What's on Stage
Mail on Sunday
"It’s thrilling, it’s frightening, its truthfulness is both agonising and exhilarating, and it’s a performance that has to be seen" The Scotsman
"Everything about this production is smart and lightly done." The Independent
"Updating a Greek tragedy doesn't get much better than this." British Theatre Guide
"Rachael Stirling is blisteringly good in the title role" The Evening Standard
"Stirling is a force of nature" The Herald
"This is a savage play for today, superbly well done. " Mail on Sunday
"Headlong theatre’s Medea at Sherman Cymru was one of the best plays I’ve seen recently. Possibly ever." Plastik Magazine
"spellbinding stuff " What's on Stage
"compelling viewing" The Times
"Bloody. Marvellous." Daily Express
"If there's a God, which at the moment I DOUBT, I want you to curse him.
If there's any justice, I want them - both of them - in a car crash."
Her husband’s gone and her future isn't bright. Imprisoned in her marital home, Medea can’t work, can’t sleep and increasingly can’t cope. While her child plays, she plots her revenge.
This startlingly modern version of Euripides’ classic tragedy explores the private fury bubbling under public behaviour and how in today’s world a mother, fuelled by anger at her husband’s infidelity, might be driven to commit the worst possible crime.
The production will be directed by one of the UK’s most exciting and in demand young writers Mike Bartlett, who has received critical acclaim for his plays including Earthquakes in London (Headlong/National Theatre), Cock (Royal Court/Off-Broadway - Olivier Award), a new stage version of Chariots of FIre and Love, Love, Love.
A co-production with Glasgow Citizens Theatre and Watford Palace Theatre, in association with Warwick Arts Centre.
Posted on 23 Nov 2012
By Sarah Grochala
Can a woman take on the role of a tragic hero? Medea may have a tragedy named after her and play the starring role in it, but can she be considered a tragic hero in the strictest sense of the term?
Greek drama abounds with feisty proto-feminist figures. While Orestes quakes in his sandals at the thought of murdering his mother, his sister Electra makes sure the deed gets done. Antigone buries her brother Polyneices’ body in open defiance of both her uncle Creon and the laws of the Thebes. When Clytemnestra’s husband Agamemnon sacrifices their daughter in order to get a fair wind to Troy, does she sit quietly by? No, of course she doesn’t. She takes over his throne, finds herself a new lover and when Agamemnon finally returns home after ten years of hard fighting, she murders him in his bathtub with an axe. Like Medea, these women are clever, determined and tough as nails, but are they tragic?
According to Aristotle, the answer is a resounding no. In the Poetics, his ‘how-to’ guide for budding tragic playwrights, Aristotle states that the characterisation of the tragic hero must meet several key criteria. He must be like us, but better. He must have a fatal flaw. He must behave in a way that is consistent. His behaviour must be appropriate to his position in life. Finally, he must be good.
Medea meets the first two criteria easily. Firstly, being both human and the granddaughter of the Sun god Helios, she is like us in some ways but better in others. Secondly, she definitely suffers from a fatal flaw. Her love for Jason is her undoing. After you’ve betrayed your father and murdered your brother to win a man’s love, defeated a giant bronze robot and won him a kingdom by tricking the some poor princesses into decapitating their father – all while the man in question lounges around on the beach – you should probably start questioning how healthy your relationship is for you.
When it comes to the third criterion, that of consistency, Medea just about scrapes through, despite the fact that her behaviour appears to lack any sense of consistency at all. As the other characters observe, you never quite know what she is going to do next. The only predictable thing about her behaviour is its unpredictability, but it is in this very predictability of her unpredictability that she meets Aristotle’s criterion for consistency. He allows inconsistent behaviour, like Medea’s, on the condition that it’s consistently inconsistent
It is in terms of the last two criteria, appropriateness and goodness, that Medea fails to make the grade. In both cases, she fails because she is a woman. Medea’s behaviour is inappropriate to her social position. Aristotle clearly states that it is inappropriate for a woman to be clever or courageous, and Medea is both. At the level of decorum, she fails to fit the mould of Aristotle’s tragic hero. Her cleverness and her courage are qualities that, according to Aristotle, it is only appropriate for a man to possess.
Medea’s gender complicates her claim to the role of a tragic hero in one other way.
