BMCR 2001.04.27

Medea in Performance 1500-2000

Oliver Taplin, Fiona Macintosh, Edith Hall, University of Oxford. European Humanities Research Centre., Medea in performance 1500-2000. Oxford: Legenda, 2000. xiv, 304 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 22 cm. ISBN 1900755351 $49.50 (pb).

Medea in Performance 1500-2000 represents the first publication to emerge from a conference at the recently established Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama. Located at Oxford, the Archive was founded in 1996 by Edith Hall and Oliver Taplin to support research on the international production and reception of classical drama since the Renaissance (including revivals and adaptations on stage and in film, opera, and dance). The Archive collects playbills, programs, reviews, drawings, photographs, and audio-visual recordings, and aims to compile a production history of ancient drama on the modern stage in the form of a fully searchable database. (email: website: This volume represents the first of what promises to be a valuable series of publications; a conference on Agamemnon is already planned for September 2001. The detailed bibliography on performances of Medea compiled for the Archive by David Gowen in Medea in Performance will give interested readers a taste of what will eventually be available for all of ancient drama.

The volume approaches productions of Medea from three perspectives; I shall address each group in turn. Diana Purkiss, Edith Hall, and Fiona Macintosh deal with performances and reception of Medea in Britain from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century. Marianne McDonald, Margaret Reynolds, and Ian Christie address Medea in opera and film. Platon Mavromoustakos, Eva Stehli/kova/, Mae Smethurst, and Olga Taxidou address a range of largely twentieth-century performances in Greece, the Czech Republic, Japan, and Georgia (Medea’s original homeland). Fiona Macintosh’s introduction frames a broad discussion of Medea in her varied incarnations as witch, infanticide, goddess, abandoned wife, proto-feminist, and outsider. Her discussion fills in many gaps in the performance history of Medea, especially in the area of important French and German adaptations by, for example, Corneille, Grillparzer, Jahnn, Legouve/, Anouilh, and Mu+ller, but also touches on ancient performance, dance versions, and recent American or African adaptations. Since plans for publication emerged only after the conference at which these papers were presented, the volume does not aim at systematic coverage or a comprehensive examination of methodological issues. The vast number of performances and adaptations of this play would preclude anything encyclopedic in any case. Although all the articles make useful contributions to the performance history of Medea, the essays by Hall, Macintosh, and Smethurst offer the most sophisticated and elegantly argued treatments of their topics. The book can be usefully read alongside James Clauss’ and Sarah Johnston’s recently published edited volume, Medea in Myth, Literature, and Philosophy (Princeton 1997), which also contains some material on issues relating to reception.

Historical studies of (especially pre-twentieth-century) theater performances face a fundamental problem. At their worst, they can stay at the level of the often highly limited material available to the scholar, which largely consists of playbills, programs, reviews, drawings, and translations or scripts. Bringing these performances alive theatrically and intellectually requires both extensive knowledge of the original play(s) to which the new translation and performance or adaptation are responding and of the cultural context out of which the later performances emerged. From this perspective, the essays by Hall and Macintosh are exemplary. Hall argues on the basis of Charles Gildon’s Phaeton; or the Fatal Divorce (1698), Charles Johnston’s The Tragedy of Medea (1730), and Richard Glover’s Medea: a Tragedy that these adaptations of Euripides’ original must be understood in relation to the late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century vogue for “heroine-dominated emotional dramas.” At the same time, Euripides’ heroines were generally unsuited in critical ways to contemporary notions of femininity found in such “She-Tragedies,” which explored the ideology of gender through virtuous women in love, ideally maternal but tormented mothers, and victimized virgins. In particular, none of these new versions could tolerate Medea’s deliberate and “unnatural” infanticide, to say nothing of her indelicate frankness and her confrontational approach to sexual politics. Gildon’s version, for example, has the children killed by local people, Johnson’s deletes the infanticide altogether, and Glover’s Medea kills under the influence of madness.

