How Peaches Geldof brought Greek tragedy into the tabloids

Well, not exactly. But it’s not often that aspects of Classical literature find their way onto the gossip pages of the Mail Online. That is precisely what happened in the wake of Peaches Geldof’s decision to name her younger son Phaedra.

Actually, his full name is “Phaedra Bloom Forever”, which is quite ironic. Ironic because, in the world of Greek mythology and tragedy, Phaedra most certainly does not “bloom forever”.

Greek mythology relates that Phaedra married Theseus, who already had a son named Hippolytus. Phaedra fell in love with Hippolytus, and (after he rejected her advances) committed suicide, having written to Theseus to accuse Hippolytus of raping her. Hippolytus, incidentally, later died after Theseus consequently cursed him. And there you have it: a summary of the Classical significance of the name Phaedra, as well as a crude spoiler of the plot of Euripides’ tragedy Hippolytus.

In fact, the resonance of Phaedra is not confined to Classical mythology and drama. She has since been invoked in the works of Racine, Tsvetaeva, Swinburne and many others. To that list of literary luminaries who have recalled the name of Phaedra, we add Peaches Geldof.

You might be inclined to ask what my point is here. Does not Peaches Geldof have the right to give her son any name she should choose? Is it really any of my business that Geldof Jnr. should be (perhaps rather inauspiciously) named after a mythological character whose tragic death was immortalised in the works of Euripides? Or, indeed, that his mother should choose a woman’s name for a boy?

Perhaps, though, the name of Phaedra might not be as inauspicious as all that. In the Hippolytus, Phaedra is not marked out only by her barely controllable sexual desire. In fact, her character is largely defined by the conflict between this sexual desire and her conscious attempts to preserve a good reputation as a virtuous wife. Though she feels an urge to commit adultery, she also fights it, and curses adulterous women powerfully and memorably:

“There is one woman who should die horribly –
the one who first polluted her marriage,”

(Euripides Hippolytus 407, trans. Robert Bagg)

Perhaps “die horribly” doesn’t quite do justice to the powerful anger and harsh aural effect of the original “ὡς ὄλοιτο παγκάκως”. An alternative translation might read “may she perish in utter disgrace” (replicating the harsh sounds with sibilance), and there is certainly something to be said for the gravitas and weighty formality of “may all the world’s curses fall upon her shameless head” (as rendered by John Davie in the Penguin edition).

In any case, what is clear is Phaedra’s strong belief that, as a wife, she must retain a good reputation. All the more so as an aristocratic wife:

“What seems chic in the palace
no matter how truly filthy
will swiftly thrive in every modest street.”
(Euripides Hippolytus 411-412, trans. Robert Bagg)

I might take this further. The dichotomy between the “palace” and the “modest street” in Phaedra’s perception can be equated with the difference between celebrities and the public in modern society. After all, Phaedra’s point does not necessarily relate to power or social rank. The timeless implication is that those in the public eye must set a good example to the rest of society by maintaining a virtuous reputation. This is part of Phaedra’s motivation, and encapsulates an attitude which sadly seems largely absent in modern-day celebrity culture.

I’m not expecting the full resurgence of an Athenian-style reputation-based moral
code in modern society. But when Phaedra Bloom Forever Geldof-Cohen grows up, perhaps he will show awareness of the value of a good reputation, the most beneficial part of his namesake’s legacy. And as such, maybe he could make some kind of a stand against celebrity scandals. Tragedy for the tabloids, perhaps.

Citations:

Euripides, ed. John Ferguson. Hippolytus. London: Bristol Classical Press, 1984. Print.

Euripides, trans. Robert Bagg. Hippolytos. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. Print.

Euripides, trans. John Davie. Medea and Other Plays. London: Penguin Books, 1996. Print.

 

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Mike Bartlett’s Medea (after Euripides): some thoughts

Another Saturday in London means another Greek tragedy! Yesterday, I saw a production of Euripides’ Medea at the Richmond Theatre, London (adaptation by Mike Bartlett), which I found very powerful.

