one concerned only for her family and allies, the other intent on the gratification of private vengeance—could not be greater.
In symbolic terms, the terms familiar to Euripides’ audiences, the play is about the politics of civic belonging. Herakles’ children, homeless, stateless, are eager to reestablish their civic identity—to belong somewhere; Maca- ria’s action demonstrates that in order to do so, sacrifices (of the individual, of private “family” concerns) must take place. (In her speech of self-sacrifice, she uses all of the current buzzwords of Athenian civic conformity.) Her bloodthirsty grandmother, on the other hand, eager to avenge a lifetime of humiliations to her family, dramatizes the way in which private concerns—she, like Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra, is the representative of clan interests—never quite disappear beneath the smooth façade of public interest. “I am ‘someone,’ too,” she hotly replies, during the closing minutes of the play, in response to an Athenian’s statement that “there is no way that someone may execute” Eurystheus in violation of Athenian law.
It is a shame, given the trouble Euripides goes to in order to inject vivid female energies into a story that previously had none, that Peter Sellars (who you could say has made a specialty of unpopular or difficult-to-stage Greek dramas: past productions include Sophocles’ Ajax and Aeschylus’ Persians, which has all of the dramatic élan of a Veterans Day parade) has focused on those issues in the play that appear “political” to us, rather than those that the Athenians would have understood to be political. Because there are refugees in the play, Sellars thinks the play is about what we call refugee crises—to us, now, a very political-sounding dilemma indeed. He has, accordingly, with his characteristic thoroughness and imaginative brio, gone to a great deal of trouble to bring out this element, almost to the exclusion of everything else.
Indeed, the American Repertory Theatre’s performance of Children of Herakles is only one third of a three-part evening. It begins with a one-hour panel discussion—the guests change each night of the play’s run—hosted by the Boston radio personality Christopher Lydon, that focuses on refugee crises around the world. The night I saw the play, his three guests were Arthur Helton, the director of Peace and Conflict Studies for the Council on Foreign Relations; a female asylum-seeker from Somalia called Ayisha; and a Serbian woman from the former Yugoslavia who’d emigrated to the US after suffering during the Balkan wars. Then comes the performance of Euripides’ play, which lasts two hours; and then a screening of a film. The latter represents, in the words of the program, “an artistic response to the current crisis—a series of films made in countries that are generating large numbers of refugees.”
This probably sounds more pretentious and gimmicky than it really is. It’s true that a lot went wrong the night I saw the play: the Serbian woman, rather than shedding light on her own experiences as a refugee, lectured the audience rather stridently about the meaning of freedom (she chided us about our lust for large refrigerators); the first part took longer than expected, with the result that the film at the end of the evening began late, and people started disappearing, despite the temptations of a buffet dinner between parts two and three that featured appropriately politicized entrees (“grilled Balkan sausage”); and so on. But a lot about the evening was right. It’s rare to see a production of a Greek drama that so seriously and conscientiously attempts to replicate, in some sense, the deeply political context in which the ancient works were originally performed. Whatever its flaws, Sellars’s Children of Herakles makes you feel that an appropriate staging of this work entails more than a couple hours’ emoting followed by an argument about where to have dinner.
I found myself objecting, at first, to one of the most extreme gestures the director made: that is, having the children of Herakles themselves embodied (they’re not speaking roles) by Boston-area refugee children, who every now and then went up into the audience to shake our hands. But the sense of being somehow implicated in the real lives of the actors, so foreign to contemporary theatrical sensibilities, would not have been that strange to Euripides’ audiences. The choruses in the theater of Dionysos at Athens were chosen from among Athenian citizens, boys and men, who would indeed have been known to the spectators, or at least some of them. Modern drama seeks to create estrangement, and distance, between the artifice on stage and the spectators’ everyday lives; ancient drama relied, in its way, on a sense of communal concern.
