Sunday, March 14, 2010

Review: Medea, by Euripides; translated by Robin Robertson

MedeaMy rating: 4 of 5 stars
Medea is an intriguing and difficult play -- the former largely due to the latter. Based on Greek mythology, it follows part of the tale of Jason and his wife Medea. Medea, a "barbarian" princess from the kingdom of Colchis, follows the Greek Jason, of Golden Fleece fame, to Corinth. Things go fairly well until Jason runs off with a younger woman, the daughter of Kin Creon, the king of Corinth. The play opens with this atrocity; it ends with a far worse one.

Medea is left to languish in her house while the new lovers get familiar amidst the palatial bedsheets. Then the king himself comes to her house and orders her to leave the country. But Medea has murderous intentions. Even her nurse -- a classic example of the wise and temperate servant, set against the excesses and stupidity of the masters, a common trope long into the Victorian era (Nelly, from Wuthering Heights, anyone?) -- speaks of her mistress' plot in the first speech of the play. Medea, in a terrible act of anger towards Jason, but also as a form of self-destruction, plans to kill her two young sons.

She hopes, of course, to gain revenge against Jason. But it is also a form of self destruction. Failing the existence of any maternal love or even plain human empathy, Medea is, at the very least, gruesomely cutting short her bloodline. All hopes of any kind of immortality, therefore, are ended. To say nothing of the children...

Soon Jason himself swings by the house, surely fresh from the "marriage" bed. Although he is confident of his dominant position in society -- and therefore is arrogant enough to feel his acts justified and to order Medea to accept her fate -- still he has misgivings. Perhaps he genuinely feels guilty; perhaps he feels obligated to see after her welfare; perhaps his sole concern is for the children. In any case, the ol' Kobe Bryant tactic doesn't work, and Jason leaves Medea as angry and stubborn (*hmph* women) as ever.

Then the King of Athens comes by -- yes, Virginia, kings do make house calls -- and Medea makes him promise to shelter her in his city after she flees Corinth, and to keep her safe even against military attacks.

Then things get crazy: Medea pretends to be reconciled; accordingly, she has her two boys deliver gifts to the new bride; but these gifts are poisoned, and both the princess and her father die offstage. Jason seems not to like this and returns to the house in a fury. But Medea is too busy for talking -- too busy killing her sons; their cries of terror can be heard from inside the house. Jason holds an argument with his former wife through locked doors. Then the chariot of Helios, the sun god and Medea's grandfather, carries her above Jason's head, to freedom. The End.

A reader can see this play in two lights: in the originally intended, traditional view; or else in the modern idiom. For the former, imagine a Greek theater, with an all-male cast and probably an all-male audience. The play is performed in a heavily patriarchal society; some of the male actors are wearing dresses, assuming high-pitched voices. The play tells the mythical story of a woman who turns bloody and vindictive -- yes, yes, typical woman -- but gets away unpunished -- not typical.

Then there is the chorus. In this play, it was intended to be a group of Corinthian women, who commiserate with Medea and encourage her to seek revenge, though they frown upon "punishing herself" -- ie, by killings her own children. The chorus of Ancient Greek theater usually played a very distinct role -- to play the part of "society," to give the main characters advice and incite into the "right" actions. How odd it is, that this group of vindictive, seemingly vindicated women was played by men -- their lines were written by a man -- in a play performed exclusively for men.

And, to those wondering if Euripides was a kind of rogue, with radical views, remember that the play was based on long-standing mythology. Mind, this play was not particularly popular -- it finished third in the Dionysia festival in 431 BC -- but Euripides certainly was not run out of town. Perhaps some scholars have it all figured out (I hear some call this play an example of proto-feminism!), but I'm still a bit baffled.

Then there is the other light: to look on this play as a work of modern times. Certainly, we don't read it in the Ancient Greek anymore, and the translation I read, by Robin Robertson, seemed especially tuned to the modern ear. This way we can completely, without reservations, sympathize with Medea -- though probably not approve of her actions. And we can pass off her comments on the weakness of women as simple irony. Oddly enough, this approach seems to make this play less of a puzzle, at least for me.

I bet if we had read this in high school instead of Antigone I would have jumped back into Ancient Greek literature sooner. I am only just testing the waters of that hallowed genre, yet I am already certain that Medea must be one of the best plays in the bunch, especially from a modern perspective.

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