The myth of Medea takes us beyond that horror to a greater one: the tale of a woman who kills her own children. Everything about this is just not right.
One must approach with caution. Medea's nurse warns us, wishing things were not as they are.
If only they had never gone! If the Argo’s hull
Never had winged out through the grey-blue jaws of rock
And on towards Colchis! If that pine on Pelion’s slopes
Had never felt the axe, and fallen, to put oars
Into those heroes’ hands, who went at Pelias’ bidding
To fetch the golden fleece!
The ancient Greeks did not spare themselves tales of such horror and we, in the postmodern era, turn to classical Greek tragedy to plumb the psychological depths of human pride and folly, betrayal and revenge, terror and madness. It is difficult to beat the purge of a well-performed classic. We watch people in extreme situations, victims of their own character and the whims of the gods, marching inexorably toward destruction... and see ourselves.
Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides - these amazing dramatists spin out mythic tales and catch us up in timeless human drama. It is not unusual to feel wrung out like a dishrag at the end of one of their plays.
Readers of this blog know I love Greek drama and catch it at every opportunity.
Euripides' Medea is currently playing at the Vortex Theatre in Albuquerque. Some friends and I caught it last Friday evening. The ancient Greeks and the modern actors and director spun the timeless magic. Wow.
The immediately noticeable thing is that they played it straight. I had pulled off the shelf my copy of the Penguin Classics containing this play, a copy printed in 1983, with yellowing pages, some of which fell loose as I opened the book and read. I managed to read most of the play over the course of lunch and while waiting for my friends before dinner. It is the Philip Vellacott translation. The program notes say this production was based on a new translation by Robin Robertson, 2008. You could have fooled me as it sounded exactly as I had read it earlier that day.
Even as the Nurse began her opening lines I realized this production was faithful to the original. Over the course of the performance I could also tell they had not mucked around with the text. The play was not transposed to modern times. Costumes evoked ancient Greece. Lines that jar modern sensibilities were left intact. This was not a modern adaptation, a clever resetting of the tale in some other place and time, or Robinson Jeffers' retelling; it was pure Euripides and we were back in 431 BCE when it was first performed in Athens.
We were also, of course, in a nightmare landscape of our own souls where things like this take place, or might take place, which the gods forbid.
The cast did a splendid job and one must single out Angela Littleton in the title role. She has the physical and emotional presence to dominate the play. She also managed the challenging task of moving from grief to rage to calculated cunning to madness. Those of us familiar with classical mythology know where this tale is headed yet we wait with anticipation to see how it will unfold, hoping we can get caught up in it. We are not disappointed.
I will not recount the plot. You may read it at Wikipedia. What I should like to do is ponder factors that struck me.
One is the clash of cultures. Medea is the daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis, a Georgian state on the eastern side of the Black Sea. Aeëtes was the son of Helios, the sun god, and a nymph. Medea is thus daughter of a king, granddaughter of a god, and a privileged person in a wealthy kingdom. To the Greeks, however, she was simply a barbarian, the term applied to all non-Greeks. She was considered uncivilized and inferior by definition.
Jason, whose ass she had repeatedly saved while enabling him to steal the Golden Fleece and escape back to Greece, repeatedly informs her how fortunate she is to be in civilized Hellas (Greece). She does not seem impressed by this arrogant assumption of cultural superiority. As a result of the violent wreckage she has left everywhere, all accomplished for love of Jason, they are pretty much exiles living at the mercy of whoever will take them in. This is, to put it bluntly, quite a few steps down the old social ladder for a princess who once lived in luxury.
