Medea – Footnotes

Medea – Footnotes

Medea – Footnotes

The Footnotes to our episode on Medea include further observations on the danger a woman like Medea represented to the men of ancient Athens, and the emotional experience Greek tragedy exacts.

A dangerous woman
During our podcast Edith Hall described the society in ancient Athens as one where women lived very circumscribed lives, restricted largely to their domestic dwellings and duties. Any threat to the stability of marriage and its purpose of perpetuating the male line was especially feared. It is no wonder therefore that Medea’s unrestrained energy and courage were distrusted, even feared. Her independence of mind and her intelligence mark her out as a serious threat, as she herself opines sardonically to the  women of Corinth in the chorus:

Women of Corinth
Don’t teach your daughters to think for themselves,
They’ll encounter nothing
But suspicion and mistrust.     
 And:

No man in his right mind
Should teach children to be clever.
No point in being cleverer than the next man.
People don’t like it.

Kreon believes that Medea is a witch, with dark and magical powers. In fact as it turns out, he was not far wrong. As Edith pointed out, there was also a general view propounded by Aristotle that women were less capable of ethical thought than men, and must therefore be controlled and contained, else left ungoverned they may wreck havoc in the civil life of the city.

Medea is also feared because she is not Greek. She is from an “uncivilised place”, as Jason describes her homeland, and when he discovers what she has done to their children he rages that:
No Greek woman would have done it.
Yet instead of one of them I deigned to marry you.
An animal, not a woman,
A savage, some prehistoric monster.

The play is therefore a cautionary tale for the men of ancient Athens, to beware immigrants – xenophobia is a Greek word after all – and even more, an unfettered woman.

Helen McCrory at the National Theatre
Photo: Tristram Kenton

Aristotle marble bust
Roman copy 2nd century BCE

Suffering and Catharsis
Aristotle may not have got it right about the ethical capacity of women, but his ideas on what defined dramatic tragedy are more enduring. In his Poetics he suggested that suffering was an essential ingredient of tragedy, and that as an audience we must feel both pity and fear: pity for the sufferer and fear that it could happen to us. On both counts Medea succeeds. We certainly feel Medea’s anguish, and while we may remain confident that we would not kill our own children, we do recognise the misery and rage that can overcome our reason when we have been deeply hurt. As Edith has said about the play: “It looks suffering and human misery directly in the face – it is unflinching.”

How are we able to watch such terrible agony? Aristotle would point to the act of catharsis, by which we purge our own emotions through vicarious engagement with the drama. While we are emotionally drawn in to the suffering we are witnessing, we are simultaneously still conscious of the artifice of theatre. In fact paradoxically this may also make it harder to watch. As Edith pointed out, we have no power to intervene to help the characters on stage who are suffering or in peril. This is the sweet torture of great drama.

The Texts
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.
Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
Plays suggested for discussion by our Guests and Listeners - which gets your vote?
  • Add your own suggestion
You might also be interested in …
025 – Medea, by Euripides

025 – Medea, by Euripides

The dramatic tragedy of a wife who murders her own two sons in a desperate act of grief and revenge remains as disturbing and deeply moving as when it was written nearly 2,500 years ago. Medea by Euripides is timeless not only because of our fascination with Medea’s horrific crime, but for the poetry of its language, and its unflinching portrayal of a woman all but powerless in a patriarchal world. The play was recently revived at the National Theatre with a stunning performance by Helen McCrory in the title role, which is now available to view on the National Theatre at Home. I’m joined by renowned classical scholar Edith Hall to explore our enduring fascination with Medea.

024 – Consent, by Nina Raine

024 – Consent, by Nina Raine

The main characters in Nina Raine’s play Consent are barristers contesting a brutal rape case. As the case unfolds the lawyers’ marriages come unravelled and they themselves cross the line of honour or even of the law. Consent explores some of the most charged issues of our time: the sources of sexual betrayal and violence, the ambiguities of consent, and the failings of the justice system to account proportionally or sensitively with cases of sexual abuse. I am delighted and honoured to be joined in this episode by the author of Consent, Nina Raine, and by actor Adam James, who appeared in the National Theatre production in the role of Jake.

023 – Footnotes Volume 2

023 – Footnotes Volume 2

Footnotes Volume 2 is a selection of facts and observations culled from the library of information that we’ve compiled to accompany each of the plays in the past ten episodes. These include fascinating bits of trivia as well as more extended exploration of specific aspects of the plays. A smorgasbord of dramatic intelligence befitting of the best kind of Footnote.

Recent Posts
The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country

Medea – Footnotes

Consent – Footnotes

Consent – Footnotes

The Footnotes to our episode on Nina Raine’s play Consent include observations on the ritualised performance of barristers in the courtroom, the resonances of Greek tragedy in the characters’ modern-day dramas, and the epistemology of intent or how they don’t know why they do what they do.