Macintosh’s essay argues that English burlesques of the mid-1850s—James Robinson Planche’s The Golden Fleece (1845), Jack Wooler’s Jason and Medea (1851), Robert Brough’s Medea; or the Best of Mothers, with a Brute of a Husband (1856) and Mark Lemon’s Medea; or, a Libel on the Lady of Colchis (1856)—offered, despite their theatrical genre, a serious response to contemporary divorce reforms and contributed to the debate surrounding them; here Medea becomes the (sometimes) poverty-stricken wife abandoned by a callous, philandering Jason. In this sense the plays anticipated by some years the 1890s Victorian “New Woman.” The plays featured cross-dressing, with Medea played to equal acclaim by Eliza Vestris and Priscilla Horton in masculine costume, and by the male actors Frederick Robson and Edward Wright. Purkiss’s essay, by contrast, remains hampered by the relative scarcity of renaissance material on Medea, which leads her to strained comparisons between the heroine and Shakepeare’s Desdemona, Juliet, and Lady Macbeth. Exploring Medea in relation to renaissance (and Senecan) revenge drama might have been—on the basis of the quotations referring to Medea included in the essay—a more promising approach.

Both McDonald and Reynolds interpret the frequency and popularity of operatic versions of Medea, such as Francesco Cavalli’s Giasone (1649), Marc-Antione Charpentier’s Me/de/e (1693), Luigi Cherubini’s Me/de/e (1797), or Giovanni Pacini’s Medea (1843), as a response to critical historical shifts in the view of women and human rights such as those represented in the French Revolution. Operatic representations of the always transgressive and problematic Medea flourish from the early seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries and then disappear until the mid-twentieth century. McDonald argues that twentieth-century opera versions also represent Medea as a symbol of national identity (Mikis Theodorakis’ Medea [1991]) or preserve the heroine’s full Euripidean complexity, whereas earlier eras can mute, disempower, glorify, or punish her. For Reynolds, the operatic Medea fascinates because of her flagrant and self-conscious invention and performance of herself in collaboration with her audience. This resistant, boundary-breaking collaboration liberates an uncontrolled, transgressive response in the audience, whether Medea is played by a castrato or by a female who moves into unfeminine registers. In my view, Reynolds’ interesting argument would have profited from a closer examination of the complex nature of that outrageously performed self. Even in Greco-Roman versions the climatic claim of Seneca’s highly influential Medea to have revealed her self ( Medea nunc sum, 910, or Medea superest, 166) differs fundamentally from the far more elusive self-performance of Euripides’ heroine. Both essays offer valuable discussions of plots and aspects of the music of a large range of operatic versions but could have benefited from developing the links between the historical and literary context and the fictional versions with more compelling depth, specificity, and focus.

Christie argues that the most significant twentieth-century film versions of Medea by Pier Paolo Pasolini (1970), Jules Dassin (1978), and Lars van Trier (with Carl Dreyer, 1988) are all products of the transgressive and experimental sixties, which permitted a confrontation with infanticide and the monstrous feminine. Pasolini and van Trier, often using unconventional camera work, editing, or visual language, create remote worlds in which mysterious magic and ritual fuel politics and emotion, whereas Dassin’s film (too) self-consciously juxtaposes Euripides’ play and modern life. Christie’s failure to confront these films as a calculated response to Euripides’ original leads him in my view to a surprising dismissal of Dassin’s impressive effort and to a pessimistic assessment of the future of Medea in film. Pasolini’s and van Trier’s heroines, though empowered by magic and pagan/barbarian culture, are virtually inarticulate, hopelessly marginalized victims of social and cultural oppression. Dassin’s forceful juxtaposition of his intelligent, feminist actress, an anguished and inarticulate real-life infanticidal mother, and an evolving performance of Euripides’ heroine repeatedly returns the film’s audience to the complexity of the original and its own equally shocking gap between life and fiction. Pasolini and van Trier refuse to endow Medea with a challenging voice, an autonomous self, and the kind of conscious self-performance characteristic of Euripides’ heroine; their Medea is almost exclusively a prey to her emotions and the infanticide takes center stage, leaving the films open, as Christie argues, to assimilation to the genre of horror film. Euripides’ play puts the killing off-stage, and Dassin creates a different effect by only coming close to violating that convention. The highly inconclusive ending to Dassin’s film, which leaves open (contra Christie) the question of how to play Euripides’ heroine, seems to me to offer issues to be confronted in future versions, rather than to cut them off.

