Review of Medea in Performance, 1500-2000

by Oliver Taplin, Fiona Macintosh, Edith Hall
Book Reviewed
Book Title
Medea in Performance, 1500-2000
Book Author
Oliver Taplin, Fiona Macintosh, Edith Hall
Book Publisher
European Humanities Research Centre
Place of Publication
9781900755351 More info
Book Review Citation
Review Author
Richard H. Armstrong
The American Journal of Philology
Select License
December 19th, 2012

important to the story is the fact that the helper is a foreigner? What lesson might a female listener learn from the story? These kinds of questions have been occupying scholars for at least the last ten years, and one would expect to find them discussed in a volume of this sort.

To some extent, chapter 13, "Folktales and Society: Some Reflections on Ancient Evidence," explores the kinds of issues missing from or treated somewhat superficially in previous chapters. Indeed, Anderson identifies as lacking in classicists' work "the connection ... between fairytale-as opposed to myth-and social history, psychology and anthropology" (158). Here he reconsiders tales mentioned earlier in the book, applying a variety of perspectives to them. He concludes by expressing his own preference for "psychological explanation" and his "disappointment with currently available materials" (165). One might wish that he had exercised his preference more vigorously throughout the book.

It remains to consider whether Anderson answers the three questions with which he begins his book. There he asked whether fairytales existed in antiquity; judging by the range and depth of the evidence he presents, the reader would have to agree that they did indeed exist. As for whether we would recognize them as fairytales "in form, content and function," again the evidence presented supports such a recognition, even granting the many ways that variations in detail creep into these tales. Anderson's final question was why, if fairytales existed in antiquity, "do we seem to encounter them so seldom?" Anderson has actually answered that early in the book when, with a litotes dear to classicists,he observes that "major folk-and fairytales known to us are less unlikely to be found in antiquity than has been supposed" (23). Far from seldom encountering fairytales in the ancient world, it would appear that we encounter them very often indeed.




EDITH HALL, FIONA MACINTOSH, and OLIVER TAPLIN, eds. Medea in Performance, 1500-2000. Oxford: Legenda, 2000.xvi + 304 pp. 19 black-and-white illus. Cloth $49.50.

Happily, we live in an age when serious research on performance issues can no longer be ignored. If we are more aware of the issues today, especially in reference to classical drama, it is in no small measure due to the contributors to this volume, who have done much to further the study of its performance from a variety of perspectives. In association with the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama, these authors met in 1998 to deal at length with the performance traditions of Medea. From that conference come all but two of the chapters in this volume, which map out a fairly breathtaking itinerary of performances from Renaissance England to modern Greece, Central Europe, the Caucasus, and Japan, with stopovers to take note of Medea in opera and film as well.While the book's scope is enormous, its overall design has clearly been thought through with care, the result being that one comes away from it with a real sense of having thoroughly reviewed the subject. Though there is much new material on the English tradition here, it is especially refreshing to see so many non-English productions also considered.

The authors have sensibly avoided an exclusive focus on Euripides' Medea, which would have greatly-and needlessly-restricted their efforts. The introduction by Fiona Macintosh gives us a very good sense of how Medea is going to be approached in these pages, effected through a brief chronological survey of major perspectives: Medea the Witch, Medea the Infanticide, Medea the Abandoned Wife,Medea the Proto-Feminist, Medea the Outsider, and, finally,Medea the Modern Amalgam. Clearly, Medea is a veritable compendium of otherness, a strangeness that is to be defined as woman, barbarian, sorceress, monster, or wronged wife, depending on the times and the director's sympathies. So much of the drama revolves around her that one is forced to reflect at length on the unnerving combination of power and desperation that makes the role so forceful.