Particularly striking in this production was the performance of the eponymous protagonist Medea (played by Rachel Stirling). After her entrance in the first scene, she is characterised as both vibrant and emotionally volatile, with the relationship between her and the two women Sarah and Pam (who can arguably be seen as pseudo-Choral figures) often veering into tension. This, interestingly, is different to how this relationship is portrayed in Euripides’ original Greek, in which Medea expresses solidarity with the Chorus (“πεφύκαμεν / γυναῖκες”, 407-8). The effect of this tense relationship is to emphasise Medea’s unpredictability as a character. Unlike in the original Greek, she does not confide in the Chorus regarding her vengeful plans; instead, the Medea portrayed in Mike Bartlett’s version is fundamentally isolated. Instead of being caught up by the inevitability of the events in the plot (as according to Aristotle’s theory of tragedy), the audience is enthralled by suspense and fear at what Medea might do next – as are all the other characters, none of whom comes across as especially close to Medea (with the exception of her mute son Tom).

Several scenes add considerably to the dramatic effect of the tragedy, particularly with certain innovations added by Bartlett. In the ἀγών (section of formalised debate between principal characters), an emotional and betrayed Medea initially runs rings around a callous Jason. As Jason introduces more emotion to his speech, however, his arguments begin to carry more weight with the audience. He relates how he felt betrayed psychologically and undermined by Medea during their marriage, thus pointing the finger of blame back at Medea. This particular argument is not found in the original Greek, and therefore perhaps contributes to Jason coming across as more convincing in this production than in the original Greek. That said, Jason quickly loses the audience’s sympathy with a monologue against women in general (which, I should add, does have roots in Euripides’ original).

Rather than simply appealing to Aegeus’ hospitality, Medea in Bartlett’s adaptation explicitly seduces the equivalent character (whether this is implicit in the original is, I think, debatable). This emphasises the volatility of this portrayal of Medea: in this scene, she becomes dangerously charismatic. One other modern touch, rendering Medea’s son frequently present but constantly mute, is (I think) very successful: Tom becomes almost a sinister presence in this production, testament to the horrors which (we imagine) Medea’s marriage must have endured. This culminates in the ominous scene in which an impassive Medea makes dinner for Tom, with both characters in utter silence.

One major area of debate surrounding this tragedy is whether Medea is irrational and insane or not. Here, I feel that there is a crucial difference between Euripides’ original and Bartlett’s production. In the original, Medea is portrayed as rational throughout, despite the horrific and murderous nature of her actions. She plans the murder of her children in advance, and after killing her children, although triumphant, she reasons with Jason, demonstrating why she felt she was right in taking vengeance as she did. By contrast, in Bartlett’s production, Medea seems to kill Tom on impulse, rushing upstairs with a kitchen knife. The final scene does not contain any rational reasoning: instead, the audience sees a wild, frenzied, axe-wielding Medea, standing over Tom’s blood-stained corpse on the roof of the blazing house. This almost stereotypical portrayal of violent insanity, coupled with Medea’s earlier isolation and volatility, creates a perception of Medea which I feel emphasises insanity rather than rationality. I consider this an intriguing departure from Euripides’ original, since it carries implications for whether Medea should be considered a sinner or sinned against – but this would be an entire essay in itself!

For prospective viewers, I would recommend Bartlett’s adaptation of Euripides’ Medea, performed at the Richmond Theatre, very highly indeed.

Caroline Bird’s The Trojan Women (after Euripides): an informal review

Today I went to see a performance at the Gate Theatre in London: Caroline Bird’s adaptation of Euripides’ tragedy The Trojan Women.

Before you start reading:

Firstly, I do not intend the following to be a formal review. Instead, these are merely some of my thoughts on the performance which I saw and very much enjoyed today.

Secondly, I admit that the following may be considered a “spoiler” in the modern sense of the word! In the tradition of dramatic productions in the festivals of ancient Athens, the audience would have been aware of the myth-based plot before seeing the production. However, if any readers wish to approach the Gate Theatre’s production of The Trojan Women as they would most modern productions, without prior knowledge of the plot, then stop reading now!

“You can’t see the state of the city but I can. Let me give you an artistic impression.”

The Gate Theatre is small and intimate, with what I instinctively felt to be the atmosphere of an underground war bunker (perhaps exacerbated by the distant but audible clangs and screams before the performance began). The set is a battered hospital ward. Screens are attached to the walls – and it is from these screens that the prologue, by the gods Poseidon and Athena, is delivered. Despite the intermittent flickering scenes of destruction, the tone adopted by the gods is laconic and offhand, perhaps even bored, with an air of detachment emphasised by the sunglasses adopted by Poseidon and the gods’ laughter at Cassandra’s plight. The implicit idea that the gods do not care about the sufferings of mortals is, I feel, true to the spirit of Euripides’ original text. In the original, the gods’ diplomatic discussion of the punishment of the sacrilegious Greeks may lead the audience to wonder if they truly understand the misery endured by the inhabitants of the city. Although they choose to punish the Greeks on the return journey, this is not explicitly for committing the sin of waging war – merely for violating the sanctity of Athena’s temple while sacking Troy. Indeed, in Bird’s adaptation, the very fact that the gods appear on screens emphasises their detachment.