Sellars understands, furthermore, that tragedy doesn’t need a lot to achieve its effects, and his staging is rightly stark: a stepped altar in the middle of the stage surrounded by the huddling male offspring of Herakles, who have taken sanctuary there (the top of the altar was supposed to be occupied by a female Kazakh bard—a nice, if misplaced, Homeric touch—but she was ill the night I attended); a microphone, downstage left, into which the Argive envoy and Athenian king speak, which—not inappropriately, I thought—gives the debates at the opening of the play, where the city’s course of action is decided, the air of a press conference; and, for the chorus (their lines were read by Lydon and another person, a woman) a little conference table at the extreme left of the stage, where they sit primly, occasionally making weary bureaucratic noises about how sorry they felt about the refugees’ plight. This is perfect: it gets just right the tone of this work’s chorus, which like the choruses in many tragedies is stranded between good intentions and a healthy self-protectiveness.
What robs the play of the impact it could have had is Sellars’s failure to appreciate the subtle gender dynamics in Euripides’ text. One of the reasons that the actions of Euripides’ Macaria and Alcmene are so striking is that they’re the only actions by females in a play otherwise wholly devoted to masculine concerns: the governance of the free state, extradition issues, war. Part of Sellars’s updating, however, is to give the roles of the nasty Argive herald—the one whom Eurystheus sends to intimidate the Athenians into giving up the refugees—and of the Athenian king Demophon (here recast as “president” of Athens) to women. Although the parts are well-played—the Demophon in particular comes across as a shrewd contemporary elected official, eager to do right but hamstrung by elaborate political obligations—the shift in gender results in a collapse of the playwright’s meanings.
In Euripides’ play, the unexpected and electrifying entrance of Macaria and her offer of self-immolation dramatizes the need to sacrifice the “personal” and “domestic”—things that tragic women were understood to represent—to the larger civic good; the unusual and even revolutionary impact of her appearance and subsequent action is underscored, in the original, by her apology for appearing in public in the first place, something no nice Athenian girl would do. But Sellars’s staging makes nonsense of the lines; it’s absurd for this girl to be apologizing for talking to men outside the confines of the house, asserting that she knows that a woman’s place is in the home, when the most politically powerful characters in the play are, as they are in this staging, women. And so the end of the play—the old woman’s violent explosion, a reminder that the energies that must be sacrificed to establish the collective good always lurk uneasily within the polity, and can erupt—makes no sense, either. The women in this Children of Herakles are very healthy, thank you very much; there is no “repressed” to return.
Worse still, Sellars stages the sacrifice of Macaria—beautifully, it is true, and bloodily. But it’s not in the play. One of the most famously disturbing things about The Children of Herakles is the irony that, after she makes her bid for immortality—the girl begs to be honored in her family’s and Athens’s memory before she goes off to die—we never hear another word about her. There are all sorts of explanations for this cold treatment of a warm-blooded character (not least, that the manuscript of the play is incomplete), but surely one is precisely that everything that Macaria represents must, in fact, disappear in order for the community to persist. Tragedy loves its self-heroizing females, but like the state whose concerns it so subtly enacted, it always found a way to get rid of those unmanageable “others.” By bringing Macaria back in the second half of the play, and allowing us to weep over the spectacle of the tiny young girl having her throat cut, Sellars reasserts the energies that Euripides shows—ironically or not—being silenced.
And so, like an earlier generation of classicists who saw little of value in this play except references to contemporary politicking—the speeches were thought to echo fifth-century-BC Athenian political debates—Sellars fails to see where the play’s political discourse really lies. Which is to say, in the representation of the two characters who look the least like politicians: a young girl and an old woman. Did Euripides care about refugees? Yes, but only because of what refugee crises tell us about the nature of the state. (“The current event” he cared about was Athens’s summary execution, the year before the play was produced, of some Spartan envoys—clearly the referent for Alcmene’s climactic act of violence.) Peter Sellars, on the other hand, cares about refugees the way a twenty-first-century person cares—he feels for these poor kids, the mute, wide-eyed boys, the brutalized girls, and wants to make you feel for them, too. The result, alas, is a play that often sends a message that’s the inverse of the one Euripides was telegraphing to his audience, by means of symbolic structures they knew well. Someone gets sacrificed in this Children of Herakles, but it isn’t just Macaria.