The chapters by Diane Purkiss, Edith Hall, and Fiona Macintosh survey the broad range of the pre-twentieth-century performance tradition in England. Purkiss focuses largely on the topic of Medea in renaissance drama, with consideration of how the filicidal Colchian stands behind the famous "I have. given suck" speech of Lady Macbeth (Macbeth 1.7.54-59). This is an indirect connection but one that gains plausibility in her analysis, which argues that Shakespeare's heroine is a unique fusion of the Euripidean and Senecan Medeas. Edith Hall discusses the intersections of moral discourse and dramatic effort on the eighteenth-century stage, with a particular look at the reworking of Medea in order to meet the aesthetic theories of the age and the changing conditions of the theater and its audience. Most notable among the changes discussed are the rise of the actress as a theatrical phenomenon and the feminization of the audience, both of which favored a play with a strong female protagonist. Fiona Macintosh's discussion of the curious parallel tradition of Medea in burlesque on the midVictorian stage not only informs the reader about a totally different aspect of this performance tradition but also discloses the strangely close interconnectedness of the burlesque stage with the higher-end venues running serious productions of the very same play. Both Hall and Macintosh manage to relate key points about the evolving sociology of the theater while retaining a textual focus on forgotten works, and they strike an admirable balance between text and context.

Marianne McDonald and Margaret Reynolds devote their chapters to Medea in opera, an area somewhat better understood now that there are more available recordings of some neglected works; but since there are apparently some fifty operas centered on or including the myth, we have still merely scratched the surface. As McDonald notes, Medea makes "the perfect operatic diva" (100); and one who has been played by some battleship-class divas in their own rightespecially Maria Callas,who was not only instrumental in the revival of Cherubini's opera but also starred in Pasolini's film. McDonald's chapter is very informative in surveying five key operas by Cavalli, Charpentier, Cherubini, Pacini, and Theodorakis. Reynolds, on the other hand, focuses on the evolving role in particular, juxtaposing textual and musical detail with excurses on memorable images of past Medeas. Both of them consider how the changing views of female character and agency are reflected in the various instantiations of the Medea myth, a persistent thread running throughout the book (this causes some repetition from time to time, but it is not especially irksome).

Ian Christie's essay on Medea in film is especially interesting, since the monstrous feminine character would seem to be a theme best suited for the highly controlled medium of the cinema, where shock effects and subtle psychological nuances are easier to render than on the stage. But the Medea mythos is precisely about what we do not want to see, which-given the conventions of ancient Greek theater-was never a problem, since there the taboo actions are not shown but only reported. The cinema, however, is all about showing rather than telling, and thus it was only since the transgressive 1960s that Medea found herself on film. Christie offers a detailed discussion of the versions of Pier Paolo Pasolini (Medea, 1970-starring Maria Callas), Jules Dassin (A Dream of Passion, 1978-with Melina Mercouri), and Lars von Trier (Medea, 1988-originally made for Danish television). The last work in particular deserves a wider audience, since it deals rather grippingly with the ultimate taboo of the play. In von Trier's version, the older son is complicit in his own death: he helps Medea chase down his younger brother and hang him, then voluntarily puts the noose around his own neck, saying "Help me, mother." She then holds him aloft until her strength gives out. Christie rightly points out how this terrible scene reveals the very different powers of cinematic violence, since it adds a whole new dimension of psychological realism while also setting the children's deaths in the stark ambiance of a public execution (they are hanged from a crooked tree on a bleak hilltop). And yet, as he later concludes, in spite of the modern cinema's obsession with showing unshowable violence, Medea "remains an austere subject, offering few compensations to those in search of vicarious excitement or catharsis" (164). Though the types of the monstrous mother and vengeful wife can be found in horror films, none of these, Christie claims, can be said "to constitute a true development of the Euripidean Medea" (163). Instead, he argues that the Medea story will remain severely circumscribed for screen adaptation, and time will only tell if he is right.

The last four essays treat performance traditions in the theaters of Greece, the Czech Republic/Czechoslovakia, Japan, and Georgia. Platon Mavromoustakos provides a survey of productions that is quite revealing of the cultural politics of the Greek theater. His discussion culminates with the 1990s,when "Medea became the main challenge for Greek star-actresses with ... a performance of Euripides' Medea every two years" (174). Mavromoustakos is unsparing in his assessment of Greek theater life: for example, "The Festival of Epidaurus is now like a great Cup Final match, having lost its original purpose in the 1950s as a forum for the exchange of challenging arguments" (176). He also remarks that the performance of ancient drama in Greece has recently taken on "the characteristics of a national mission aimed at tourist consumption" (174-76). It is to be hoped that the tourist euros and dollars will not effect the complete "Tijuanification" of Epidaurus, and Mavromoustakos' final note on adaptations gives us reason to believe that good things will still come from Greece.

