Experiential representative of the unspeakable, or misogynist construct? Embodiment of chaos that refuses to be excluded, or miner of the individual-political conundrum where the semiotic and the symbolic order meet, or all of the above? Only one thing is certain, in his protagonistes of Medea, Euripides has gifted scholars and contemporary theatre companies alike with a puzzle the equal of any riddle in Ancient Greek mythology. For Season 2 Episode 4 of Literary Punk I’m joined by Denise Varney, Professor of Theatre Studies in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne, as we grapple with Medea‘s legacy: the equation of an arguably violently constructed and murderous female protagonist, and the excess of the filicidal mother. For the purposes of the discussion we’ll be using the 1963 Penguin edition with a translation by scholar Philip Vellacott.
JASON: If only children could be got some other way / Without the female sex! If women didn’t exist / Human life would be rid of all its miseries. Medea’s story unfolds within the private context of Jason’s organised betrayal, and the wider public context of organised misogyny. Her argument is set against the future of an Athenian society in the process of becoming a democracy, as that city formed what scholar Vellacott terms “the forces of civilization”(8). For the length of the drama she stands without the Attic project of social order and self-control, and ironically before the citizen audience of that Greek city who were themselves subjected to the organised language of rule, subject to the Jasons who controlled whom or what was to be excluded from the new democratic society-in-process. Medea’s language works seamlessly across, on the one hand, pre-loaded patriarchal rhetoric: “We were born women – useless for honest purposes / But in all kinds of evil skilled practitioners”(29); and on the other, her call for a new politics, “A time comes when the female sex is honoured; That old discordant slander / Shall no more hold us subject”(29). But across these modes there is also chaotic slippage, what the Nurse provides for example, words which Medea calls “unnecessary”(42), arguably because they are problematic for her, new discord delivered fresh as blood in statements like: “She hates her sons”(18).
MEDEA: About these children. JASON: I’ll provide for them. Cheer up. We can observe political signs deposited in the craft of the revolutionary 5th Century BCE poet; for his day Euripides was controversial regarding his innovations within the form of drama. In terms of Euripides’ modern tone, literary critic Philip Vellacott notes the political inclusion of vernacular language aligned to vernacular suffering (heroes at human-level, specifically female-level, and sans the salve of godly wisdom), along with his innovative use of a female chorus as commentator, as symbolic acts which were staged alongside the Athenian project of civilization vs. barbarism (1963). Further, in Vellacott’s reading Medea’s excess is the action of the “heroic minority” set against the city-state that excuses its own excesses as necessary control; in this schema she is the return of the excluded chaotic.
However, Theatre Studies scholar Varney cautions that in a world post Feminism we must be wary of the value in generating readings that valorise a psychotic outsider Medea. Moreover, Varney argues that Medea’s questions can’t be analysed in the writing alone, but must be played out in answers located across the body of the actors and the staging choices of the contemporary production. Her comment is apposite, given that Euripides was noted for design innovations such as incorporating solo musical performances in the staging of his plays. Certain lines of Medea reference music and its relationship to trauma: “…no one thought of using / Songs and stringed instruments / To banish the bitterness and pain of life”(23); a statement which prefigures twentieth century psycho-linguistics, primarily what Kristeva describes as the healing semiotic modality available to us via music and in the rhythms and murmurs of poetry.
Join us for a fascinating discussion of one of the great dramas of the Attic Golden Age.
[Euripides, MEDEA AND OTHER PLAYS, Translated & with an Introduction by Philip Vellacott, Penguin, 1963.]
Image: useless but skilled, Milte, 2015.