Among the studies of Medeas in specific national contexts, Mavromoustakos’ essay traces the forces that shaped performance and adaptation of Medea in Greece from the nineteenth century to the present. Performances of Euripides’ original were hampered by controversies over translation and “authenticity”, by the preference of star nineteenth-century actresses for simplified versions that catered to popular taste, and by the dominance of actress or director in various mid-twentieth century performances of the original play. Post-nineteen-thirties performances showed an increasing degree of experimentation culminating in a new wave of recent and adventurous adaptations. I regret only that the essay did not describe many of these performances, and especially the latter, in more detail.

Stehli/kova/ explores the popularity in the Czech Republic of Euripides’ original or of the versions by Robinson Jeffers and Jean Anouilh. Here performance of a Greek “classic” permitted a way around censorship to address issues of political resistance, and a confrontation with controversies about gender issues, and, most recently, immigration. Taxidou describes the performance of her adaptation, Medea: A World Apart, at the Georgian International Festival of Theatre in Tbilisi in 1997. This play confronted Medea‘s dialogue between civilization and barbarism. Whereas Greco-Roman sensibility engaged though Georgia (Colchis) with the ethics of sea-travel, the human abuse of nature, magic, vengeance, oaths, familial loyalties, marital and parental conflicts, ethnicity, and the nature of the other, Taxidou’s play was performed from the other side of ancient binary oppositions. It focused on the nature of gender, empire, and nationhood in a profoundly multi-cultural situation. Although it made Medea “almost a heroine,” it took no stable position, but regularly reconstituted itself through its interaction with different audiences.

Smethurst brings to her stunning close reading of Yukio Ninagawa’s internationally acclaimed performance of Euripides’ Medea a scholarly knowledge of both Greek and traditional Japanese drama. Ninagawa’s Medea is in my own view the single most important twentieth-century performance of this play. Smethurst’s analysis shows how Ninagawa brilliantly combined western and Japanese theatrical techniques drawn from Kabuki and Bunraku to project an empowered representation of the heroine. The all male cast was led by an actor with experience as a Kabuki onnagata (a specialist in female parts), Tokusaburo Arashi. To bring out Medea’s transgressive, androgynous character, for example, he used at various points linguistic forms and styles appropriate to Kabuki actors, women, men, and even the traditional stage narrator. As Medea’s heroic side was revealed, the actor stripped off his robes—suggestive of but not quite a traditional kimono—to reveal a masculine body. As the revenge plan took hold, the heroine and the chorus spit out red ribbons from their mouths; these ribbons are traditionally linked with both blood and a coy feminine expression of a love that the heroine now rejects. Smethurst not only saw the original performance but was able to study a video version. (We can only hope that the various Japanese videos made of the performance become more readily available in the west.) As a result the reader comes far closer in Smethurst’s discussion to experiencing the theatrical excitement generated by the performance than s/he can with the less concrete and vivid, if nevertheless valuable, discussions of the other national productions.

Reception studies in classics have gained an increasingly significant scholarly visibility in recent years. Extensive international cooperation and external funding have enabled the Archive to establish a particularly solid basis for further study. The experience of planning and publishing this inaugural conference will undoubtedly set the stage for even more ambitious and wide-ranging future publications, and for incorporating performance and reception into classics-in-translation courses. This volume represents an impressive start to what promises to be a series of valuable studies.