Thursday, March 04, 2010


I cannot imagine a greater heartache than burying one’s own child. I have known friends and parishioners faced with this horror. The grief is overpowering. Words fail. We all recoil at the thought of something that seems to violate the order of nature. We are supposed to bury our parents, not the other way around.

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.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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: Jason she is all
Obedience - and in marriage that's the saving thing,
When a wife obediently accepts her husband's will.
Euripides 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:
She is
A frightening woman; no one who makes an enemy
Of her will carry off an easy victory.
Again 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.

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;
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.
Heedful of this, we might be less presumptuous in our plans, allowing that things will not work out as we assume.

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.

--the BB


johnieb said...

Thanks for this, Paul; it makes me want to get back to these Greeks, especially Medea, which I have neither read or seen.

it's margaret said...

Yes --that grief and the way the Greeks plumbed it is remarkable. thank you for this review.

A side thought --had you realized that we have names for those who have lost spouses --widow, widower... names for those who have lost parents --orphan.... but there is no name for one who has lost a child. It is an un-nameable, taboo state of being. That's how horrifying it is --we can't even name it.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Medea plays into the age-old myth of woman as black widow spider, not only devouring her mate, but poisoning those around her. As in all the great myths, one finds a measure of truth or the myth would not resonate today.

I find myself wondering if women in fundamentalist Muslim societies sometimes make use of the force of the myth, if only metaphorically. I hope so.

Paul said...

Very true, Margaret. We have failed to name it, I suspect with much subconscious deliberation. So sad.

Johnieb, I do commend the tragedies to you. I read all of them one summer and enjoyed it thoroughly.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

I last saw Medea at the 18th century Court theatre at Drottningholm some 25 years ago.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

On the link to Drottninghom Theatre there are 2 Films (Yotube) with Elisabeth Söderström (Sodastream...). You may want to watch them, they are in English!

it's margaret said...

ohhhhh Grandmere --thank you! what a wonderful thought!

(PS--thank you for the cyber hug Paul)

author said...

Well, I think we might have chatted about Rene Girard; he has a really interesting book called "I See Satan Fall Like Lightning" comparing the ancient myths to the stories of the bible (he was a French lit prof who developed social theories, esp of scapegoating and mimetic rivalry).

All that aside, I see Medea (as so much of Euripides' work) as something that is asking questions. We remember that Euripides' Oresteia changed the whole perception of the tragedy by remitting the work of the Furies and introducing mercy. (No, I'm not an expert, just have been fortunate to be in Greece a lot and married to someone whose grandfather was a Greek classics prof.) Medea sets up another question. What to do with such injustice? Where do we go? How could things turn out differently for her? Certainly the old ways of sorcery and magic do not lead her into a powerful position that ends with anything but self-destruction. There has to be another answer. I see this through my lens today -- but if we see it culturally we will see what happened when all those extraordinarily educated rhetoriticians of the 4th century decided to apply their wisdom to the Church: that was the answer to Euripides' questions; and it would transform the ancient world. What should Medea have done? When all objects of justice are lost, when our thinking of power does not accommodate how we are to walk through devastation and injustice, where do we go to avoid this destructive end? There was a powerful answer to that; it is not rational within the bounds of what we traditionally might call power in a worldly sense. It belongs to that other place that is "more real" as you put it above.

Paul said...

A great addition to the discussion, Janine. We were blessed to see the Oresteia when it was used to open the Roda Theatre at Berkeley Rep. All three plays done very powerfully. Orestes does find peace at the last.

The tools at Medea's disposal could empower her for revenge but not any kind of personal peace - only devastation on every front. The dragon chariot may indicate that she still belongs to a chthonic order of society- the chief witnesses invoked throughout the play are the earth and the sun, with only occasional references to the Olympians.

Since I myself feel deep sympathy for earth-centered spirituality and indigenous traditions, I want to see earth, sun, dragons, and the feminine integrated into our faith and practice; not submerged, neglected, or denied.

Ah, so many questions. We must keep wrestling with them.

author said...

The only thing I would say (IMNSHO of course) is that everything gets transfigured in the light of the transfiguration, including (sometimes one would say especially) the feminine, destitute, the abandoned and socially excluded. Today I blogged about the healing of Jairus' daughter & on the way of the woman with the years-long bloodflow. How could we get stronger symbols of the feminine and excluded and considered worth nothing in the social order of things. They are both transformed, loved, "daughters." I don't feel that Christ leaves anything out; everything and everyone is included - but also transformed. Salvation really depends on the interaction of faith and that power (dynamis). At least those are my thoughts for today haha. Just like the Greeks did not exclude their tradition, history, etc! That deep chthonic transformation is something we could see as reaching toward Golgotha... but something added transforms doesn't it? In a lot of ways, it is the old that renders exclusivity and exclusion - and the revolution of Christ changes that. I think this is what strikes every society that is new to that love.

Paul said...

I love the juxtaposed healings of the young girl at menarche and the woman whose bleeding would not stop. So very powerful. The evangelists try so hard to lead us into Jesus' openness and inclusion - and we are so slow to learn.

I also like the iconography of Adam's skull in the darkness at the foot of the Cross in images of the stavrosis. Adam, whose name means "earthy" and the subterranean darkness are caught up in the transformative mystery too.

author said...

Oooh, wonderful!

We read a book for our Ascension book club by Chinua Achebe, "Things Fall Apart." It's about colonial Africa and in a lot of ways is critical of the repression by the church used in cooperation with the colonials. But at the heart in the end, nevertheless, those who follow the new religion are those who have been excluded and branded unclean by the old. No matter how twisted the message gets, thank God somehow it's still there.