In the Poetics, Aristotle states that the tragic hero must be good. It is on this more than on any other point that Medea is unable to meet his criteria. Medea fails the goodness test, not because she deliberately kills her own children – Aristotle finds Medea’s actions perfectly tragic in this respect – but because she is a woman.
Aristotle’s concept of the idea of goodness is slightly different to our own modern understanding of the word. Aristotle’s idea of goodness is not coloured with the legacy of Christian morality. For him, goodness is linked to the facility to make good choices. He states that characters are good, if they are able to make good choices, which will then naturally lead to good actions. A good choice is the right choice in the right situation. It is not necessarily, however, a morally sound choice. Agamemnon’s decision to sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia for a fair wind to Troy is a good choice in that it can be judged to be the right choice in the situation. It is not, however, a good choice in moral terms.
Making good choices is not a simple matter. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle states that it is very difficult to perform a good action because it involves knowing how to do the right action ‘to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way.’ This means that goodness is a trait that is possessed by a small number of people. It is ‘rare, laudable and noble.’
Goodness is a quality, Aristotle argues, which is, to all intents and purposes, exclusive to men born into the highest social classes. A woman is unlikely to possess the quality of goodness because, as he states in the Politics, women are naturally inferior to men. In Aristotle’s eyes, the social order of Ancient Greece is organised with slaves at the bottom, then women, then male children and finally men at the top of the heap. This order is natural and reflects the capabilities of different types of people, because ‘the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority, and the child has, but it is immature.’ Men on the other hand possess both authority and mature powers of deliberation. Aristotle does state in the Poetics that any type of person could possess the facility of goodness. He admits that ‘there is such a thing as a good woman and a good slave’, but he makes it clear that is highly unlikely as ‘one of these is perhaps deficient and the other generally speaking inferior.’ As woman, Medea cannot be good. Therefore, she cannot be a tragic hero.
If a women cannot be a tragic hero, then it begs the question of who the tragic hero is in Greek tragedies, like Euripides’ Medea, that centre around a female figure. Aristotle defines the tragic hero as a good man who falls from good fortune to bad fortune on account of a fatal flaw. In Medea, the character who most neatly fits Aristotle’s description is Jason. Jason’s fatal flaw is lust, both sexual lust and a lust for power. At the beginning of the play he is a fortunate man. He is about to marry a beautiful young princess and secure a throne of his own. By the end of the tragedy, the God’s have brought him low. Jason’s children, his bride and her father are all dead. Medea, in contrast, is lifted to safety by the hands of the gods. In Antigone, the tragic hero is Creon, a man too inflexible to bend the rules of the state to the ancient laws of the gods. He starts the tragedy by gaining a throne. He ends it having lost his wife and his child.
So where does that leave our female protagonists? What is their role in tragedy if they cannot be tragic heroes? Women, it would seem, are trouble. They are the cause of the hero’s tragic downfall. Jason is the victim of Medea’s jealous rage. Creon is brought down by Antigone’s religious fundamentalism. On the one hand, these women are represented as the instruments of the gods, reasserting divine power over men who have grown too big for their boots. On the other hand, these are women over-stepping the mark, behaving out of their place, standing up to their men folk. They are terrifying. Their stories demonstrate the devastating consequences for men, when women step out of the shadows and raise their voices to challenge men’s actions.
Greek theatre, like Greek society, was a man’s world. There were no women on stage and there may well have been no women in the theatre audience either. Female characters were played by men. Each character was identified by their elaborate costume. The actors wore masks. To an extent, the costumes and the masks were the character. The identity of the actor underneath was hidden from view. In this sense, the fact that women were played by male actors seems inconsequential. These female characters, however, are men in women’s clothing in a more fundamental sense. They are women written by men, who behave like men and are performed by men for the eyes of, what may have been, a purely male audience. As much as the female characters in Greek drama may appear to be proto-feminist figures from a modern perspective, in their original context they are representations of women created by men for men.
So what happens to these women who both behave like men and are the product of a male imagination? The answer is that they suffer terrible deaths. Antigone is walled up in a cave. Clytemnestra is murdered by her own children. Phaedra hangs herself in shame after attempting to seduce her own step-son. When Greek drama shows women over-stepping the mark, it inevitably shows them being punished severely for their inappropriate behaviour. Greek drama betrays an anxiety around women. Women, who challenge the limitations of their social position pose a threat to the smooth running of a male dominated society. They must be punished. As Oliver Taplin points out, what may have offended the judges at the City Dionysia in 431BC who awarded Medea last prize, was not Medea’s actions themselves but the fact that she escapes punishment for them.