Not listened to the episode yet? You’ll find it here.

Performing in the courtroom
There is a disturbing scene in Consent where we witness Edward’s cross-examination of the rape victim, Gayle, during which he seeks to put her behaviour and character on trial. He focuses on how much she had to drink, why she allowed her attacker to stay overnight, and refers to the fact that she’s previously visited a psychotherapist. The approach is all designed to discredit the victim and divert attention from the actions or guilt of the attacker. It is unsettling to watch, as much because for the interrogator it is clearly a calculated, cold-hearted performance, in stark contrast to Gayle’s genuine emotional distress.

Of course we know that the court room has its own ritualistic processes, but Nina reminds us how powerful and perverse these can be in this scene, and in her dissection of the barristers’ technique when Edward and Tim share some of their tricks of the trade with Zara. Their interview tactics include careful employment of open and closed questions to establish the point that they wish to make, or boxing a witness in with unreconciliable choices. The fact that the men are helping to teach the actress Zara how to appear credible in her fictional role as a lawyer, cleverly reinforces the idea of the courtroom as theatre and the principles as performers, perhaps in fact at the expense of the truth.

Ben Caplin as Edward
Photo: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Medea by Henri Klagmann 1868

Greek Tragedy
There is an amusing and intriguing exchange early in the play when Zara reveals that she is currently rehearsing a Greek tragedy. Although the world of the 21st century metropolitan couples is miles and centuries away from ancient Greece, their flippant references to features of Greek drama set off some satisfying resonances with the contemporary drama we see enacted. As in Greek tragedy, the women are victims of often brutal treatment by their men and find themselves on the moral high ground: “The men are shits and the women are insufferable because they’re so holier than thou”. And Zara’s warning “before you mistreat your women, remember what they’re capable of” forecasts the vengeance that Rachel and Kitty unleash when they are wronged. Tim’s definition of Greek tragedy as “two opposing characters holding two relative but mutually destructive truths” precisely encapsulates the conflict at the heart of the marital rape. A principle that Jake echoes when he acknowledges to Edward and Kitty that “There’s a world in which you’re both telling the truth.” Or put more simply, for contestants in the courtroom or marriage: “It’s two people thinking they’re right.”

The epistemology of intent
This is phrase that I’ve borrowed from Michael Frayn who cited it to describe one of the themes in his play Copenhagen, and I think that it could be used to characterise the problems the characters in Consent have in understanding their own behaviour. Virtually all of the characters display a lack of consistency and clarity about their feelings and motives for their actions, as Kitty recognises: “I’m astounded by the lack of insight, the way people don’t even see what they’re doing even as they’re doing it.” She herself embarks on the affair with Tim and unexpectedly finds herself emotionally overwhelmed. She is almost bewildered by her own behaviour, resigned to accepting that “You can’t legislate for human behaviour.” Similarly Zara’s own judgement seems unreliable when on first meeting she declares unequivocally that she just “doesn’t fancy” Tim, only to surprise us subsequently by falling for him. Underlying many of their irrational impulses is of course the mystery and power of sexual attraction, as Jake pointedly puts it: “it’s impossible to communicate the pheremonal semiology of sexual attraction.”

Rachel propounds “Is there anything that doesn’t stem from a sexual motive”.  Their behaviour certainly seems to indicate that its power overrides the rational management of their actions. Tim cannot account to Edward for the reason that he continues his affair with Kitty: “When you boil an egg the structure of the molecules change. The egg doesn’t know why. It just becomes a boiled egg.”  Edward doesn’t grant, however, that our consciousness really abdicates its moral awareness – we cannot escape the voice inside our head, although it is capable of creating its own justifications. And ultimately Edward himself is proof of the limits of our consciousness to comprehend our own motives. When Rachel challenges him on his anger and aggression toward Kitty: “Ed, this is crazy. You’re rational. You’re intelligent.”, it’s Jake who pinpoints the irrational sources within us: “If you’re hurt enough, you become stupid.”  Sexual violence may be an expression of rage or frustration; frustration at a lack of control, and aggression an attempt to exert control.

The characters in the play frequently demonstrate a lack of understanding of each other, but most tellingly also of themselves. When Jake says “I look back at myself and I don’t know who the person was who did those things”  he could have been speaking for all of them.

 

 

 

The Texts
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.
Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
Plays suggested for discussion by our Guests and Listeners - which gets your vote?
  • Add your own suggestion
You might also be interested in …
025 – Medea, by Euripides

025 – Medea, by Euripides

The dramatic tragedy of a wife who murders her own two sons in a desperate act of grief and revenge remains as disturbing and deeply moving as when it was written nearly 2,500 years ago. Medea by Euripides is timeless not only because of our fascination with Medea’s horrific crime, but for the poetry of its language, and its unflinching portrayal of a woman all but powerless in a patriarchal world. The play was recently revived at the National Theatre with a stunning performance by Helen McCrory in the title role, which is now available to view on the National Theatre at Home. I’m joined by renowned classical scholar Edith Hall to explore our enduring fascination with Medea.

