Last night I came home to an unusual comment on my recent review of Medea at the Actors' Shakespeare Project. Here it is in full:
I have just seen the performance of Mrs Israel. Well I liked it. It was kind of a modern Medea : a Medea that transforms her passion which should normally be viewed as something very shamful (it's an understatment), to something very intellectual and logic. We are all reassured by these "scientific" almost and very eloquent arguments. Could the spectator not see the children , we would willingly believe that Medea's murder is no more than a kind of abortion... oh sorry I must have hurt the pro choice people. Medea is a very modern woman.
What leapt out at me was the mention of abortion - along with the grammatical and spelling misfires (which often signal that something has been typed in passion, as I myself can attest). It's rare that anyone mentions abortion at all in the theatrical sphere, of course - there's a kind of cultural lacuna in operation around it - and even rarer that someone should criticize abortion rights (at least implicitly).
But I was also jarred by the fact that I had simply edited out of my own consciousness, while writing my review, the fact that Ms. Israel was also the first visibly pregnant Medea I'd ever seen. Without even realizing it, I had turned a blind eye to what seems to have been the salient artistic statement of the production for my commenter. And which of course puts a destabilizing spin on the idea of a "modern" Medea. To my commenter, I'd guess, Medea wasn't unusual at all; he (probably, but perhaps she) may feel that this child-killing character is the new female norm.
But before I thought about that, I realized I had to interrogate myself; why had I "forgotten" that Ms. Israel was visibly pregnant as she mused about killing children? There's one easy explanation - to put it awkwardly, I realized I had assumed that her pregnancy wasn't part of the "planned" show. (I know, it's rude to speculate on these kinds of questions, but I'm afraid right now I have to.) And I'm used by now to seeing female artists, particularly musicians and singers, perform while expecting.
Still, I'd also put out of my mind the fact that Ms. Israel sometimes stroked her "baby bump" during her performance - she seemed to be consciously putting her own condition into artistic play; Medea was musing on her own pregnancy, not Ms. Israel's. But again, I'd ignored that - probably because I just couldn't understand how the actress's condition could be brought into artistic play without raising all sorts of ugly political arguments with which I disagree. I really wish she hadn't done that.
But she did do it, so you see the problem. If I'm opposed in general to the practice of replacing theatrical art with liberal propaganda, what's my reason for ignoring these aspects of this production? I'm afraid I can't really come up with one. I may disagree with my commenter politically, but I have to admit - he or she has a point, there's a disturbing, if perhaps unintentionally invoked, political dimension at the center of this version that has been clumsily half-disguised (and half-declared). To be blunt, if the production had been self-consistent, it would have ended with Medea at least attempting an abortion at its climax, after killing her other children. Why would she not? Why would she drive off in her dragon-drawn chariot with two dead babies, but a live one on the way? I suppose you could posit that Jason might not be the father of the child she's expecting - but that kind of undermines her righteous fury at his own faithlessness, doesn't it; if she herself has been unfaithful, then in some ways she's even more horrifying than she is already.
I have to confess I think it might be an interesting, if potentially blood-curdling, experiment to see whether Euripides' text is actually tenable in an explicitly pro-abortion political environment. Perhaps there's even some theatre company out there that is gonzo enough to try that; but I think it would throw into weird relief the proto-feminist stance that some people - including the Globe's Don Aucoin, who wrote about the production in the Sunday edition - have been reading into this Medea. I know, I know, Aucoin is just trying to make hay out of the current Republican wing-nuttery over contraception, which I, like every right-thinking person, of course oppose.
Still, if we begin to think of Medea as a feminist symbol, does that mean we're okay with viewing children - born or unborn - as simply collateral damage in the war between the sexes? Does sexist oppression really grant a mother some sort of implicit sympathy in the killing of her child? I think Euripides says no. But I think Israel, her director, and the Actors' Shakespeare Project are saying yes. Or at least they're half saying yes. Whether that's an honest approach or not I leave up to you.