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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Another great mix of shows this month, from Tom Stoppard’s new play, to Ibsen, Beckett and newer plays in smaller London venues.
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 …