024 – Consent, by Nina Raine

024 – Consent, by Nina Raine

The main characters in Nina Raine’s play Consent are barristers contesting a brutal rape case. As the case unfolds the lawyers’ marriages come unravelled and they themselves cross the line of honour or even of the law. Consent explores some of the most charged issues of our time: the sources of sexual betrayal and violence, the ambiguities of consent, and the failings of the justice system to account proportionally or sensitively with cases of sexual abuse. I am delighted and honoured to be joined in this episode by the author of Consent, Nina Raine, and by actor Adam James, who appeared in the National Theatre production in the role of Jake.

023 – Footnotes Volume 2

023 – Footnotes Volume 2

Footnotes Volume 2 is a selection of facts and observations culled from the library of information that we’ve compiled to accompany each of the plays in the past ten episodes. These include fascinating bits of trivia as well as more extended exploration of specific aspects of the plays. A smorgasbord of dramatic intelligence befitting of the best kind of Footnote.

Recent Posts
The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country

Medea – Footnotes

Shook – Footnotes

Shook – Footnotes

My Footnotes to our episode on Shook include more observations on our prejudices against people from different classes or circumstances, parenting as empathy, and the heartbreak of long-distance childbirth.

“I’m always going to be a problem to people like him”
Cain perceptively encapsulates the wariness we feel about people from different classes of society who we know little about and dismiss or fear. He is referring to the prison governor who he rightly assumes lives in a separate world to him and his fellow inmates. It is not just the practical problem of having to lock offenders away to protect ourselves that Cain is describing; it is a much wider general attitude that amounts to social prejudice:
“And he’s telling me I’m the problem? Thinking he’s better than me. I’m always going to be a problem to people like him, innit. Nothing I ever do is right. Where I live is a problem, what music I listen to is a problem,what I wear is a problem. Whenever we have kids, it’s a problem….They should just fucking come clean and admit they just don’t like us and that’s why they locked us up in here.”

Who among us has not made judgements such as these about people from other social classes or circumstances. It is all too easy to disparage, even write off people who are not like us. What we see in Cain, Jonjo and Riyad are complex human beings, who certainly have flaws and who have done harm to others, but who also have talents and inherent goodness. Cain again challenges Grace and us to consider who is “good”. When Jonjo asks Grace if her son Alex is good, she replies “pretty good”; but Cain realises that the question is deeper than that, because he knows that it is difficult to say of them that they are “pretty good”. Their badness has not been trivial – “robbing people, hurting them” – and from a young age. The implication I think is that somehow their lack of goodness is inherent or an inevitable function of the failures of character or behaviour in their families or class. As George so rightly says in our conversation, our view of these boys also stands for our views more generally of others who are less privileged, and is not limited to confirmed criminals. The positive power of the play, however, is as George says that “it makes us care about people that normally we would cross the road to avoid”, which is the beginning of true empathy.

 

Photo: Kiran Mensah – Evening Standard

Josef Davies as Jonjo

“Parenting is empathy”
We talked a lot about parenting in the podcast, including the inescapable impact that our upbringing or our behaviour as a parent has on our own or our children’s lives. We also talked about the boys’ instinctive desire to be good parents; hence their taking part in the course, despite Riyad’s proclamation that parenting can’t be taught. He contradicts himself however when he sensibly suggests to Grace that parenting skills should be taught in school, along with other practical life skills, like “how you’d get a flat…or vote”; especially “in case you ain’t got no one to show you.”  The lack of parenting role models does of course have a huge practical impact on the lives of these boys.

When Sam said during our conversation that “parenting is empathy” he also identified the emotive meaning of being a parent, and the emotional cost to these boys who have not benefited from it. Grace explained that for all of the practical skills she tries to impart, parenting ultimately boils down to being there when “they come to you to make it better”. And Cain speaks for all of us when he tells Riyad that by the time parents are responsible for looking after teenagers they’re all “just making it up as they go along.” So what parenting finally is is learning to care for someone else, and most poignantly what these boys crave is to learn how to love and to be loved. This is vividly expressed in the final image of Jonjo cradling the baby at the close of the play: the lifeless doll substituting for the real baby he won’t be able to touch and the comfort he himself has been denied.