The Greek hero and his exotic foreign wife exist not only on the border between two cultures but also, it is claimed, on the border between two eras. "Jason, Perseus, Theseus, and above all Heracles, are all "liminal" figures, poised on the threshold between the old world of shamans, chthonic earth deities, and the new Bronze Age Greek ways." [Wikipedia]
Medea, especially, represents an older culture. She is skilled in herbs, perhaps what we might now consider a curandera. Seen through a Greek lens, she is a powerful sorceress. She may use trickery and illusion in some instances, but she also knows which potions to use to accomplish her ends. She is cunning and not to be trusted. One might venture to say she is the patriarchy's worst nightmare, a magical mix of power, intelligence, sexuality, and ability to act without deference to a male social structure. Every fear, and slander, that a Greek male (or a modern Western one) might project on to an independent woman is found in perceptions of Medea.
All the men in this drama are powerless in relation to Medea.
All this is found in a play that has what, to modern ears, are gratingly misogynistic lines. Thus is is said that "Medea is widely read as a proto-feminist text to the extent that it sympathetically explores the disadvantages of being a woman in a patriarchal society, although it has also been read as an expression of misogynist attitudes." [Wikipedia]
In the opening speech the Nurse says:
...to Jason she is allEuripides has already set us up since the last thing we will see as the play unfolds is Medea obediently accepting her husband's will, except in deceit as she manipulates him to achieve her ends. The nurse also warns:
Obedience - and in marriage that's the saving thing,
When a wife obediently accepts her husband's will.
She isAgain and again we will hear obsequious remarks, and deferential ones, suggesting or outright asserting that women are weak, helpless, or meant to stay in their place and be ruled by men. Even Medea uses such words to deceive King Creon or Jason, her husband.
A frightening woman; no one who makes an enemy
Of her will carry off an easy victory.
But here is the thing that emerged as I thought about the play in the days following last Friday's performance. Medea may say the acceptable things in her social setting but she will have none of it.
Medea will not let herself be defined, determined, or controlled by the perceptions of anyone else, most especially men in power. She will act as she will act. Further, she will most especially act in a manner to revenge herself on the men who have despised and injured her. There is destruction in her wake from the time she and Jason first meet. She does not care. She will slay, dismember, deceive, poison, and sacrifice to get what she wants. For all this power and self-determination she is left without home, family, husband, or children - because at the end of this play all she wants is revenge on Jason and the cost of that will be destroying the children of her own womb.
Perhaps Euripides only won third prize (of three contestants) that year because the Athenians were not ready for a Medea. What is more, she "gets away with it." She prepares a refuge in Athens through the solemn oaths of its ruler and when Jason's new bride and royal father-in-law have perished horribly and Medea's little boys are dead, she climbs into a chariot drawn by dragons to make good her escape. (Being the Sun's granddaughter has its privileges. This production does not depict the dragon chariot, however.)
Perhaps I am just rambling but I feel Medea's power in our consciousness lies in her larger-than-life aspects that we cannot tidily put into a little box mingled with the very sympathetic reality of her being a woman wronged. She betrayed her own family and abandoned everything for love of Jason and was then cast aside for a trophy wife. No one can witness this tale or know this myth and find Jason to be sympathetic. [Which raises the question why there are so many men these days named Jason.] Then, mixed in with all this, is the infanticide that renders her a monster.
What are we to make of such a formidable, complex, fascinating and terrifying character?
(And the nuns wondered what to do with a problem called Maria.)
The concluding lines, spoken by the Chorus, certainly capture a great life truth.
Many are the Fates which Zeus in Olympus dispenses;Heedful of this, we might be less presumptuous in our plans, allowing that things will not work out as we assume.
Many matters the gods bring to surprising ends.
The things we thought would happen do not happen;
The unexpected God makes possible;
And such is the conclusion of this story.
How might things turn out if we allow people outside our categories and accept them whether they fit our models or not? How might they turn out if we keep faith with one another? What if we honor the human heart more than we honor power, position, and riches? What if we had not sacrificed everything for a golden fleece?
Kudos to Shepard Sobel for bringing this play to the stage and welcome to Albuquerque! New York's loss is certainly our gain.
Go to the Vortex website to learn more or make reservations. By the time I publish this it will be almost midnight, so I will say tonight (Friday) through Sunday are the last three performances.