Book Simple: Jason and Medea Plus 2
a blogumn by Amy Brown
This week, in anticipation of a night out at the theater, I picked up the Dover Thrift Edition of Euripides’ Medea. It’s difficult to form expectations of a piece first produced in 431 BC. I’d kind of imagined that Euripides would have created an early version of a morality play for the Athenian set. But instead, I found myself reading the Greek version of the tabloid story “Jon and Kate Plus 8.” That is, if Kate responded to Jon’s cocktail waitresses by stabbing all the kids to death.
When the play opens, Medea has been left by her husband Jason for the daughter of the king of Corinth. Her nurse describes the queen’s fury: “poor Medea is slighted…she has discovered by her sufferings what it means…to have lost one’s own country.” Medea is alone, in a country not her own, surrounded by regrets and enemies. “She will never put up with the treatment she is getting,” warns the nurse. “She’ll not stop raging until she has struck at someone. May it be an enemy and not a friend she hurts!”
Euripides writes Medea with gentle comprehension of her social isolation. “We women are the most unfortunate creatures,” she cries out to the Chorus of Corinthian women, “A man, when he’s tired of the company in his home, goes out of the house and puts an end to his boredom…But we are forced to keep our eyes on one alone.” And the eight progeny, as the case may be.
The Chorus sympathizes, which is a funny undercutting of Medea’s loneliness. However, when Medea decides the best way to revenge herself on Jason is by killing his new bride and her own children, they turn against her, trying to make her see reason. This is a little like responding to the babysitter by running around with the bodyguard, Kate … or mullet break-up hair. It only really hurts you. While Medea agonizes over the pain the loss will create for her, she cannot allow her humiliation to go unpunished. “You see how you are treated,” she rages. “[S]tronger than all my afterthoughts is my fury, fury that brings upon mortals the greatest evils.”
The UCLA production was extremely visually compelling. Set in a sandy urban wasteland, Medea’s nurse dressed as a mad trash-picker telling the truth unheeded, while the “great ones” feuded around her. The chorus, a group of pleather-clad Law & Order extras, sang their lines with great physicality, almost like, as one of my friends pointed out, a flock of pigeons strutting around the scenes. The lovely Ms. Annette Bening played Medea as a deeply sympathetic betrayed wife, aging and jealous of Jason’s new bride’s beauty.
In the end, the play does have a lesson for the audience, of the values of moderated desires and passions, just as our modern version has a lesson about not using your children as reality show gold. We must, as the Chorus expresses it, “let [the] heart be wise. It is the gods’ best gift.”