Long-distance childbirth
Riyad reveals his innate empathy when he describes being at the birth of his son. He contrived to delay his entry to prison in order to be there for the birth, and despite the “screaming and all that”, he was overwhelmed by the exultant moment when he hears “those little lungs…Crying out for you.” He also displays empathy for the effort of the mother in her labours when he counsels Jonjo that his supporting role is to “tell her it’s all good”. There is no more graphic or heartbreaking symbol of the isolation of these incarcerated fathers than the vision Riyad presents of Jonjo being ‘allowed’ to listen on the phone to the birth of his child when the time comes, and to tell his girl “it’s all good.” 

 

 

 

The Texts
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.
Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
Plays suggested for discussion by our Guests and Listeners - which gets your vote?
  • Add your own suggestion
You might also be interested in …
025 – Medea, by Euripides

025 – Medea, by Euripides

The dramatic tragedy of a wife who murders her own two sons in a desperate act of grief and revenge remains as disturbing and deeply moving as when it was written nearly 2,500 years ago. Medea by Euripides is timeless not only because of our fascination with Medea’s horrific crime, but for the poetry of its language, and its unflinching portrayal of a woman all but powerless in a patriarchal world. The play was recently revived at the National Theatre with a stunning performance by Helen McCrory in the title role, which is now available to view on the National Theatre at Home. I’m joined by renowned classical scholar Edith Hall to explore our enduring fascination with Medea.

024 – Consent, by Nina Raine

024 – Consent, by Nina Raine

The main characters in Nina Raine’s play Consent are barristers contesting a brutal rape case. As the case unfolds the lawyers’ marriages come unravelled and they themselves cross the line of honour or even of the law. Consent explores some of the most charged issues of our time: the sources of sexual betrayal and violence, the ambiguities of consent, and the failings of the justice system to account proportionally or sensitively with cases of sexual abuse. I am delighted and honoured to be joined in this episode by the author of Consent, Nina Raine, and by actor Adam James, who appeared in the National Theatre production in the role of Jake.

023 – Footnotes Volume 2

023 – Footnotes Volume 2

Footnotes Volume 2 is a selection of facts and observations culled from the library of information that we’ve compiled to accompany each of the plays in the past ten episodes. These include fascinating bits of trivia as well as more extended exploration of specific aspects of the plays. A smorgasbord of dramatic intelligence befitting of the best kind of Footnote.

Recent Posts
The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country

Medea – Footnotes

The Glass Menagerie – Footnotes

The Glass Menagerie – Footnotes

Our Footnotes to The Glass Menagerie include Tennessee Williams’ innovative ideas about lighting as an element of what he called his “plastic drama”; the endearing ambiguity of the character of Jim, the gentleman caller; the infinite distance of memory; and the explosive times the play was written and set in.

The Lighting
Tennessee Williams includes a lengthy paragraph in the Production Notes that preface the published text of The Glass Menagerie with observations on the use and importance of the lighting in the staging of the play. It starts with the statement: “The lighting in the play is not realistic. In keeping with the atmosphere of memory, the stage is dim. Shafts of light are focused on selected areas or actors…”. This approach to the lighting is all part of his deliberate intent to create a non-naturalistic form of theatre, which suits both the content of this play and his artistic method of imparting meaning. For the former the design expresses the flickering, subjective quality of Tom’s memory, which is the source of all that we see. The method represents his meaning in that Williams states that his purpose in his writing is to convey a “picture of my own heart” – an emotional truth. He conceives that this can be achieved by creating what he called ‘sculptural drama’, which is a more three-dimensional, sensory theatrical experience, that is not reliant solely or primarily on the words, but also on striking visual images and evocative music. The imaginative use of light can engender a “mobile, plastic quality to plays of a more or less static nature.”  

The lighting in this play is certainly central to our understanding of its emotional truth and to the beauty that enraptures us. As Williams points out, for example, “the light upon Laura should be distinct from the others, having a peculiar pristine clarity such as light used in early religious portraits of female saints or madonnas”, or he might have added of the light that reflects off the figures of the glass menagerie itself. The candlelight that illuminates the climactic love scene between Laura and Jim evokes the dream-like softness of their fleeting moments of romance.

I imagine that this play must be a joy for lighting designers to work on!

“Time is the greatest distance between two places”.
Tom’s final speech takes us back to the beginning, reminding us that “this is a memory play”, and that there is a great distance back to our past. Tom’s memories are full of pain and regret; regret that he cannot fix the past, especially for his sister Laura. The guilt he feels about his abandoning her haunts him – his memory won’t let him go. “I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be”.  He seeks any diversion that will allow him to escape the memory of her: “anything that can blow your candles out”. His final plea “Blow out your candles, Laura” is to ask her to finally leave him alone.

All of the characters in the play fail to bridge the distance to their past in a way that allows them to truthfully connect with their present. Amanda’s memory of her romantic past is overshadowed by the reality that she chose the wrong man with disastrous consequences. Laura has a false memory of herself at school, over estimating the notice that others made of her disability, tragically inhibiting herself. The whole memory play affirms the impossibility of our accurately reconstructing our past. As Williams tells us memory is “non-realistic”; it is “seated predominantly in the heart”.

