A picture of the theatre of Dionysus in Athens taken in 1870 by Sebah Pascal (1823 - 1886).
Euripides’ Medea was first performed in at the City Dionysia Festival in Athens in 431BC, nearly 2,500 years ago. What would it have been like to have attended the original production? It’s difficult to know for sure. There is not enough historical evidence to present a definitive picture and scholars argue over the exact details. There is, however, one thing we can know for sure. The experience of watching a play in the theatre in ancient Greece was very different from watching a play in a theatre today.
Maria Callas as Medea in Pasolini's Medea (1969).
Who is Medea? This is not an easy question to answer. She is at once a sorceress, a lustful concubine, a foreigner, a serial killer, an intellectual, and an unrequited lover. She is a mother, a madwoman, and an oppressed wife too. Is she a victim or the perpetrator? Who is to blame – Medea, the murderer of her children, or Jason the serial womaniser? Euripides subtly but surely sides with the heroine, casting Jason as a coward. Medea is of course all of these women and more, which is what makes her so captivating: her multiplicity has seduced and disoriented theatre-makers, writers and audiences for centuries. Nevertheless, in Euripides’ tragedy she remains a ‘barbarian’, an exotic object of desire whose instinctive violence escapes comprehension. Her final escape to Athens by divine chariot seals the riddle of her identity with a coup de théâtre
A vase by Ixion Painter showing Medea killing one of her sons, approx. 330 BC (Louvre, Paris).
The tragedies that survive from ancient Greece prove to be inexhaustibly renewable sources of creative energy. And Euripides’ Medea is quite possibly the most high-voltage, the most influential of all. From Seneca to Pasolini and Lars von Trier, Corneille to Heiner Mueller and Cherubini (and Callas) to Yukio Ninagawa, Grillparzer to Martha Graham …. Mike Bartlett’s new comi-tragic setting on a small-town housing estate crackles with the tension and blood-chilling shocks that jump across two-and-a-half millennia from Euripides’ still-live wires.
Tragedy is dead. At least, that was George Steiner’s verdict in his 1961 book, The Death of Tragedy. Steiner argues that tragedy no longer has any power in modern society, because modern society bases its understanding of itself in rational thinking. Tragedy can have no resonance in a society that believes in a just and reasonable god, nor in one that believes that man alone determines his destiny through the power of his own reason.