Thursday, September 4, 2014


When, last summer, I saw that National Theatre Live would be re-broadcasting Danny Boyle's Frankenstein AND a new production of Euripides' Medea this fall, I was thrilled.

I didn't jump for joy, necessarily, but I did give a small hop and a little cry of glee.  I majored in Classical Studies and Literary Studies as an undergraduate (a double major), and I always loved Euripides best of the Greek tragedians.

Today, I went to see Medea.  It was more than worth the wait.  Helen McCrory (who played Narcissa Malfoy in the last three films of the Harry Potter series) played the title role, and she was unbelievably good.

As she comments in a short introduction to the film, to walk on stage and put Medea's grief out there for an audience to see is no small task.  I'm not sure how she has managed to accomplish that feat night after night, because the role is an intense one, to say the least.

While the figure of Medea is often invoked nowadays in reference to real-life women who kill their children--and, as McCrory points out, there are some startling similarities between Euripides' character and contemporary psychological research on women who commit this crime--I think to regard her entirely in this light would flatten the character somewhat.

It isn't just that Medea kills her children.  That one act is not what defines her, although it is (of course) one of her most memorable deeds.  She is a figure taken from myth and, as such, Euripides uses her to represent multiple things in his Medea.

Medea traces her lineage to the god of the Sun, Helios: he's her grandfather.  Her aunt is Circe, the woman who turns Odysseus's crew into swine in The Odyssey.  Medea is thus very (very) aware of ancestry as a significant component of identity--as a way of defining what she is "worthy" of and what she "must" do when faced with degrading circumstances.

And Jason has made the ultimate mistake: he has degraded her.  Because she loved him, she helped him obtain the Golden Fleece (Medea's husband is the Jason of the myth of Jason and the Argonauts).  In particular, she helped him steal it from her father, King Aeetes and, when her father set sail in pursuit of Jason and the Argonauts, she helped him to escape.

She did this by cutting her little brother into pieces and then scattering the pieces on the water as she fled with Jason.  She knew that her father would stop to collect the pieces of her brother's body so that he could bury his son, and that this would slow him down, enabling Jason and the Argonauts to escape with the Golden Fleece.

So Medea has a history of violence (towards family members) and she has a history of taking sacrifice to a whole new level.  At the same time, she is not the kind of woman who will allow someone to reduce her to the status of a cast-off and an exile--she's the granddaughter of the Sun, for heaven's sake.  Medea is also a witch.  She knows her way around a poison recipe and she is repeatedly characterized as "other," in the sense of both foreign-born and other-worldly, in all of the renditions of the myth.

In short, she's not like the nice wives of Corinth, where she and Jason have settled.

When I've taught Euripides' play, the female students in the class often respond  to the figure of Jason with a fair amount of fury all their own: "jerk" and "full of crap" are the nicest things they typically have to say about him and about his behavior towards Medea.

What I think is most interesting in Euripides' Medea, however, is the fact that Jason and his new father-in-law Creon know what Medea is and what she is capable of--they know her history, they know about her past actions, and Creon openly admits that he's afraid of her.

And yet, they don't see the warning signs that are all around them.  The Cracknell production of the play captures this extremely well: everyone around Medea is afraid of what she will do.  People who meet her for a minute or two quickly become very worried.

So how, then, can Jason and Creon not see what's coming?  This is a fascinating question to consider, and I think in it lies Euripides' commentary on power.  Because Jason and Creon think that they hold all the cards, they "forget" what Medea is capable of.

They can't fathom that she could basically do it all over again (or worse), and that this time, she might do it to the two of them.  I think this is the essence of Euripides' commentary on power: be careful what you forget about.  Be careful what you overlook.

In a sense, Jason and Creon don't recognize the extent to which their behavior overlaps with the scenes from Medea's past.  Creon's concern about his daughter Creusa's wedding can't help but remind Medea of what she did to her own father in order to have the man of her dreams--namely, Jason.

Yes, Jason.  The very guy who is now ditching her for someone else, and claiming that he's only doing what's best for everyone, because that's just the kind of great guy he is.  It's an attitude that can't help but remind Medea that, but for her, he wouldn't even be the kind of man who could marry a king's daughter in Corinth.

He's riding high on his reputation as the hero who obtained the Golden Fleece, forgetting that it was Medea who helped him obtain it.

For her part, Medea is stuck in the past.  She admits as much, and it hinders her ability to envision a future for herself and her children.  And to the Greek audience watching this play in the 5th century B.C.E., it would be relatively clear that, without her husband Jason, Medea and her children really don't have a future anymore.

When Jason remarries, his wife--the future queen of Corinth--isn't going to worry about his children from his previous marriage to Medea.  They're the children of a foreigner, and as such, they have no status, even if Jason does step in line to succeed Creon and become King of Corinth.

This is openly suggested in the play, when the children take Medea's gift to Creusa.  She wants nothing to do with them, until Jason manages to convince her to give them a minute of her time.

It's a bad sign.  Creusa already doesn't want to see Medea's children, already feels annoyed by their presence and their very existence--and she and Jason have only just married.  Jason manages to obtain permission for the children to stay in Corinth, but even this doesn't necessarily augur good things for them in the future.  Medea understands court intrigues and she understands shifts in family loyalty--she's lived them.  In a sense, she knows what people are capable of, because she knows what she herself is capable of.

Revenge.  Terrible, mind-numbing, self-destroying revenge.

And that is the essence of Euripides' depiction of her and the essence of the National Theatre's production of the play.  I highly recommend it.

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