The gentleman caller
The character of Jim, the gentleman caller, stands out in the play for apparently being from a different mental landscape than the members of the Wingfield family. As Tom describes it, he is “an emissary from the world of reality that we are somehow apart from”; “a nice ordinary young man” as the playwright succinctly puts it in the character notes. In simple terms he does largely represent the outside, material world: an all-American high school success, focussed on self-improvement and conventional career ambitions; an advocate of the American dream built on “Knowledge!…Money!…Power!”.

However, Jim’s program has not gone to plan so far. He hoped that he “would be further along” by this time. And this is what gives Jim the depth as a character that impels his connection with Laura. His sense of disappointment is the common ground he recognises in Laura. As Williams said “If you write a character that isn’t ambiguous you are writing a false character, not a true one.”  Jim is not just a cipher for the American Dream or ‘normal’ world. He does in fact connect the Wingfield characters to the real world, not just by his presence, but by showing us that “everyone has problems”, as he puts it. The Wingfields are not the only freaks living with illusions and self-doubt; we are all freaks.

His culpability in his raising and dashing Laura’s hopes is also all the more compelling for being ambiguous. His impulse to reach out to help her is clearly genuine, as are the feelings he responds to. As John said so convincingly in our conversation, “he falls in love”. And we are shown by contrast that his relationship with his fiance, the prosaically named Betty, is one of contrivance rather than passion. But he is at best self-centred and naive in his setting out to try to make an emotional connection with Laura, as suggested by his ironic claim that he “can analyze people better than doctors…I can sure guess a person’s psychology”. He does have some intuition of Laura’s pain, but he underestimates the stakes and quickly gets in over his head. Do we blame him for lacking the nerve or integrity to change the course of his life with Laura? Probably not. In the end I think we cannot but join Amanda in wishing him luck. He is just another unicorn without a horn.

Kate O’Flynn as Laura and Seth Numrich as Jim
in John Tiffany’s production in Edinburgh in 2017
Photo: Johan Persson

 

 

The play in its time
As we learn from Tom the play is set sometime around 1938-9. He makes specific references to Picasso’s painting of Guernica, painted in 1937 following the indiscriminate bombing of the town by Nazi war planes allied with General Franco in the Spanish Civil War, and to Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler in September 1938. At the time the play premiered in 1944 Tom would have been speaking to the audience from the vantage point of the war that followed from these events, and which America was now engaged in.

Tom’s references to Guernica and Chamberlain carry some moral judgement, his implication being that America and the Allies were fatally complacent in their responses to Hitler or Franco. At the same time he is telling us that it is art, such as Picasso’s, that draws attention to the truth. Tom refers somewhat elliptically to the explosive changes in the world that the characters don’t see coming, although of course the audience will know what he means when he concisely and poetically identifies the impending change as being “caught in the folds of Chamberlain’s umbrella.” The cataclysmic world changes that Tom describes are aligned with his own youthful urge for adventure. The war is somehow “compensation for lives that passed like mine, without any change or adventure.” A time when “adventure becomes available to the masses”, as he says to Jim.

It’s a naïve idea about war as adventure, indicating perhaps the depth of Tom’s desire for change in his life, and in the society around him. Williams himself propounds an idea of himself, Tom and the artist as exceptional individuals who will distinguish themselves from the masses and lead more truthful and energetic lives. His view of the masses as stuck in their impoverished lives for lack of initiative is suggested in the description he gives of the Wingfield’s tenement building:
“It is one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living units that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centers of lower middle-class population and are symptomatic of the impulse of this largest and fundamentally enslaved section of American society to avoid fluidity and differentiation and to exist and function as one interfused mass of automatism.”

But has Tom’s bid for adventure, to distinguish himself, succeeded? In fact he “didn’t go to the moon”…he only “left St Louis”. The picture we get is of his drifting, swept along “like dead leaves”. In fact as he addresses us in 1944 he is wearing a sailor’s uniform, and as he tells us “nowadays the world is lit by lightning”. Perhaps he is about to find the adventure he seeks.

The Texts
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.
Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
Plays suggested for discussion by our Guests and Listeners - which gets your vote?
  • Add your own suggestion
You might also be interested in …
025 – Medea, by Euripides

025 – Medea, by Euripides

The dramatic tragedy of a wife who murders her own two sons in a desperate act of grief and revenge remains as disturbing and deeply moving as when it was written nearly 2,500 years ago. Medea by Euripides is timeless not only because of our fascination with Medea’s horrific crime, but for the poetry of its language, and its unflinching portrayal of a woman all but powerless in a patriarchal world. The play was recently revived at the National Theatre with a stunning performance by Helen McCrory in the title role, which is now available to view on the National Theatre at Home. I’m joined by renowned classical scholar Edith Hall to explore our enduring fascination with Medea.

