20 March 2010

Mothers of the Year, Classic-Style

For several years Cutting Ball Theater has had an enticing and free series of play readings, usually focusing on the obscure and rare, called The Hidden Classics. I finally managed to get to one of these, the Medea double-bill (Euripides followed by Seneca). I love these compare-and-contrast things. The cast was the same for both plays: Medea was Paige Rogers, Jason was Garth Petal, the Nurse was Lynne Soffer, Creon was Bennett Fisher, James Kierstead was the Tutor and the Messenger, Patrick Kelley and George Matan-Hester played the non-speaking sons, Mary Anne Cook, Mayra Gaeta, and Lindsay Cookson were the Chorus, and Paul Gerrior was Aegeus, who only appears in the Greek version. Amy Clare Tasker directed the Euripides and Rob Melrose directed the Seneca (Rob and Paige are the artistic directors of Cutting Ball).

It was a fascinating, absorbing, and frankly exhausting afternoon, even with a half-hour intermission with complimentary wine and hors d’oeuvres between the plays. (Those seats are kind of difficult to sit in for so long. Also: the woman behind me literally kicked me in the ass several times. Again I ask, what is wrong with you people? If your foot poked the person in front of you, wouldn’t you be extra careful next time you needed for some inexplicable reason to cross your legs, especially since he was so nice about it the first time? And that little pat on the shoulder doesn’t count. In fact it adds to the irritation. Sheesh.)

The reading was to be followed by a discussion of the two versions and a vote on which we preferred. I skipped the discussion and hence the vote; something about the woman in the back row going “woooo!” every time Medea scored a point persuaded me that I’d be better off heading into the sunset. I understand from Marissabidilla’s discussion of this afternoon that Euripides won. (Click here for her discussion of the Medeas, as well as of Phedre at ACT, which I’m going to get to further on in this entry, and here for her discussion of Seneca as the Roman Tarantino.) Though I agree with her comparison of the two, which can be summarized as Euripides is a playwright and Seneca a poet, I would have voted for Seneca mostly because of the novelty of obscurity, though I suspect if I’d sat through the discussion perversity would also have led me to favor the savage Roman. I was feeling pretty bloodthirsty myself. What with the ass-kicking, and the "Woooo!"ing.

My other reason for favoring Seneca was that the Latin Medea had more of the requisite ferocity. I loved Paige as Lady Macbeth so I know she can handle Medea, but the performance of the Euripides version was too anguished, too sympathetic, too much the way a normal woman would be. But Medea is not a normal woman, something quite a few audience members didn’t seem to grasp. We need to fear her, and to recognize that her actions, however solidly motivated, are fearful. Other characters refer to her ferocity and cunning, and even in her mock meekness you have to sense that glint in the eye and steel in the voice that tells you that she is terrible, implacable, furious. Otherwise why would everyone who knows her be so wary of a powerless woman? Her rejection doesn’t leave her heart-broken, it leaves her enraged to the point of murdering her own children.

Medea hesitates to kill them, because she is not an inhuman monster, but killing her children is her plan all along, she never seriously falters in her plan, and she does it out of hatred. She’s not like Norma, whose more generous and natural impulses cause her to change her mind about killing her children and eventually lead her to accept love (and death) rather than revenge. And she’s not like Margaret Garner, the so-called American Medea, because Garner acted out of love, to protect her children from a life of slavery. Medea acts out of cruelty and hatred. Yet the feeling seemed to be that she was perfectly justified, and if anyone was to blame, it was Jason.

Can we all maybe agree that murdering your own two children is perhaps a bit of an over-reaction to getting dumped? Yes, it was not a nice thing for Jason to do. Medea is justly angry and hurt. But isn’t it enough she kills his new bride, and her father, and burns their house to the ground? Euripides highlights everything that might make you take, if not a sympathetic view of Medea, at least an understanding one; but he was doing that in the face of a society that considered her simply evil and inhuman. We seem to have a society that considers her actions perfectly justified and even praise-worthy, at least judging from the “You Go, Girl!” vibe in the audience. (As noted by The Onion, women are now empowered by everything women do.) It is this same bizarre refusal to consider women morally responsible for their actions – which is a refusal to take women seriously as members of society – that undercut Bone to Pick, the Eugenie Chan monodrama Cutting Ball presented last year. It is ironic that everything Euripides designed to make his audience question itself led a contemporary audience not to question itself.

I was reminded of an interview with Fay Weldon that I read years ago, about her brilliant novel, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil: she said how odd she found it that people just accepted everything the protagonist did (as she destroys the husband who did her wrong, his mistress, and herself) instead of debating, as she thought they would, the point at which she went too far. (If this doesn’t make sense, it will if you read the novel, as you should, but at all costs avoid the crappy movie version with Meryl Streep and Roseanne, which omits about half of the book, the more interesting half.)

