Sunday, February 26, 2012

More thoughts on Medea

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.


  1. I am the fellow who commented on your first review of the ASP's Medea. Regarding your new piece, "More thoughts on Medea," here are a few of my own.

    First, Don Aucoin's Globe review the Sunday before last interprets the ASP production from the standpoint of a certain feminist faction, in which view Medea's crime is merely ANOTHER wrong (as if killing one's children were equivalent to deserting one's wife), rendered inevitable by patriarchal society. You accept the accuracy of Aucoin's claim about the ASP's perspective, then attack the ASP for having it. Neither of you bother to consider the view put forward by the ASP itself. For example, this publicity release, available on the Medea Facebook page:

    "Promises get made and broken, and that's when the rationale kicks in. In this searing look at what we can do to each other when lives turn upside down, Euripides blows open the key hole on the view that time does not change human nature. The depths to which wounds push people can have no measure."

    Notice that the ASP refers to "people," not women. Also, as the context makes clear, the ASP misuses "rationale" to mean "rationalization." Thus, seeing herself as wronged, Medea rationalizes (falsely justifies) a horrific crime against the powerless in order to punish Jason. With this, the ASP makes clear that at least the goal of its production is not (as with some other stagings) to portray Medea as a hero, feminist or otherwise.

    And consider Ms. Israel's own remarks in an earlier Globe interview:

    " 'She does kill her kids, which is, you know, I can’t really think of anything worse,' Israel says. 'In addition, though, it's about extreme betrayal, families, change, and power and where it lies . . . and how are we safe if we don't have power?' " (Ellipses as in original.)

    What is there in this about women being driven to murder by patriarchy? Who are the powerless people Jennie Israel is talking about? Not the sorceress/princess Medea, certainly. Jason, the greatest hero of his age, is POWERLESS to stop her when she aggravates his punishment by absconding with their dead children, so he cannot bury them. Her power comes from the Gods. The powerless ones are the children, who, the ASP and Ms. Israel are saying, are, in the "key hole" linking past and present, which is opened by Euripides' play, even today tormented (if not killed) when one or more of the powerful ones (adults) use them to punish an ex-partner. This is feminism an order of magnitude more sophisticated than the Globe's, for it takes for granted that women are of equal worth, and therefore must be held responsible for their actions over those within their power, regardless of what was done to them in the past.

    As for your comments about Jennie Israel's pregnancy: on the one hand, their misogyny could, ironically, drive people into the arms of the Globe perspective. But on the other hand, since you speculate about Ms. Israel's and Mr. Gammons' supposedly half-secret intentions, perhaps you would be interested in Ms. Israel's own comments about her pregnancy during the interview quoted above:

    "Israel, five months pregnant with her second child, acknowledges she's in an unusual situation for an actress playing Medea, but she doesn't want to focus on that.

    " 'I'm not a Method actor; I don't believe in messing with myself emotionally in order to get there. I get there through the voice, and the breath, through my imagination and through my relationship with the other people on the stage in the moment,' she says.

    " 'It is extreme to imagine killing children while there's one inside,' she acknowledges, but other acting challenges get more of her attention.' "

    So, Ms. Israel "gets there" through the text, and does not "want to focus" on her midsection. Mightn't you do well to do the same?

  2. You know, I rarely take a company's marketing at face value - even as far as their true intents go. And of course when it comes to their actual artistic achievements, or lack thereof, their stated goals are pretty much irrelevant.

    Even beyond that, I'm not sure ASP's statements really come to much - and neither do Israel's; they could be about almost any serious drama, frankly. And I really don't think you can "get to" Medea via your breath control and your imagination, etc. In my experience, when actors say things like that, they're almost always pretty much at sea.

    And I'm not sure I "accept Aucoin's claim about the ASP perspective" partly because I'm not sure you've rendered his "claim" accurately; in fact, I'm not sure what his aesthetic claim even IS. He knows his politics (and I think he knows his wife's politics) and so he stakes out a claim about the production within those parameters. But I wouldn't argue that he attempts any actual aesthetic criticism in his review.

    All this basically stems from the fact that the production is a muddle; Gammons, Israel and co. have fiddled with political dynamite, basically, and kind of fumbled their moves. I mean what can you say about an actress who tells the press that she "doesn't want to focus on her midsection," but then strokes it repeatedly in performance? In the end, it's what's on stage that counts, not what's in the paper, or on the web.