A similar desire to update a Euripidean classic in terms familiar to today’s audience has, apparently, informed Deborah Warner’s vulgar, noisy, and uncomprehending staging of Medea, which went from a limited run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music to its current Broadway run, which has been rapturously received by most critics—mostly because they are rightly impressed by Fiona Shaw’s emotional ferocity. If only it were being put in the service of a reading that did justice to Euripides! For if Sellars’s Euripides ultimately betrays its source because it thinks “our” politics are the play’s politics, Warner’s Euripides fails because it mistakes “our” women for Euripides’ women.
In an interview two years ago with the Guardian, before their Medea had crossed the Atlantic, Warner and Shaw decried the “misplaced image of Medea as a strong, wilful, witchy woman,” suggesting instead that the key to their heroine was, in fact, her “weakness.” “Audiences can identify with weakness,” Shaw said:
I think the Greek playwrights knew that. That they could entice the audience into an emotional debate about failure and dealing with being a failed person.
This betrays a remarkable failure to understand the nature of Greek tragic drama, which unlike contemporary psychological drama didn’t strive to have audiences “identify” with its characters—if anything, Athenian audiences were likely to find the chorus more sympathetic and recognizable than the outsized heroes with their divine pedigrees—and which was relatively uninterested in the wholly modern notion of “dealing” with failure (and, you suppose, finding “closure”). For the Greeks, the allure of so many tragic heroes is, in fact, exactly the opposite of what Warner and Shaw think it is: the heroes’ strength, their grandeur, their power, the attributes of intellect or valor that they must resort to in their staged struggles with a hostile fate—or, as in many plays, like Sophocles’ Ajax, their struggles to adapt to post-heroic worlds that have shifted and shrunk beneath them, rendering the heroes outsized, obsolete.
And indeed, rather than being what Shaw called “very normal” and Warner “the happy housewife of Corinth,” Euripides’ Medea is deliberately presented as a kind of female reincarnation of one of the most anguished, outsized, titanic dramatic heroes in the ancient canon: Sophocles’ Ajax, the hero of a drama first produced about ten years before Medea. Like Ajax, Medea is first heard, rather uncannily, offstage, groaning over her plight: her abandonment by her husband Jason, who has left her to marry the daughter of Creon, the king of Corinth. Like Ajax, she is characterized by what the classicist Bernard Knox has summarized as “determined resolve, expressed in uncompromising terms,” by a “fearful, terrible…wild” nature, by “passionate intensity”; like Sophoclean heroes, she is motivated above all by an outraged sense of having been treated with disrespect, and curses her enemies while she plans her revenge; like Ajax, she is tormented above all by the thought that her enemies will laugh at her.*
So strong, willful, and witchy is, in fact, precisely what Euripides’ Medea is. But not Warner’s Medea, who is stranded between Sylvia Plath and Mia Farrow—a frazzled woman who can’t figure out how to act until the last minute. (Euripides’ Medea can: from the start, she keeps repeating the terrifying word ktenô, “I will kill.” Shaw, an impressive actress, chews up the scenery doing an impersonation of a housewife gone amok. When she comes out on the rather bleak stage at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre—apart from a door upstage center, there are just some cinder blocks strewn around covered with tarps, as if a construction project had been halted midway, and a swimming pool (by now de rigueur in contemporary stagings of classical texts; there was one in Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses, too) in the center with a toy boat floating in it—she’s emaciated, hugging herself, haggard, nervously cracking jokes. (She draws a little witch hat in the air above her head at one point.) To reconcile this valium-starved wreck with the text’s many references to Medea’s fame, power, and semidivine status, Warner makes some half-hearted references to Medea as being some kind of “celebrity”: the chorus, here, is a gang of autograph-seeking groupies—“the people who stand outside the Oscars,” as Warner put it. The intention, you imagine, is to throw into the interpretative stew some kind of commentary on “celebrity,” but it’s a stupid point to be making: all the heroes of Greek tragedy are famous.