024 – Consent, by Nina Raine

024 – Consent, by Nina Raine

The main characters in Nina Raine’s play Consent are barristers contesting a brutal rape case. As the case unfolds the lawyers’ marriages come unravelled and they themselves cross the line of honour or even of the law. Consent explores some of the most charged issues of our time: the sources of sexual betrayal and violence, the ambiguities of consent, and the failings of the justice system to account proportionally or sensitively with cases of sexual abuse. I am delighted and honoured to be joined in this episode by the author of Consent, Nina Raine, and by actor Adam James, who appeared in the National Theatre production in the role of Jake.

023 – Footnotes Volume 2

023 – Footnotes Volume 2

Footnotes Volume 2 is a selection of facts and observations culled from the library of information that we’ve compiled to accompany each of the plays in the past ten episodes. These include fascinating bits of trivia as well as more extended exploration of specific aspects of the plays. A smorgasbord of dramatic intelligence befitting of the best kind of Footnote.

Recent Posts
The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

The 2020 Theatre Diary – March

Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The 2020 Theatre Diary – January

The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country

Medea – Footnotes

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – Footnotes

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – Footnotes

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is such a rich play that we have a lots of Footnotes to supplement our episode on the play. These include more on the origins and meaning of the famous title; some play-by-play analysis of George and Martha’s battle; the symbolic contrast between history and biology which George and Nick represent; the absence of model parents, or children at all; the thrill of the play’s language; and the censors who took offense at this “filthy play”. 

The title of the play
It is one of the most memorable titles in dramatic history; but it wasn’t Albee’s original title. He was several months into writing the play before he adopted the phrase “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” as a recurring symbolic refrain, and he added it as a sub-title. Up to that point his working title was Exorcism, which suggests that he had a clear vision of one of the themes of his play: that through the course of the action the characters would be purged of the illusions that they have preserved in their relationships. In the end he named the third act The Exorcism, during which of course George and Martha expressly exorcise their imaginary son. The final title of the play not only has a magical musical rhythm, it also summons several meanings, lampooning the pretensions of academia, and suggesting the psychological demons that afflict the characters. Albee’s intuitive arrival at his final title highlights his artistic process whereby the play develops organically, as he said that the quotation was adopted by the characters during “the thinking-as-opposed-to-writing part of working on the play.”

The battle of George and Martha
In the same way as one relishes analyzing the blow-by-blow of sport, there is a rich record to review in the to and fro of George and Martha’s epic battle. The central mesmeric challenge of the play is to decipher the underlying truth of their relationship through all of the nuance and ferocity of their struggle. As we agreed during our conversation on the podcast, their initial exchanges are fabulously funny, partly because of the dazzling sharpness of their repartee, but also because we feel that at some level they too are enjoying the fight as a game. As George reassures Nick: “Martha and I are merely…exercising…that’s all…we’re merely walking what’s left of our wits”. The conflict they incite together is performative – a means of simultaneously addressing and avoiding the truth, testing what is real or not, but without facing the consequences.They are picking at the scabs of their unhappiness, daring themselves to see if they could survive the open wounds.

There are shocking, exposed moments when it feels like the game has gone too far. As onlookers it is difficult to decide when they have crossed over the line. When Martha starts to tell Nick and Honey about George’s unpublished book, he pleads with her to stop, but the game continues:
Martha: What’s the matter George? You given up?
George: No…No. I’ve just got to figure out some new way to fight you, Martha.

And when Martha thinks George has gone too far in tormenting Nick, and he angrily points out that she has been relentlessly humiliating him, she declares:
Martha: YOU CAN STAND IT!
George: I CANNOT STAND IT!
Martha: YOU CAN STAND IT! YOU MARRIED ME FOR IT!
He has needed her provocation to push him, and the more he failed to succeed the harder she has had to press, even though she says “it’s not what I’ve wanted” , and she’s now “gotten tired whipping you.”

By the end of Act 2 they have reached a point where the “whole arrangement” has “snapped”, and they declare “total war”.  One of the ways that Martha attacks is through her overt seduction of Nick. As we discussed in the podcast, there is a strong sense that Martha is sexually dissatisfied with George. She reacts angrily when he twice rejects her overtures to him in the first act. The second occasion follows George’s prank of shooting the parasol from the gun. She finds this arousing, but he rejects her advance. The gun becomes a sexual metaphor, Martha turning provocatively to Nick “I bet you don’t need props”. When she finally presses her suit with Nick, she is further frustrated and humiliated by George’s lack of response – he reads a book, pretending indifference, daring her to go through with her seduction. In the face of his failure, she is left with no option. Her sexuality is her only weapon, so she carries on hopelessly with her affairs. The fact that Nick is unable to consummate the sex is a fitting statement on the futility of Martha’s general strategy to find solace through sex elsewhere.

