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Medea: Everywoman, Many Women Close

Margherita Laera | Oct. 19, 2012

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.

There is, however, one other role that we twenty-first-century audiences are able to recognise in Medea: that of the feminist pioneer. And the fact that this precursor of the suffragettes is a mythic character dramatised nearly 2,500 years ago by a man is quite astonishing. In one of her most famous monologues, she laments:

‘Of all creatures that breath and think, we women are the most unfortunate. First of all, we must buy a husband and master of our bodies at a very dear price. And this is the biggest challenge, whether we are able to find a bad or a good husband. Divorce is dishonorable for women and it is impossible not to have a husband. And when the wife discovers the new customs and habits of her husband’s household, she must become a mind-reader, since no one taught her at home how to deal with her bed-fellow. If, after we have troubled ourselves with this task, our husbands spend their lives with us without feeling bitter about the marriage yoke, our time is enviable. Otherwise, death is better. A man, whenever he has had enough of those in the house, can go outside and rid his heart of hostility. But we must have eyes for one person only. They say that we live without danger at home while they fight with the spear, but they are wrong! I would rather stand beside my shield three times in battle than give birth once.’

The outspokenness of these words strike a particular cord in the contemporary world. But curiously, in Victorian London, Medea’s story was particularly resonant for a more precise reason: the tragedy seemed to speak of the conditions of single mothers, who were often abandoned by society. Following the introduction by the British Government of the New Poor Law (1834), by which mothers of illegitimate children were condemned to supporting themselves and their offspring on their own, a string of infanticide cases had scandalised and intrigued the country, with several productions of Medea hitting the West End. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Medea had become one of the most prestigious female lead roles, so much so that the British theatre star Sybil Thorndike starred in five stagings of Medea between 1920 and 1941. Before her, in the 1850s, an adaptation by Ernst Legouvé featuring the Italian diva Adelaide Ristori had stunned audiences in Paris, London and New York, while the legendary French actress Sarah Bernhardt had interpreted the heroine in 1898 in Paris, in a version by Catulle Mendès. On this occasion, Bernhardt was immortalised in the production poster by theArt Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha, who depicted her dressed in black, standing defiantly beside the body of her dead son, holding a blood-stained knife with a snake-shaped bracelet wrapped around her arm.

Mucha’s turn-of-the-century poster attracted audiences with a sense of the protagonist’s mystery and cold-heartedness, but recent performances have more often sought to highlight the complexity of Medea’s identity and feelings. For instance, Isabelle Huppert (2000) and Fiona Shaw (2001) – directed by Jacques Lassalle and Deborah Warner respectively – painstakingly investigated the heroine’s condition, turning her into a sympathetic character. Along the same lines, Christa Wolf’s feminist novel Medea: A Modern Retelling (1996) refused the accusation of child murderer, instead investigating the myth as signifying the transition from a matriarchal to a patriarchal society. Instead of blaming Medea, Wolf charged Euripides with corruption and mystification, contending that, as ancient sources testify, he had been bribed to cover up the true version of the story. It was in fact the Corinthian people who killed Medea’s children, to avenge the murder of Jason’s new wife, Glauce, and her father, King Creon of Corinth, and to expel the foreigners from their city. While Wolf undertakes a wholesale recuperation of Medea, the Italian theatre director Luca Ronconi, decided that her acts were too ‘unfeminine’, and therefore chose a man, Franco Branciaroli, for the title role in an otherwise conventional cast.

Other internationally renowned directors and choreographers, such as Peter SteinRobert WilsonMartha Graham and Yukio Ninagawa, to name but a few, have offered their versions to contemporary audiences. But perhaps the most compelling of all adaptations is the 1969 Pasolini film, starring the opera singer Maria Callas in the title role. Pasolini’s adaptation makes Medea more seductive and haunting than ever before. The dignity of Callas’ gaze and the inscrutability of her mind are best captured by Pasolini’s slow and silent sequences, in which she looks into the camera, piercing the screen appearing to mind-read the viewer. The film begins in the distant Kingdom of Colchis in Asia Minor, Medea’s birthplace. According to mythology, Jason and the Argonauts sailed to Colchis to capture the golden fleece and bring it back to Corinth. Pasolini imagines it as an arid land of open horizons and sand-coloured towns, where popular customs echoed Eastern European and Balkan traditions; the film, however, was shot in Turkey and its original soundtrack is distinctively North African. In this nowhere land, human sacrifices are practiced to fertilise the soil and ritual dismemberments are followed by group cannibalism. Firmly placing the story within a mythical landscape, Pasolini makes sense of Medea’s ruthlessness not through ideology, but through “exoticisation”. Nearly twenty years later, Lars Von Trier’s filmMedea (1988) adopted a similar approach yet added a thrilling, arcane atmosphere of dark rooms and disquieting music.

But what exactly makes Medea, along with many other classical tragedies, so popular in contemporary theatre? The single most important reason can be found in the way  classical Greece is imagined today. Athenians, the story goes, single-handedly and simultaneously invented theatre and democracy in the fifth century B.C., gifting us two institutions we still cherish dearly. The belief that Athens is the cradle of Western civilisation, that it is “Europe’s spiritual birthplace”, as Husserl put it in his 1935 lecture “Philosophy and the Crisis of European Humanity”, is so pervasive that we take it for granted. By attending a performance of a Greek tragedy today, there is a sense that we are encountering our ancestors, our roots, and that we are able to face who we really are. But do we really come “out of Athens” – or is it just a story we like to tell ourselves? Whatever the answer, perhaps the story counts more than the truth.

Dr Margherita Laera is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in Theatre at the University of Kent. Her book Reaching Athens: Community, Democracy and Other Mythologies in Adaptations of Greek Tragedy will be published by Peter Lang in 2013.