The question as I understand it seems to be demanding an interrogation of the material artifice that, metaphorically and very practically, supports this play. In fact, references to the physical stage are relatively scarce in Euripides, and a stance focussing on thematic symmetry may be more fruitful than a hunt for inconclusive stage references within the text. For example, any director staging Medea will have to find a way of using symbolism on the stage, and symbolism leading onto and away from it, in order to address the issues of Exile and The Other.
Liz Lochhead’s interpretation of the play quite deliberately rescues the original story from unpalatable demonstrations of inequality at every level, transforming exile into a symbol of injustice as strong as any child murder. Her directorship reflects the passion behind her effort: for instance in the theatre Babel production the Chorus changed its composition several times. A mixed sex chorus was employed for the premiere, with everyone in identical attire and make up. The entire Chorus appeared as eighteenth-century fashion dolls in corseted dresses even the male members, who, despite being dressed as women, remained recognisably male.
Lochhead had concerns about the mixed-sex chorus, and it is worth noting that an all-female Chorus was employed for revivals. The identical dress and general appearance of the Chorus served both to highlight their commonality- their unity- while simultaneously defining them as an independent entity; something intrinsically separate from Medea.
Lochhead’s Medea, like Euripides’ is written around a sense of the ‘otherness’ of the eponymous heroine. Her alienation drives the plot. Lochhead works to present Medea as a woman we might be able to relate to, a woman with real problems and real opponents, and in her preface the playwright forcefully asserts that she added nothing that was not present in the original Euripides play,
“ How could that feminist critic find him misogynist? Had she been reading the same play?…The Athenian (male) society of his time which Euripides’ scourged for its smug and conventional attitudes of unthinking superiority to foreigners and women is unfortunately not totally unrecognisable, quaint or antique to me as I survey mine two and a half thousand years later.”
In Lockhead’s Theatre Babel interpretation, Maureen Beattie as Medea wears a red velvet Polish dress in an eighteenth century style, and speaks in what sounds like the accent of a European refugee. Hence Medea is shown as entirely alienated, twice- once through her physical dissociation with the appearance of the chorus, and again through her foreign language and accent. Medea’s difference, then, signals her vulnerability while holding the key to her power, but also, crucially, highlights the difference of the others to her. Through her isolation, we become aware of the essential isolation and victim-nature of everyone, and soon come to the startling realisation that the only difference between people is the superficial one of coping strategies.
In her great educational speech, Medea reveals all that her experience has taught her. Read alongside the other events which befall her in the Euripdides play, this speech informs us to some degree about the extent to which foreigners are Hellenized. She is aware of her extraordinary symbolic symbiosis, both same and different to us at once, and she straddles the stage scenery as she straddles her dual purpose. When she announces,
“Women of Corinth, I have come out of the house,” she intones as if greeting an expectant judgemental crowd, a stern jury perhaps, her external arbiters. Medea is a part of the stage: she performs to an on-stage audience, the audience substitute that the Chorus represents, and sometimes even refers to other people as spectators.
“I know that many people are aloof, some out of sight others at (outside) the door (215-17)”
Inside the scenery of her house, Medea is protected and hermetic: the Freudian house-womb enveloping her, hiding her. But the house is, ultimately, a scene, and even weaker than her. In her announcements to the Chorus, Medea betrays an awareness of her artifice, her function as a representational character. The scenery of the house, however, is merely a mimetic impersonation of a house. It is easily disproved even within the imaginary universe of the Medea play. The characters interact with high formality, speaking in the rhetoric of professional rhetoricians, as true to their world of point-making and passion-representing as a mathematician is to his world of numbers.
The scenery, however, lets the characters down. The stage itself is a function of seperation, seperation between what, for example, Michael Fried has dubbed the “absorptive” and the “theatrical” - or, in this case, the self-confessed “theatrical” and the “beholder”: but the scenery is confessional of its artifice, meaning nothing, sustaining no illusion for long, and refusing to protect Medea just as neither the house nor anything else will truly protect her in the end.
As with most Greek tragedies, the setting of the Medea requires no change of scene. Through the entire play a skene with one or more doors is used to represent the facade of the house belonging to Jason and Medea in Corinth. There is no shift in scene even when Euripides needs to divert the attention of the audience to events occurring elsewhere, such as the deaths of Creon and his daughter at the palace. Euripides’ solution, true to the spirit of the Truth-In-Rhetoric which I have been arguing forms the core of this play- is to have these events articulated colourfully in the messenger’s speech (1136-1230). In a purely practical sense, the messenger speech serves to eliminate any need for a change of scene, something which, due to the limited resources of the ancient theatre, may have presented a tricky physical challenge. ). This system may also provide an explanation for Creon’s slightly illogical decision to visit Medea's house in person, instead of calling her to the palace, when he delivers his decree of banishment (271 ff.). Euripides turned this necessity into something positive with real ingenuity.
Euripide’s play is rich with subtle references to its own artifice that are sensitively gauged to emphasise, through their contrast, the reality of the central themes. All Medea’s speeches to her Chorus have an exculpatory tone, as she strives to avoid their blame, their perception of her as monstrous, frightening, different. Clearly, the purpose of the Chorus is to function as an analogous stand-in for the real audience, another buffer that might afford Medea some time and some excuse to defend herself. She appears to be working at them, involving them in her plight whilst assimilating herself into their world, in turn. This is possibly the greatest tragedy of the story: this woman who is so evidently, so powerfully, always already sustaining sameness and difference in impossible simultaneity- wants something different, something less, she would do anything to be accepted and assimilated.