Eva Stehlfkhova's chapter on Czech productions is also a survey, and here the politics of representation are very different. The theater has long been politicized among the Czechs, and the periods of Nazi and communist rule placed serious strictures on the dramatic repertoire. Ancient drama, however, provided a convenient means of speculating on taboo subjects; and after Marxism had freed women from domestic drudgery to bear instead the double yoke of domestic and state drudgery, it was the gender politics of the play that gave it a new life in the 1950s.Of particular interest is a 1965 production in which Medea's filicidal action is seen not as relentless revenge but rather as a remedy for "the dreadful moral order of the world" (187). Instead of shocking the audience with the horror of barbarian pride, the action was meant to awaken their numb moral conscience-no small feat for a production! "When Medea battles with her maternal instincts, she does so in order that she may fulfill her moral destiny even at the price of terrible pain," a conception Stehlfkhova characterizes as "Sophoclean" (187).

Mae Smethurst's chapter on Yukio Ninagawa's Medea takes a different direction from the other essays, each of them surveys that begin to make one feel like the tourist on a "Five Capitals of Europe in Two Days" excursion. Smethurst's exclusive focus on one production is a timely shift in approach, and Ninagawa's kabuki/bunraku-inspired work is truly worthy of such lavish attention. Some of the details discussed involve the invocation of kabuki or bunraku conventionssuch as his casting of an onnagata (a traditional kabuki male actor who specializes in female roles) as Medea-but others show instead a deliberate transformation of them. One striking example is the subversive use of red ribbons of the sort coyly chewed in kabuki by enamored maidens; Ninagawa has Medea and the chorus spewing them from their mouths instead, a very disturbing image that violently reverses a demure gesture of feminine desire. Smethurst's essay abounds in such detailed analysis and does well at unpacking the complex semiotics of a production that has become world-famous.

The penultimate chapter (and the volume's last essay) by Olga Taxidou is a highly personal account of a production of her own adaptation, Medea: A World Apart, at the Georgian International Festival of Theater in 1997.Taxidou's essay makes a fitting end to the volume because it returns to the locus of the Medea myth in the Black Sea region, where East and West are still colliding violentlythough Taxidou sought to make a more peaceful blend of them in her reworking of the tale, part of a series of works that reflect on the relationship between gender and empire. But her contribution is also a fitting end to the volume in that it highlights the idea of performance and production as an ongoing creative effort, not simply as an historical curiosity. Taxidou's essay reveals a variety of political and personal elements that not only lay behind her own writing, but also behind the motivations of the performers-in particular Keti Dolidze, a leading peace activist during the 1992 civil war.

The ultimate frustration of all these accounts, however, is that they remain all too tantalizing if one is not able to see the actual performances. Indeed, there is always a tinge of mourning and nostalgia in the study of lost performance. The gap between the event and its appraisal cannot be adequately bridged in the paltry medium of the essay, even when generously supplemented by photographs, as are the essays in this volume. Perhaps the Archive should attempt to publish their next endeavor in CD-ROM format, with more video footage and color images.

The book concludes with a chronological list of performances from the Archive's evolving database, affixed as a final "chapter"-though it is really only an appendix. Like any published list, its chief problem is its incompleteness. Nonetheless, the list is a real eye-opening assessment of the character's perennial attraction, and it also highlights the Archive's ongoing historical mission.

Overall, it must be said that any work attempting such an ambitious survey will always fall into the paradoxical trap of being at once too much and too little, but that is an inherent problem of genre and not the failure of the authors. On the contrary, the balance struck here between the general and the specific-as well as the healthily catholic view of performance in terms of theater, opera, and cinema-is better than what we have seen before, and it makes this volume a highly valuable contribution to the literature on performance. Given the recurrent importance of Franz Grillparzer throughout the essays, it does seem an oversight that there is no chapter specifically on Germany and Austria. But a volume this well done will hopefully inspire others to write about the (relatively few) missing links.



ANGELA HOBBS. Plato and the Hero: Courage, Manliness, and the Impersonal Good. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.xviii + 280 pp. Cloth, $59.95.

Hobbs directs this stimulating but rather unfocused study to a question of considerable interest and centrality in Platonic studies: the engagement of Platonic texts with the traditional Greek ethic of heroic endeavor. As she is able to show, the Platonic texts appropriate much of the traditional language and ideology familiar from archaic literature to a new paradigm in which the eccentric

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