Perhaps this overly sympathetic portrayal was part of an attempt to differentiate the two Medeas, since their stories are essentially the same, though Seneca has many more long and elaborate speeches. The portrayal there, though still sympathetic to a degree, was of a more implacable woman. I found the Euripides performance fundamentally misconceived, but as noted quite a lot of the audience seemed to think murdering the children was just a particularly sassy comeback. (I did wonder if those audience members would have felt quite so comfortable about it if Medea had murdered two daughters instead of sons.)

Given this attitude, Jason, already a flawed and unheroic hero, had a losing battle for the audience’s favor, though Garth gave it his considerable best try. But when Jason points out to Medea that he’s given their children the great advantage of living in Greece, there was a lot of laughter, as if this were evidence of Jason’s smugness. But though there is some smugness there, it’s a valid point, as if an American were to make the same remark: yes, the country may be a mess, and tending downwards (do we finally have national health care yet?), but it’s a wealthier and more secure place to live than quite a few other places, and what’s silly and smug is pretending that doesn’t matter. When Medea justifies her earlier murders (of her younger brother, among others) by saying she did it out of love for Jason, I don't think we're supposed to accept that as an excuse. I think we're meant to take that as evidence that her emotions are selfish and uncontrolled. In other words, that the blame is hers for taking such actions, not primarily his for benefiting from them. If the audience is only taking one character's arguments seriously, it's missing the debate among irreconcilable and clashing points of view that is the essence of Greek tragedy.

I’d say the audience had a very naïve view of Medea, but the naivete may well be mine in taking the drama and the characters seriously. (But then, I’ve always felt that sophistication is really just another barrier between you and a genuine experience of theater; when you’re too busy sorting out which reaction will signify you as sophisticated, you can’t really have an honest reaction. Sophistication only exists in relation to other people.) It's not that these people weren't totally into Medea: one man told me he was pretty much a Medeahead, and was planning to watch the Lars von Trier version as sort of an after-party. Perhaps by now these stories have been so Freuded, Frazered, Junged, and Campbelled, so painted, performed, filmed, and sung, that we have reached a stage of Alexandrian decadence with them, where they have lost their primal strength and become exercises in style. What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba?

Several days after the Medeas I went to the Geary Theater to see Phedre, “translated and adapted” from Racine’s play by Timberlake Wertenbaker. The single set featured metal columns whose hollow interiors were filled with writhing pipes, nicely suggestive of the twisted emotions right below the surface of the characters. The costumes were eighteenth-century in style, though the men’s sturdy brown garb was far too drab, especially for Hippolytus: he’s repeatedly described as proud, haughty, arrogant; to me, Jonathan Goad was more of a nice guy, suggestive of a semi-hunky suburban dad starting to go to seed, and far too contemporary. I had a similar problem with several of the actors, who were OK and appealing enough but just completely out of sync with Racine's style and story. One major exception was the Theseus of Tom McCamus, who commanded the stage appropriately; the show picked up when he showed up.

Seana McKenna as Phedre was fine, but after a while – the show was about two hours, with no intermission – I felt she needed a few more variations on the theme of how miserable her forbidden love for her stepson Hippolytus made her feel. This isn’t really McKenna’s fault, I think. The play has several strikes against it with a contemporary American audience: the subject matter, to start with. Far from shivering with the horrifying thrill of incest, we’re likely to think, meh . . . he’s not blood. It’s just a stepson, for Heaven’s sake! Haven’t we seen this dozens of times on Springer or even Oprah? What does forbidden love mean in our society, or more specifically, in our representations of society? We have a theater in which Albee can write a play about a man in love with a goat, and, though I found that play a huge disappointment, it is a serious play, and far from being shut down by the Vice Squad, it had a comfortable run entertaining the tourists on Broadway before heading out to a life of regional revivals. So I at least felt a little impatient with this woman mooning over her shocking love, and Racine didn’t do her (or us) any favors by moving any less-than-noble emotions to the wily servant Oenone (Roberta Maxwell), who in this version is the one who comes up with the scheme to slander Hippolytus, Potiphar’s-Wife-style.

The translation uses unrhymed lines shorter than Racine’s alexandrines, but the basic problem is that for all English-speaking audiences the paradigm for poetic theater, consciously or not, is of course Shakespeare, with his richness, his extravagance, his range, his sublimity and his vulgarity. Racine is just going to seem flatter and tinier to us, because his power comes from the untranslatable contrast between the precision and control of language and form and the wild emotions expressed therein. An English-language equivalent might be something like the poetry of Housman, whose power comes from the sense that only his very tight, regular, and formal structures can keep his deep emotions from slopping out into incoherent throbbing. (That, incidentally, is why I almost always dislike musical settings of Housman; the music for me adds a disruptive and unnecessary third element that upsets the balance.)

