Medea, by Euripides (rewritten by Ben Power), was at the National Theatre in London in July and August. A filmed version is screening at movie theatres in the US and the UK starting September 4. The play was directed by Carrie Cracknell, starred Helen McCrory, and featured music written by Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp.
What kind of a woman kills her children to punish her faithless husband? Euripides’ Medea raises the question, and audiences since ancient times have wrestled with it. Both the original play and the Power/Cracknell version at the National Theatre find some of the seeds of Medea’s horrifying filicide in the travails of everywoman, or at least many-a-woman.
Medea, as played by Helen McCrory, does at first come across as one of us. We first see her in her contemporary townhouse, where her two boys are watching TV. Medea’s first act is to brush her teeth. She is distraught for reasons modern women can understand, despite the anachronistic elements. Her husband Jason is leaving her not just for some woman, but to marry King Creon’s daughter. He claims that he just wants his boys to have royal brothers. Oh right.
Of course she’s angry – in fact downright furious. In both the original and the new version, she bemoans the lot of woman in strongest possible terms. “Of all the creatures that can feel and think, we women are the worst-treated things alive.” (Roche translation). The social status of women is the soil out of which Medea’s murderous plot seems to begin growing.
Creon tells Medea she and her boys are to be banished, because he fears what she’ll do to his daughter and himself, but she persuades him to give her 24 hours. Just as he had feared, she wreaks revenge, first by delivering a lethal wedding gift to Jason’s new wife. Her ultimate vengeance will be exacted by killing her own sons, to inflict the greatest possible suffering on Jason, their father.
Does this kind of thing happen? The modern setting of the play makes you ask the question, and the answer is a problem for the play’s coherence. No, it doesn’t much happen. Filicidal mothers often kill their children for delusional “altruistic” reasons. In one recent case, a mother jumped off a tall building holding her infant, to protect the child from a disease she was obsessed with the child having. Fortunately, the child survived, and had no such disease. It’s filicidal fathers who are much more likely to kill their children to retaliate against the other parent.
In the Euripides original, Medea isan everywife, but she’s also much more. We’re reminded at the play’s very beginning that she’s a wily sorceress who helped Jason capture the golden fleece. She’s a foreigner, a barbarian, in exile from her homeland. And she’s already a killer of family, having chopped up her brother to slow the pursuit of her father when she was fleeing with Jason; she figured her father would stop to pick up the pieces (and he did). She’s also extraordinary for being the granddaughter of Helios, the sun. She shares some of the situation of ordinary woman, but all in all she’s not an ordinary woman.
Now the Powers play does dutifully clue us in to all these things and does give Medea a long black cloak, toward the end, and a spooky forest to roam around in. But the clues and forest have no impact. A woman who brushes her teeth while her kids watch TV cannot be the granddaughter of the sun or a sorceress. All a modern white woman can be is passionate and demented, and that’s what Medea is. Her madness escalates throughout the drama with the help of a chanting and dancing chorus. Also helpful is a second story room behind windows, which reveals events in Creon’s palace, but perhaps only as imagined in Medea’s troubled mind. But alas, none of it is enough, because a modern everywoman, no matter how disadvantaged by a wife’s social position, just doesn’t slaughter her kids to hurt her husband.
But a barbarian sorceress does. We need the full-blooded Euripides play, in its semi-mythical antiquated setting, for the proceedings to make any sense. But would we find the play interesting in that form? The original Medea is about actions propelled by a mix of psychological forces, some real and others too magical to be real. She’s real enough to engage us, as she certainly did when I saw this play for the first time as a teenager, in a non-updated production. My teenagers were a bit less engaged, maybe because of the confusing setting.
In fact, a program in American prisons – The Medea Project – actually invites female inmates to think about their own crimes in light of figures like Medea, Clytemnestra, etc. in Greek tragedies. Next step, one would hope, is The Jason Project for men in prison. If Medea is partly magical, Jason is all too human. Both raise real questions about what sacrifices parents should make for their children.