Sam Curran (Tom) and Rachael Stirling (Medea) in Medea. Photo: Manuel Harlan.
Can a woman take on the role of a tragic hero? Medea may have a tragedy named after her and play the starring role in it, but can she be considered a tragic hero in the strictest sense of the term? Greek drama abounds with feisty proto-feminist figures. While Orestes quakes in his sandals at the thought of murdering his mother, his sister Electra makes sure the deed gets done. Antigone buries her brother Polyneices’ body in open defiance of both her uncle Creon and the laws of the Thebes. When Clytemnestra’s husband Agamemnon sacrifices their daughter in order to get a fair wind to Troy, does she sit quietly by? No, of course she doesn’t. She takes over his throne, finds herself a new lover and when Agamemnon finally returns home after ten years of hard fighting, she murders him in his bathtub with an axe. Like Medea, these women are clever, determined and tough as nails, but are they tragic?
Bust of Aristotle. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippos from 330 BC. National Museum of Rome. Photo: Giovanni Dall'Orto
What do we mean when we say that something is tragic or a tragedy? Take a moment and think about the last time you used the word. Was it to describe something that had happened to someone that was sad, shocking or unfair? The disappearance of Madeline McCann or the death of Princess Diana might both be thought of as tragedies. Was it to describe a film or television programme, in which things end unhappily for the characters? Ronnie Mitchell on Eastenders might be thought of as a tragic character because everything always seemed to go so terribly wrong for her. Or perhaps, it was just to say that something was really bad? The footballer Stewart Downing’s performance last season might be thought of as tragic because he failed to score a single goal.
Watch Simon Critchley’s lecture Barack Obama and the American Void in full here
There is something desperately lonely about Barack Obama’s universe. One gets the overwhelming sense of someone yearning for connection, for something that binds human beings together, for community and commonality, for what he repeatedly calls “the common good”. This is hardly news. We’ve known since his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic national convention that “there’s not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America – there’s the United States of America.”
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
Jason (Adam Levy) and Medea (Rachael Stirling) in Medea. Photo: Manuel Harlan.
Medea is one of the most fascinating and complex characters in the whole of Greek mythology. She is the ultimate heroine, villain and victim, all rolled into one.
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.