You can hear at least one surviving recording, just a couple of minutes long, of Bernhardt as Phedre, which of course was one of her great triumphs. Even through the surface noise you can hear a combination of fever and formality. But she was coming from a theater that valued grand gestures and symphonic vocalism and that was still stylized in some of the ways in which Racine’s theater was stylized. We are very far from that.

I don’t regret seeing the play, because how many chances am I going to get? (Though I do have some regrets about the cost.) But I also can’t say I was thrilled by it, or discovered something I hadn’t already known or felt. The whole thing was disappointingly middle-of-the-road. The story, so basic yet so remote from anything we find tragic or shocking, and the formal, elevated style the play requires, called out for something extreme to wake us to whatever power they might still have over us: darken the stage, light the actors with spotlights or flashlights, strip the actors down and make their language standard contemporary prose. Or have the actors use highly stylized gestures, speak in rhyme and formal cadence, make the stage an explosion of expressive color. Put Hippolytus in a golden loincloth and Phedre in buskins and a towering crown. Go ahead and have a man play Phedre, in homage to the Greek tragic theater and to the camp attitude that many take to these works. Sure, there will be some inappropriate laughter, but there is now anyway (and camp versions of Greek tragedy can be both very funny and strangely powerful). To put it another way: go Noh, go Kabuki, or go home.
(The photographs are all from the Graeco-Roman galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My other picture of the Maenad at top is here, and you can click through at that entry to see Lisa's photo of the entire statue. The second and third pictures are different shots of the same statue, which is of Artemis if I'm remembering correctly. The fourth picture is a fragment of Hera, again if I'm remembering correctly.)


Civic Center said...

My god, the things you put yourself through for art. Wonderful essay, and I fully agree with your point about how homogenized the modern reaction is to the "Medea" story. It's meant to be blood-curdling, and the woman's monstrousness should be horrifying rather than "empowering." Wished I enjoyed the Pasolini movie of "Medea" with Maria Callas more, but that doesn't really work either.

Also loved the Fay Weldon "Life and Loves of a She Devil" novel which starts out as a funny revenge tale that transforms into the chilling and monstrous, implicating the reader for rooting the protagonist on all the way.

As for "Phedre," you know I boycott ACT productions on general artistic principle, but your remarks on translation and Housman's poetry are brilliant, so I'm glad you (over)paid for a ticket. However, I doubt if they'd get it right even if they went Noh/Kabuki.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Vissi d'arte indeed. I had forgotten about the Pasolini/Callas Medea -- I think I did see that, but so long ago that it doesn't really count. It's entertainingly perverse to cast Callas in a non-Cherubini Medea.

Thoughts of you and your feelings about ACT did in fact cross my mind during Phedre. I had originally planned to see Caucasian Chalk Circle as well, but after Phedre I decided the expense was maybe not worth the risk. But then I've seen that play before.

Glad you like that Weldon novel too!

John Marcher said...

I can't help but think none of those in attendance saw Fiona Shaw's Medea in Berkeley a few years back- probably the most chilling thing I've ever seen in a theater. The audience left stunned and silent. In other words, it was terrific theater.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Well, at least one of those in attendance saw Fiona Shaw's Medea, and he disliked the show, despite its undoubted moments, but at this distance I'd have to try to remember what exactly I didn't like. I do remember reading Daniel Mendelsohn's review in the NY Review of Books a few weeks later and finding that we had many of the same objections: that review is in his collection, How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken. I should re-read it when I have some time (maybe in a week?)and see if that jogs my memory.

One thing I remember vividly is the murder of the children, done behind that glass barrier representing the house, with the blood splurting out onto the glass and dripping down. That's the sort of visceral thing that you're just not going to get in a reading, given the nature of a reading. And it helps makes the boys real; since they have no lines, they're sort of abstract to a certain type of audience member.

Libby Fife said...

Loved the photographs along with the essay so thank you.

I was disturbed by that Onion article, however, but glad you provided the link. I may have to jump ship.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Glad you liked the photographs; thank you.

Why were you disturbed by the Onion article? Most women I know find it hilarious. It's hard not to notice the smug phenomenon it's satirizing. I think it very deftly points up the way the whole concept of the "empowerment" and "liberation" of women has been taken over and diminished, often for the benefit of corporate spreadsheets: buying yourself expensive brunches and diamonds or other luxurious indulgences as a "powerful statement" rather than actually working towards something that betters yourself or the world. Are you jumping ship on me, the Onion, or what?

Libby Fife said...

I suppose I am somewhere in the middle: not old enough to have participated in gaining rights for women and too old for wearing those t-shirts. I have benefitted enormously from the first thing though. I just disagree that everything a woman does has to be a proclamation of something. Everything has some meaning though. I would just like to quietly go about my business. The self absorption is killing me.

So no jumping ship on you or The Onion, just this whole t-shirt wearing proclamation thing. Oh, and I don't want anything written across the seat of my pants either.