“Now all love is turned to hate, and tenderest ties are weak,” laments the Nurse in the opening to Euripides’ tragedy “Medea.”
Both ancient theatrical genres, comedy and tragedy, relied heavily on inversion and exaggeration, as ancient playwrights were wont to explore the outer limits of human reactions to extreme circumstances. These depictions required a certain alienation from the familiar as a means to put audiences’ social norms under the microscope.
“Medea,” a quintessential Greek tragedy, is no different, as evidenced in the stunning production sponsored by the Greek & Roman Studies (GRST) Department performed this past Friday, April 21, on the Frances Daly Fergusson Quadrangle.
The play recounts the mythical story of its titular character, a former princess and sorceress of the kingdom of Colchis who helped her husband Jason—of Argonauts fame—retrieve the Golden Fleece. As the play opens, Medea finds her already-unstable position in her newly adopted Corinth, to which the couple fled, threatened when her husband leaves her for the daughter of the king of their new land. Medea, distraught, brings life to the phrase “desperate times call for desperate measures,” as she takes her revenge by killing Jason’s new wife and her own children.
Associate Professor and GRST Chair Rachel Friedman served as the production’s faculty advisor and leader of two independent studies related to the performance.
As she explained, “One of the challenges of performing any ancient tragedy is this basic fact, that we are so removed from the circumstances in which they were composed and performed. All tragedies in Athens were originally performed as part of festivals that formed an integral part of the civic and religious life of the Athenian polis.”
Euripides’ version of the Medea tale was performed in Athens in 431 BCE during a festival in honor of Dionysus called the “City Dionysia,” right after the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War between the Athenians and the Spartans.
Friedman continued, “This context, as well as the particular historical moment, inevitably shaped the plays. I think it’s important to keep in mind the original context while also working to create newer versions and to infuse the ancient drama with a contemporary vision. This can be a very delicate balancing act.”
The theme of a cheating husband and a betrayed wife seeking revenge is ever-present in many media today, and so “Medea” has lent itself through the years to such contemporary reimaginings.
This production, however, showcased Medea’s foreignness as it was intended, keeping a close connection to the ways in which Euripides represents Medea as Other—a non-Greek barbarian who dabbles in witchcraft. Production elements like disfiguring masks, a small number of actors playing multiple parts and the choral odes being sung in the original Greek aided in simulating the alienation for a modern audience, all to striking effect.
“On the one hand,” remarked director Schuyler DeVos ’17 via email, “this is a story that everyone knows, but on the other hand this is a 2500-year-old play, and things were much different then, and it’s that kind of tension between something understandable and these kinds of socio-political attitudes and customs and modes of speaking and doing that have been lost to time that I really wanted to explore.”
While this play has been reproduced hundreds of times around the world, production manager Gray Alexander ’19 was confident that this production, which he proposed to the department, would provide a new experience in light of Vassar’s past GRST productions.
As he illuminated, “Our show [was] unique in its fusion of ancient and modern elements in a way that Greek tragedy has not been performed at Vassar before. The Greek & Roman Studies Department has a history of holding productions all the way back to 1894, but all the shows done up to this point have either been entirely in Greek or entirely in English.”
“Most challenging, believe it or not,” DeVos reflected, “was putting on a show through the GRST Department. There’s a reason this kind of thing doesn’t happen more often. You don’t really miss the whole apparatus of student theater until suddenly you’ve got to get things off the ground without its help, but I found myself running around trying to do 10 jobs at once and it was TOUGH.”
This bold decision of working with two very disparate languages in such close proximity was challenging, but Alexander was sure that they would coalesce beautifully.
Friedman affirmed that this decision, in concert with original music by composer and sound designer Michael Oosterhout ’18 and choreography by Taylor Lodise ’19, was a definite success: “The sound of the Greek preserved the strangeness of the play and our distance from its original performance, but…the chorus members were able to express themselves in other ways.”
“To me,” Friedman continued, “the effect of this was the creation of a relationship to the material that could be both immediate and distant for the non-Greek speaking audience. Each of these experiences was, I think, an important part of the performance. You could simultaneously relate to the drama being performed but also be reminded of its otherness.”
Another mainstay of the shock and unfamiliarity of this play is Medea’s unspeakable actions toward those around her. Yael Haskal ’19, who played the controversial Medea opposite actors Yvette Segan ’19 as Jason and Tabraiz Lodhi ’20 as Creon, was fascinated with the character and particularly highlighted the challenge of understanding and connecting to the role.
She commented, “Her actions are horrifying—equally disturbing to men and women— yet something makes us root for her. She has this wild brokenness that we can’t resist … We want to see her overcome the impossible choice she faces.”
As Haskal continued, “In Medea’s world, everything has a price, and she’s willing to pay anything in the name of honor. The most difficult yet rewarding part of this process was finding humanity in her cruelty…getting to the truth of why she destroys her own life to save it.”
Another challenge of putting on “Medea” is the mythological framework lost on modern-day audiences. In fact, Friedman noted, 32 of the 33 surviving tragedies from Greek antiquity involve a mythological storyline.
“This is one way in which a modern audience watching a Greek tragedy is so different from an ancient one,” she remarked. “The myths are not familiar to us in the way that they would have been to an ancient audience.”
The relative accessibility of the Medea story, though, explains its numerous restagings, but constituted another element of the foreign in the GRST Department’s production that strived to stay true to the original intentions of the Greek text.
Friedman reflected on the relatively universal themes explored in the play: “I think all ancient myths easily lent themselves to reinterpretation. By definition a myth is a fluid and shape shifting narrative. In the case of Medea, I suppose it’s because the story of betrayal in love is such a timeless one, as is the idea that there are moments in life when we feel that the only choice for action that we have is a horrible one.”
Alexander recognized this tension between outsider status and insider knowledge—a theme not coincidentally shared by both 21st-century audiences and Medea herself. As he commented, “What we hope[d] to accomplish [was] to put the ancient world in conversation with the modern world.”
Audiences today may not ponder Medea’s anguish as a reflection of an impending war’s threat to crumble a beloved city’s Golden Age to dust, as Athenians may have. Medea’s hopelessness and acts of ultimate desperation nonetheless continue to resonate with thespians and spectators alike, as such personal grievance and extreme social rejection have become timeless subjects. The dichotomies between love and hate, native elites and foreign newcomers, and moral right and wrong proved especially poignant in reflecting on our own shifting world, an interesting parallel to the original Athenian context.
“This is a great example of what can be so powerful about the study of classical antiquity,” Friedman concluded. “We easily find resonances with our own lives, but we also find strangeness and difference. It is in the gap between these two experiences that we discover rich insights both about our own lives and the lives of those who lived then.”