Modern playwrights and actresses, like Mike Bartlett and Rachael Stirling, may successfully re-imagine these characters as modern, dynamic and highly female women. Tragic heroines, however, are always haunted by their less emancipated past. The Greeks may have created fierce female characters, but ultimately they preferred their women tame.
Posted on 06 Nov 2012
By Simon Critchley
This article is adapted from remarks delivered by Simon Critchley at the American Political Science Association in Boston on 30 August 2008 and at the New School in New York City on 18 September 2008. An extract from these was also published in Harper’s Magazine (November 2008) and in Open Democracy (January 2009).
There is something desperately lonely about Barack Obama’s universe. One gets the overwhelming sense of someone yearning for connection, for something that binds human beings together, for community and commonality, for what he repeatedly calls “the common good”. This is hardly news. We’ve known since his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic national convention that “there’s not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America – there’s the United States of America.”
Obama’s remedy to the widespread disillusion with politics in the United States is a reaffirmation of the act of union. This is possible only insofar as it is possible to restore a sense of community to the nation. That, in turn, requires a belief in the common good. In the face of grotesque inequality, governmental sleaze, and generalised anomie, we need “to affirm our bonds with one another”. Belief in the common good is the sole basis for hope. Without belief, there is nothing to be done. Such is the avowedly improbable basis for Obama’s entire push for the presidency.
An opacity of genius
After watching countless speeches and carefully reading his words, I have absolutely no sense of who Barack Obama is. It’s very odd. The more one listens and reads, the greater the sense of opacity. Take The Audacity of Hope: there is an easy, informal, and relaxed style to Obama’s prose. He talks about going to the gym, ordering a cheeseburger, planning his daughter’s birthday party, and all the rest. He mixes position statements and general policy outlines with autobiographical narrative in a compelling and fluent way. Yet I found myself repeatedly asking: who is this man? I don’t mean anything sinister by this. It is just that I was overcome by a sense of distance in reading Obama, and the more sincere the prose, the greater distance I felt. He confesses early on that he is not someone who easily gets worked up about things. But sometimes I rather wish he would. Anger is the emotion that produces motion, the mood that moves the subject to act. Perhaps it is the first political emotion.
At the core of The Audacity of Hope is someone who lives at a distance, someone distanced from himself and from others and craving a bond, a commitment to bind him together with other Americans and to bind Americans together. There is a true horror vacui in Obama, a terror of loneliness and nothingness. He yearns for an unconditional commitment that will shape his subjectivity and fill the vacuum. He desires contact with some plenitude, an experience of fullness that might still his sense of loneliness, fill his isolation, silence his endless doubt, and assuage his feelings of abandonment. He seems to find this in Christianity, to which I will turn shortly.
But perhaps this opacity is Obama’s political genius: that it is precisely the enigmatic, inert character of Obama that seems to generate the desire to identify with him, indeed to love him. Perhaps it is that sense of internal distance that people see in him and in themselves. Obama recognises this capacity in an intriguing and profound remark when he writes: “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.” He is a mirror that reflects back whatever the viewer wants to see. Somehow our loneliness and doubt become focused and fused with his. Obama’s desire for union with a common good becomes unified with ours. For that moment, and maybe only for that moment, we believe, we hope. It is a strangely restrained ecstasy, but an ecstasy nonetheless.
The occasional lyricism of Obama’s prose is possessed of a great beauty. His doubts about being a father and a husband in the final chapter of The Audacity of Hope are touching and honest. And when he finishes the book, like a young Rousseau, by saying that “my heart is filled with love for this country”, I don’t detect any cynicism. Yet Obama writes and speaks with an anthropologist’s eye, with the sense that he is not a participant in the world with which he so wants to commune. Experience is always had and held at a distance.
The passage in The Audacity of Hope that both focuses this sense of distance and complicates the problem I want to address is the death of his mother from cancer at the age of 52, when Obama was 34. He writes, for once, in a flare of directly felt intensity:
“More than once I saw fear flash across her eyes. More than fear of pain or fear of the unknown, it was the sheer loneliness of death that frightened her, I think-the notion that on this final journey, on this last adventure, she would have no one to fully share her experiences with, no one who could marvel with her at the body’s capacity to inflict pain on itself, or laugh at the stark absurdity of life once one’s hair starts falling out and one’s salivary glands shut down.”