In the to and fro of George and Martha’s battle, the advantage swings back and forth. For most for the first half of the night Martha is on the attack, relentlessly humiliating George, He counter attacks through his persecuting Nick and Honey, before intensifying his assault in “bringing up baby”. Initially Martha seems beaten down, not willing to play this game, but she rises in anger and they slug it out on equal terms in a scene of ritualistic, poetic intensity and imagination. “We’re going to play this one to the death”. Finally she is beaten. At the end of the play she is exhausted and fragile. George must try to lift her off the canvas; she cannot walk unaided. Once rested will they start the fight again? Maybe. Maybe on different terms. As Albee said, who knows.

History vs Biology
There are a number of ways in which the characters of the two men, George and Nick, are set up in contrast. Not only do they find themselves as sexual rivals when Martha turns her attention on Nick, but they also stand for contrasting values in the framework of themes in the play. George represents the traditional social establishment of America, being native to New England, where the country was founded. He resides in the rarefied, protected habitat of the university campus; albeit also now a complacent, decadent, even sterile environment.

Whereas Nick is from the mid-West, the frontier of the country. He represents a youthful ambition and ruthless sexual confidence, propelled by physical vigor. His ambition is unencumbered by obeisance to established social hierarchies or concern for anyone other than himself. He is the modern science of biology, whereas George is history, the drag of the past. The analogy extends to the theme of gender and reproduction, about which both couples are so preoccupied. George refers frequently to biologists working with chromosomes to create the perfect man, for example. There is of course much sparring between Martha and George about how much of a man he is, including compared to Nick who is proud of his physique. And the references to the biological creation of life cannot but resonate with both couples’ inability to conceive.

Despite the old-fashioned sterility of George himself, the balance of the debate between science and history perhaps swings in his favour when he imagines supermen that will be created through genetic engineering, we cannot but be reminded of the Nazi eugenics. In this respect George’s argument that the knowledge of history and the principles of civilisation must be retained to inform our management of the future makes reassuring sense. Ultimately however all of George’s wordy arguments feel like nothing more than hot air in the face of the personal desolation and isolation of the characters’ lives.

Model parents
As we touched on in the podcast it is difficult not to trace the play’s preoccupation with parents and their children, or lack thereof, back to Albee’s own unhappy adoption. He himself admitted that he “was aware of some connective thematic tissue” with his own experience. Albee said many times that he did not feel positively attached to his adoptive parents, and there is certainly a lack of positive parental role models in the play. Martha has an unhealthy fixation on her authoritarian father. George may or may not have killed both of his parents. Honey’s father was a charlatan, possibly even criminal, priest. And we know nothing of Nick’s parents, which is a telling lacuna in itself, for he is a character without roots or allegiances.

More central to the play is the fact that both couples are childless and deeply disturbed to be so. Albee’s adoptive parents were unable to conceive, as are George and Martha. George and Martha invent their imaginary son, as by analogy Albee was the result of his adoptive parent’s scheme to adopt and try to mold him. Infertility is also connoted in Honey’s “hysterical pregnancy”. She is terrified of the physical process of pregnancy and childbirth, to the extent that she may had abortions that she has kept secret from her husband. Honey is in fact childlike, too “slim hipped” and immature to be a mother. At one point she is “rolled up like a foetus” on the bathroom floor, sucking her thumb. The prospect of Nick and Honey successfully conceiving in the future also seems slim. There is a suggestion that all is not well in their sexual relationship – Nick is only too willing to respond to Martha’s overtures, or to reveal that he plans to “plough a few pertinent wives”. After the revelations of the evening we sense that the future of their relationship may be even less secure than George and Martha’s. 

The language of the play
The dialogue in the play has an exhilarating fluency, which feels natural if also heightened in intensity and intelligence. There are moments when the language becomes almost surreal, where the dialogue is stuck repeating words or phrases in a musical rhythm, most obviously of course in the recurring refrain of the title. Other examples include Honey reduced to shouting “violence” or “dance” repeatedly, or the focus on the specific detail of the “tiles” of the bathroom floor that Honey is lying on, or the onomatopoeia of the door “bells”. In one short burst George, Nick and Martha between them repeat the word “ice” seven times in as many lines. These repetitions reflect the other-worldly state they are locked in by their drunkenness as well as the intensity of the dynamic. One of the most poetic moments in the writing is Martha’s description of the ice cubes in their drinks being made from their tears, and then her jiggling the glass “clink, clink, clink”. Albee likened his writing to composing music, for which he clearly had an exquisite ear.