This scaled-down, “normal” Medea makes nonsense of the text in other, more damaging ways. Everyone in Euripides’ play who interacts with Medea shows a healthy respect for the woman they know to be capable of terrible deeds. (She once gave the daughters of one of Jason’s enemies a deliberately misleading recipe for rejuvenating their aging father, which involved cutting the old man into tiny pieces. Needless to say, it didn’t work. This was the subject of Euripides’ first drama, produced in 455 BC, when he was thirty.) She is august, terrifying; the granddaughter of the sun, for heaven’s sake. The Warner/Shaw Medea looks as if she can barely get herself out of bed in the morning, and the result is that when the plot does require her to do those awful things (the murder of Jason’s fiancée and her father, the slaughter of her own children), you wonder how—and why—she managed it.
The problem with making Medea into one of those distraught Susan Smith types, pushed by creepy men into regions we can’t ever inhabit, is that it substitutes pat psychological nostrums (“Someone pushed to the place where she has no choice”: thus Warner) for something that is much more terrifying—and vital—in the play. Euripides’ Medea is terrifying and grotesque, precisely because her motivations aren’t those of a wounded housewife, but are those of a heroic temperament following the brutal logic of heroism: to inflict harm on your enemies at all costs.
You could argue, indeed, that what makes Euripides’ heroine awesome is not that she’s a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but that, if anything, she has the capacity to think like a man. Or, perhaps, like a lawyer. Euripides, we know, was very interested in the developing art of rhetoric, an instrument of great importance in the workings of the Athenian state. The patent content of Euripides’ play, the material that seems to be about female suffering, is by now so famous, and so familiar-seeming, that it has obscured the play’s other preoccupations. Chief among these is the use and abuse of language. In every scene, Medea is presented as a skilled orator; she knows how to manipulate each of her interlocutors in order to get what she wants, from the chorus (to whom she smoothly suggests that she’s a helpless girl, just like them) to the Corinthian king Creon, whom she successfully manipulates by appealing to his male vanity.
Indeed, we are told from the play’s prologue right on through the rest of the drama that what possesses Medea’s mind is not simply that her husband has left her for a younger woman, but that Jason has broken the oath (an ironclad prenup if ever there was one) that he once made to her. Oaths are crucial throughout the play: its central scene has her administering one to Aegeus, the Athenian king, who happens to be passing through Corinth on this terrible day, and who is made to swear to Medea that he will offer her sanctuary at Athens, should she ever go there. (Among other things, this oath furnishes her with her escape plan: rather than being an emotional wreck, Medea is always calculating, thinking ahead.)
For the Greeks, all this had deep political implications. One of the reasons everyday Athenians were suspicious of the Sophists, those deconstructionists of the Greek world (with whom Socrates was mistakenly lumped in the common man’s mind, not least because Aristophanes, in another satirical play, put him there), was that the rhetorical skills they were thought to teach could confound meaning itself—could “make the worse argument seem the better,” and vice versa. In Jason, Euripides created a character who is a parody of sophistry, glibness metastasized, rhetorical expertise gone amok. When he enters and tells Medea that he’s only marrying this young princess for Medea’s own sake, that he’s doing it all for her and the kids, it’s not because he thinks it’s true: it’s because he thinks he can get away with saying it’s true. Language, words—it’s all a game. Look, Euripides seems to be saying to his audience, men for whom the ability to make a persuasive speech could be, sometimes literally, a matter of life or death: look what moral corruption your rhetorical skills can lead to. Medea, of course—obsessed from the beginning of the play with oaths, the speech act whose purpose it is to fuse word and deed—is outraged by her husband’s glibness, and spends her one remaining day in Corinth seeking ways to make him see the value of that which he so glibly uses merely as argumentative window dressing: his marriage, his children. That is why she kills the children. (The typically Euripidean irony—one that would likely have unnerved the Athenians—is that this spirited defense of language is mounted by a woman, and a foreigner: a sign, perhaps, of the sorry state public discourse was in.)