His mother was an anthropologist. She died as an anthropologist, with a feeling of distance from others and an inability to commune with them and to communicate her pain. Perhaps this is the root of Obama’s horror vacui. But to understand this, we have to turn to his discussion of religion.
Simon Critchley’s lecture Barack Obama and the American Void can be viewed in full here.
A question of belief
Why do we need religion? Obama recognises that people turn to religion because they want “a narrative arc to their lives, something that will relieve a chronic loneliness or lift them above the exhausting, relentless toil of daily life.” The alternative is clear: nihilism. The latter means “to travel down a long highway toward nothingness.” Religion satisfies the need for a fullness to experience, a transcendence that fills the void. Obama’s path to Christianity plays out against the background of his anthropologist mother’s respectful distance from religion.
Like many of us, Obama initially looks to what he calls “political philosophy” for help. He wants confirmation of the values he inherited from his mother (honesty, empathy, discipline, delayed gratification, and hard work) and a way to transform them into systems of action that “could help build community and make justice real.” Unsurprisingly, perhaps, also like many of us, he doesn’t find the answer in political philosophy but only by confronting a dilemma that his mother never resolved. He writes:
“The Christians with whom I worked recognized themselves in me; they saw that I knew their Book and shared their values and sang their songs. But they sensed that part of me remained removed, detached, an observer among them. I came to realize that without a vessel for my beliefs, without an unequivocal commitment to a particular community of faith, I would be consigned at some level to remain apart, free in the way that my mother was free, but also alone in the same ways that she was ultimately alone.”
Freedom, for Obama, is the negative freedom from commitment that left his mother feeling detached and alone, a solitude that culminated in her death. Such is the freedom of the void. Being anthropologically respectful of all faiths means being committed to none, and being left to drift without an anchor for one’s most deeply held beliefs. To have such an anchor means being committed to a specific community. The only way Obama can overcome his sense of detachment and resolve his mother’s dilemma is through a commitment to Christianity.
More specifically, it is only through a commitment to the historically black church that Obama can find that sense of grounding and fullness. It culminates in his joining Trinity United Church of Christ under Pastor Jeremiah Wright on Chicago’s south side. Whatever one makes of it, the absolute centrality of black American Christianity in the arc of Obama’s narrative is what makes his fractious relationship with Pastor Wright so important and intriguing. Ultimately, everything turns here on the relation between the prophetic word (Wright’s “God damn America”) and the activity of government (“My heart is filled with love for this country”).
What is certain about Obama’s commitment to Christianity is that it is a choice, a clear-minded rational choice, and not a conversion experience based on any personal revelation. He insists that “religious commitment did not require me to suspend critical thinking. . . . It came about as a choice and not an epiphany; the questions I had did not magically disappear.” Although he goes on to add that “I felt God’s spirit beckoning me”, it is the coolest, most detached experience of religious commitment, without any trace of epiphanic transport and rapture. I can’t help but feel that Obama’s faith craves an experience of communion that is contradicted by the detachment and distance he is seeking to overcome. For example, when he is unsure what to tell his daughter about the question of death, he says: “I wondered whether I should have told her the truth, that I wasn’t sure what happens when we die, any more than I was sure where the soul resides or what existed before the Big Bang.”
Such scepticism about matters metaphysical is understandable enough and has a fine philosophical ancestry. But where does it leave us and where does it leave the question of belief, the cornerstone of Obama’s entire presidential campaign? We come back to where we started, with the common good. Obama wants to believe in the common good as a way of providing a fullness to experience that avoids the slide into nihilism. But sometimes I don’t know if he knows what belief is and what it would be to hold such a belief. It all seems so distant and opaque. The persistent presence of the mother’s dilemma – the sense of loneliness, doubt, and abandonment – seems palpable and ineliminable. We must believe, but we can’t believe. Perhaps this is the tragedy that some of us see in Obama: a change we can believe in and the crushing realisation that nothing will change.
Simon Critchley is the chair of philosophy at the New School, New York. Among his recnet books are The Book of Dead Philosophers (Granta/Vintage, 2008) and The Faith of the Faithless (Verso, 2012). His new book on Hamlet, Stay Illusion, will be published in 2013.
Posted on 05 Nov 2012
Video courtesy of Sky Tyne and Wear www.sky.com/tyneandwear