The play also contains several majestic longer monologues, in which the speaker takes the time to unfurl a story in vivid images: George’s tale of his drinking with his young friends in the bar, leading to the story of the boy killing both of his parents; or Martha’s description of her “Lady Chatterley” affair with the gardener at her college; and finally the horror of George’s description of their son’s car crash. All of these have a dream-like quality, raising a question over their reality, but also captivating us in the way dreams or great writing can.

“A filthy play”
The Pulitzer prize jury labelled Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf a “filthy play”. It is not clear whether they had in mind the obscenity of the language or the graphic ugliness of the behaviour on show, or both. It is likely that they were offended by the language. Albee’s first draft of the play contained numerous “fucks”, “motherfuckers”, and “shits,” but when initial readers reacted with alarm suggesting that it would be hard to get it produced, he replaced all these with watered-down equivalents such as “screwed”, “hell” and “crap”. In fact he restored some of these in a production he directed himself in 1976.

The play ran foul of the censor when it was first produced in London in 1964.  Albee explained to those unfamiliar with the British censorship regime that the role of the Lord Chamberlain “was to make plays safe for the Royal Family, if they ever went to the theatre.” The Lord Chamberlain requested pages of changes to the obscenities, although they allowed “Hump the Hostess” to remain because “hump” was used in Shakespeare! The producers told the actors to ignore the requested changes, which they largely did.

The Texts
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.
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We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
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The Welkin – Footnotes

The Welkin – Footnotes

The Footnotes to our episode on The Welkin include more on symbols in the sky, the life of the wife of a poet, and the apt sound of the butter churn.

The Welkin
We talked in the episode about the meaning of the title of the play, and Lucy explained that the welkin is a term for the highest part of the sky or of heaven. It is from the Old English word ‘wolcen” meaning cloud or sky. We talked about the metaphoric meanings associated with the sky, including of course as the location of heaven, and of the stars or comets to which mankind has long attributed some form of influence over its fate or fortunes. One of the matrons on the jury believing that Sally’s chance of avoiding hanging is all but hopeless suggests that she “must look to the welkin, there’s no earthly help for her now.”

Why do we look to the sky as a source of supernatural power? Perhaps in a practical sense, simply because it is the source of the weather on which our material existence depends. Kitty neatly expresses this more utilitarian vision of the sky: “I never look up at the sky. Not unless I have washing on the line.”

But others are convinced that the mysterious appearance of a comet is a portent of change in their earthly destinies. Mary relays how her grandmother saw an angel the last time that the comet visited and then gave birth to a boy with two thumbs. For Sally, when she looked to the sky and prayed for escape from the tyranny of her husband and her limited domestic life, the comet heralded the arrival of Thomas McKay and her precipitous passion.

The epigraph that prefaces the published text of the play is from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:  “When beggars die there are no comets seen” . It is the first part of Calpurnia’s warning to Caesar that the comet recently seen in Rome may prefigure the “death of princes”. In The Welkin I think that the epigraph stands less for the significance of the astronomical symbol than for the point that ordinary people’s deaths, or lives, are arbitrarily less often noted society, or featured in art, as they are in fact in this play.

 

Mrs Sara Coleridge, born Sarah Fricker

The wife of a poet
One of the great strengths of Lucy’s play is the array of distinctive individual characters who make up the jury of matrons. One of these is Ann, without an ‘e’, who introduces herself as follows:

My name is Ann Lavender, without an E. I was christened with one but my husband felt me more elegant without it. We moved here more recently to raise our four daughters in peasant honesty. William is a poet and had a desire to share the housework equally and take many long solitary walks. He has been very successful at the latter. 

I was fascinated to learn from Lucy that Ann is based in part on Sara Coleridge, whose life with the romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was one of long-suffering, middle-class poverty. She was born, Sarah Fricker, but like Ann, dropped the ‘H’ from her name to please her husband. Through the forty years of their marriage, she carried the burden of child care and domestic survival, Coleridge spending most of his time absent from the family home, absorbed by his literary contemplation, drug addiction and various infatuations with other women.

Ann is a character with a sharp and enquiring intelligence. She raises incisive questions throughout the judicial process, is curious about the experiences of her fellow jurors, and is particularly stirred when she tries to elicit from Sally her reasons for participating in killing the little girl. In another age she, like Sarah Fricker, may have had the chance of a more independent life.

The butter churn
When we are first introduced to the midwife, Lizzie Luke, we are also introduced to her daughter, Katy, who she instructs to carry on churning the butter. Churning butter was a laborious physical task. The thumping sound of the plunger in the churn continues as the background sound track to the empanelling scene that follows, where the jury matrons are introduced. The churn is a reminder of the continuous labour of these working women, and perhaps also a metaphor for the specific labour of birth, which is the central thesis of the play.

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If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.
Suggest a play
We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).
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024 – Consent, by Nina Raine

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023 – Footnotes Volume 2

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