A Medea that was all about the moral disintegration that follows from linguistic collapse probably wouldn’t sell a great many tickets in an age that revels in seeing characters “deal with” being failures, but it’s the play that Euripides wrote. Because Deborah Warner thinks that Medea is a disappointed housewife, and the play she inhabits is a drama of a marriage gone sour, all of the political resonances are lost. (When Shaw administers that crucial oath to Aegeus, she shrugs with embarrassment, as if she has no idea how this stuff is done, or what it’s all supposed to be about.) At the Brooks Atkinson, her Jason, a very loud man called Jonathan Cake, has been instructed to play that crucial first exchange between Medea and Jason totally straight—as if he believes what he tells Medea. (“He believes his argument that if he marries Creon’s daughter they will get this thing called security,” the director told the Guardian.)
But if Jason is earnest—if he really believes what he’s saying, which is that he’s running off with a bimbo and abandoning his children and allowing them to be sent into exile because, hey, it’s good for them!—then the scene, to say nothing of the play, crumbles to pieces. Without the mighty conflict over language and meaning what you say, Medea is just a daytime drama about two nice people who have lost that special spark. But then what do you do with the rest of the play, with its violence and anguished choruses and harrowing narratives of gruesome deaths—and, most of all, with the climactic slaughter—all of which follow only from Medea’s burning mission to put the meaning back in Jason’s empty rhetoric, those disingenuous claims to care for his family, his children, even as he shows nothing but naked self-interest?
Not much, except to do what Warner (who insists the play is “not about revenge”) does, which is to fill the play with desperate, crude, almost vaudevillian efforts to manufacture excitement, now that all the intellectual and political excitement—to say nothing of the revenge motive—have been stripped away. This Medea makes faces, mugs for the audience, cracks jokes, does impressions. And it goes without saying that, when the violence does come, there’s a lot of blood and flashing lights and deafening synthesized crashing and clattering. But for all the histrionics and special effects, you feel the hollowness at the core, and the staging soon sinks back into the place where it started: banal, everyday domesticity, a failed marriage. The Warner/Shaw Medea ends with the murderous mother sitting in that swimming pool, smirking and splashing the weeping Jason.
Ironically, Deborah Warner seems to understand tragedy’s original intent. In an interview she gave to the Times last September, after the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks and as her country, and ours, prepared for war on Iraq, Warner made a case for the renewed relevance of Greek tragedy:
We desperately need Greek plays. We need them when democracies are wobbly. I am living in a very wobbly democracy right now, whose Parliament has only just been recalled, and Commons may or may not have a vote about whether we go to war. Greece was a very new democratic nation, and a barbaric world was not very far behind them. They offered these plays as places of real debate. We can’t really say the theater is a true place of debate anymore, but these plays remind us of what it could be.
She’s absolutely right; all the more unfortunate, then, that none of this political awareness informs her production. The end of Warner’s Medea feels very much like the aftermath of a marital disaster. Euripides’ Medea, by contrast, ends with a monstrous ethical lesson: Jason forced, as his wife had once been forced, to taste exile, loss of family; forced, like her, to live stranded with neither a past nor a future is made to understand, at last, what it feels like to be the other person, to understand that the things to which his glib words referred are real, have value, can inflict pain. At the end of Euripides’ Medea, the woman who teaches men these terrible lessons flies off in a divine chariot, taking her awful skills and murderous pedagogical methods to—Athens.
It’s hard to see what Warner’s “happy housewife of Corinth” can tell us about Iraq; Euripides’ Medea, by contrast, ends by literally bringing home a shattering warning against political and rhetorical complacency. It was a lesson that went unheeded in Athens. It’s worth noting that his Medea was composed during the year before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, when the Athenians were eagerly preparing for conflict—a conflict, as it turned out, that would thoroughly reacquaint the Athenians with the meaning of the word “consequences.” Which is the play we need more desperately?
February 13, 2003
For this summary of Medea’s notorious similarities to the Sophoclean Ajax, see Bernard Knox, “The Medea of Euripides,” in Word and Action: Essays on the Ancient Theater (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), p. 298. ↩