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.
Caryl Churchill’s stunning play Escaped Alone presents an ordinary scene of four women of a certain age chatting over tea in a suburban garden. Of course not all is as tranquil as it appears, for each of the women harbour dark personal anxieties, and from time to time one of them steps away from the garden to share news with us about apocalyptic disasters that have struck the world. Produced at the Royal Court in 2016, Churchill’s vision of a world overcome by collective disaster has proved to be extraordinarily prophetic. Joining me to explore our first Churchill play is Professor Elaine Aston, author of a monograph on Caryl Churchill as well as the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Caryl Churchill.
Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey caused a sensation when it appeared at the Theatre Royal Stratford in 1958 because of its frank portrayal of a working-class, single mother and daughter, as well as its bold representations of a mixed-race relationship and a young homosexual as a central character. Delaney sent her first play to the renowned director Joan Littlewood who helped develop it into an historic production which went on to the West End and Broadway. Professor Nadine Holdsworth helps us to explore the enduring power and relevance of the play.
Girl from the North Country is an extraordinary collaboration between the playwright Conor McPherson and the musician and song writer Bob Dylan. The result is a magical work where McPherson’s portrait of families struggling to survive in Depression America is transfigured into an uplifting theatrical experience by the ravishing period arrangements of Dylan’s songs.
The play opened at the Old Vic Theatre in London in 2017 to a rapturous response and reviews, and was followed by runs in the West End and New York.
This is a very special episode, first because I am privileged to talk with none other than the play’s author Conor McPherson, and secondly because we have also been given kind permission to include several extracts from the original cast recording of the music from the first London production.
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 …