“I can feel my misery in my knees, weighing in my gut, running up my spine, when I cough I cough sadness.”

The character of Hecuba is portrayed with various contrasting emotions: bitterness at her fate (“a slave to the Greeks who massacred my people”), wistfulness as she remembers her previous life in Troy, and haughty arrogance (“The queen of Troy, widowed, filthy, dressed in worse than rags…”). Overall, I think Hecuba is notable for the force of her character – despite the destructive effect of grief, and the loss in social station she has experienced, she retains the powerful and dynamic personality of a monarch. I felt that the regal demeanour of Hecuba was brought across extremely convincingly by Dearbhla Molloy. This is particularly visible when she delivers a prophecy regarding the baby Astyanax’s future: “…one day he will be a noble warrior like his father…and lead an army to triumph against the Greeks”. She even delivers orders to his mother Andromache, with her emotions distorted by hatred of the Greeks: “You have to fill his heart with hate…his life’s purpose is to avenge us.” The hopes and dreams of Hecuba, not to mention the emotions of Andromache, are conclusively destroyed when Talthybius takes Astyanax away to his death, yet Hecuba still has enough psychological tenacity to express violent loathing for Helen after the entry of Menelaus.

“Sometimes I think I’m not a woman. I’m just the idea of a woman.”

Particularly fascinating in this adaptation is the Chorus, who is cast as a single woman, pregnant and manacled to a hospital bed. This carries various implications for the functioning of the tragedy. In an original Greek tragedy (insofar as it is possible to summarise the role of the Chorus in a single sentence!) the Chorus as a group would set the tone for the drama, exploring the emotional register and demonstrating to the audience the range of emotions that might be felt. Having a single character, albeit a nameless one, perform this role exposes the overall tone of the tragedy to more violent fluctuations, which I thought were extremely effective in expressing the emotional turmoil of the Trojan women. For example, the screams of the Chorus in childbirth towards the end of the tragedy adds a sharp note of danger as Helen wins over Menelaus, and (even more acutely) when the women are dragged into the van to be taken away. Moreover, the pregnant and imprisoned state of the Chorus makes her vulnerable throughout the tragedy, allowing the audience to sympathise with her perhaps more than they would with the less personal group Chorus of an original tragedy.

“Humanity has let me down. Faith is delusion.”

In this adaptation, there is rarely unity between the women in the hospital ward. The tension between Hecuba and the Chorus is palpable from the beginning, in part due to Hecuba’s acute awareness of her former social rank and class: Hecuba treats the Chorus with a tone of ironic contempt. The scene in which Cassandra is present is fraught throughout, in part due to her volatility. Later, Hecuba’s loathing for Helen (“she feasts on men’s souls, she wrecks lives”) is barely restrained. At the beginning of the tragedy, the forced cheerfulness of Talthybius (the Greek herald) exacerbates the tension; later, I think that his duties (particularly taking away Astyanax to be killed) begin to take an emotional toll on him, culminating in his nearly vomiting over the corpse of Astyanax. Indeed, one striking innovation of this adaptation is to juxtapose the retrieval of Astyanax’s corpse with the birth of the Chorus’ baby – the conclusive finality and despair of one, coupled with the agony and (the audience suspects) futility of the other, can almost summarise what makes both war and this tragedy as bleak as they are.

“Lifeless. Extinct. Gone to a better place.”

All in all, I found the Gate Theatre’s performance of Caroline Bird’s adaptation of Euripides’ The Trojan Women hugely impressive. Whether modernisation of Greek tragedy is necessary or even acceptable in general is a fascinating area of debate, but in this case I feel that it is successful. The video screens depicting the gods emphasises the separation between the divine plane and the prolonged sufferings of the victims in Troy, while some modern aspects of Menelaus’ language (for example: “my spanner is tinkering an open wound” add a further dimension of horror to the narrative. Even Helen’s dressing while dancing to music from her iPod created the impression of a slightly trivial nature. So, for all the reasons given above, I would recommend this performance very highly.

(All quotations above are taken from the text of Caroline Bird’s adaptation)

P.S. London is fortunate enough to have two Greek tragedies showing in theatres at the moment! Next week, I will see a production of Euripides’ Medea at the Richmond Theatre.