The exodus of the play is so theatrical it is almost certainly, to some degree at least, a commentary on theatricality itself. Medea appears in a dragon-drawn chariot, with the bodies of her children. It is not clear from Euripides’s instructions whether the chariot is actually on skene’s roof or hanging from the frame like a deus ex machina, but her actions are those of a goddess, as she establishes a festival, with rituals that honor her dead children. She demonstrates the prophetic power of a god, too, unveiling her plans for the future and predicting Jason’s death (1378-1388)
“The casual appearance of gods, the use of folk tale motifs (Theseus' three wishes), the references to miraculous events (e.g., the messenger's account of Hippolytus' death) and their enactment on stage (e.g., at the end of her play Medea departs in a chariot pulled by winged dragons) all add an element of fantasy and artifice, as well as sheer theatricality, to Euripides' works that is lacking in Oedipus, where there are allusions to miraculous elements in the Oedipus myth (e.g., the Sphinx) but only as the background to the on-stage action.”
Medea’s god-quality is just one aspect of her characterisation- although it may well be the most important one. There are, as some writers have already eloquently observed, many Medeas for many situations, but the core Medea will always be the subjective one, the one I, or you, identify with. And of course the one that I identify with will be different to the one that you identify with,
“How does this relate to Medea’s inventing herself at each occasion and to the politics of the scene? One Medea in the house, another with the chorus, another with Creon. These bleed together. She reinvents herself for the particular audience (and she even talks about the problems of inventing the right self). A self is always invented. Medea–as a woman, as a foreigner–has had to create a self to conform to the city. As a woman and foreigner she has had to learn what that means.”
Nietzsche’s idea that labelling objects is not merely erroneous, but actually damaging, may be helpful in our determination of the nature of the stage-symbolism in Medea. To Nietzsche, language and substance share a common syntax, a theory is consistent with Freud, as both appear to be an expression of concern about the threatening ego that dominate and looms large behind every action. Nietzsche aims for an expose: he has tried to show that the danger of an ego, a completely dominating force of any kind, exists in its essential fallacy. When we take for granted the power of the name behind the verb, the agent that lurks behind the action, we are in danger: our reluctance to allow the possibility of the verb’s capacity for independent action will limit our options and world-view considerably.
Medea’s actions are two-fold: one level of action is separate from her murderess label, it is conceptual- she has, rhetorically, in a separate universe to the one we, the audience occupy, killed her children. The other level is pragmatic and real in both universes, she acts on the stage- the rhetoric she exploits achieving simultaneous reality with the audience off stage and the audience on stage- the Chorus. Through this dual artifice, the doubly mediated communication, Medea’s actions lead the way. Her activity is her speech, the words that she uses to describe her plight and justify herself- thus a narrative dynamic whereby her actions (and speeches) lead us to her identity- her ego.
While the character of Medea’s goddess-nature may be analysed helpfully in Nietzsche’s terms, it is to Derrida that we must turn for an assessment of the woman herself. There is no “real” Medea, of course, beyond the name but Derrida can help us to pin down a characterisation despite this, since the woman herself is ontologically present only as collaboration of slippery signs that hang in the air between “Medea-rhetorician” and “Medea-murdress”. Derrida’s term “hauntology” fits the situation well.
Ironically, it looks as though we have struggled to rescue Medea from blasphemy by obliterating the mysticism of deism, and have returned to a form of metaphysics but in reality this is not precisely true. Derrida’s argument for hauntology devises a logical reconciliation of the material and spiritual, allowing both to “exist” at the same time- precisely because neither do quite. It rests on the assumption the matter itself is fundamentally misunderstood. Matter, as a primary moving agent, (an actress, for example) does not have any reality beyond its appearances.
“She has no mother (as the women of the chorus would have, to stand by them in childbirth and to prepare them for marriage, to be with them at the transitions and rituals, if not more generally); no brother who would be a natural protector and ku/rioj in the absence of her father, no kin of any kind to offer refuge. She left her home with the hero; she needed no protector then. In truth she is and has always been her own protector.”
Alienated from her protective shell of her stage-home, then, Medea does not have any active influence beyond what she appears to be and what she appears to do. Medea’s appearance is Medea, her rhetoric is the only value of truth.
In Nietzsche’s view, everything in the Universe is driven by the need to manifest itself. Reality is a name for the expression of the most successfully excessive parts of the universe, a fusion of the two opposing forces- the Apollonian and Dionysian- a “contradiction” that is at once a “primal unity”. In the staged Medea figure we clearly face an Apollonian character striving for rational justification, learning, freedom, abstract representation and rhetoric. The Dionysian side, on the other hand, compassionate murderess Medea, unjust and unjustifiable, ironically more authentic than anything while increasingly unsure of reality,
“Aristotle criticizes Euripides for not pursuing the expected (aka logically determined) course of events, e.g. after the murders (in the skene) the audience expects to see the bodies and Medea on the ekkyklema; instead, the sun-god’s chariot appears through use of the crane/mechane (line 1290)”
Ultimately, Dionysus, in the form of dragons and a chariot, will carry Medea away, and it would be wrong to read the Mechane is a triumph of artifice over authenticity- a disappointing lapse into grandiose rhetoric. Euripedes employs the stage machinery in order to demonstrate the efficacy of symbolism, and in order to emphasise that his play is not about suspending belief in anything false, or being absorbed in any kind of escapist spectacle. Euripedes aimed to make a play about genuine human problems, and responded with a genuinely artificial setting. In the words of one writer,
“the non-naturalistic side of the play… is at odds with the psychological side: i.e. it’s not really a play only about one woman’s psychological condition, love, betrayal and death; ie it’s not really a soap-opera.”
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