Euripides to the Audience*

Anne Carson

I don’t understand your faces, I don’t understand them. At night I stand at the back of the theatre. I watch you suck in sex, death, devastation, hour after hour in a weird kind of unresisting infant heat, then for no reason you cool, flicker out. I guess for no reason is an arrogant thing to say. For no reason I can name is what I mean. It was a few years ago now I gave you a woman, a real mouthful of salt and you like salt. Her story, Phaidra’s story, that old story, came in as a free wave and crashed on your beach. I don’t understand, I could never have predicted, your hatred of this woman. It’s true she fell in love with someone wrong for her but half the heroines of your literature do that: Helen, Echo, Io, Agave, all of them. Phaidra’s love was for her stepson, and it excited you badly, maybe not the incest so much as a question of property rights – ditch the old man, marry the son, keep the estate. Truth is often, in some degree, economic. Which isn’t to say her passion for Hippolytos was unreal. Women learn to veil things. Who likes to look straight at real passion? You don’t want your faces soaked do you? I would call ‘feminine’ this talent for veiling a truth in a truth. As if truths were skins of one another and the ability to move, hunt, negotiate among them was a way of finessing the terms of the world in which we find ourselves. Skin game, so to speak. Phaidra played the skin game disastrously, sadly, but you didn’t see her as sad. You saw her white hot – an incision into some other layer of life, some core.

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[*] Euripides (485-406 BC) appears to have made two attempts to compose a tragedy on the myth of Phaidra and her disastrous infatuation with her stepson Hippolytos. We have one complete tragedy called Hippolytos (produced 428 BC) and some fragments of an earlier version called Hippolytos Veiled (date of production uncertain). The earlier version was a flop. It seems to have offended audiences by portraying Phaidra as a bold sexual predator who confronts Hippolytos directly with her desire. The later version reimagines Phaidra and her virtue: she agonises about keeping her lust a secret; is shocked to find her feelings betrayed to Hippolytos by an old Nurse; recoils from addressing the young man face to face; overhears him say bad things about her and hangs herself offstage.

[†] Stobaeus, Florilegium 4.230.