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.
Phaidra didn’t care about you. She didn’t care about property. She didn’t care about the game. She didn’t even really care about Hippolytos – but she cared, I have to admit you’re right, about the core. Knew she would fail at the core. And even as she wrapped its white heat in economic arguments, royal bed, palace power, his, his, his, this! this! this! ultimate sexual casino of stuff and honour and winning, she saw her own apostasy. Too many truths in-between and Hippolytos just one of them, the lovely, careless, wry boy. And maybe that was the reason she killed herself in the end – realising the object of her heart’s desire could become just one more skin in the endless process of paring compromise off compromise, bid from bid, seduction from seduction, turned her against her own life. There was shame in her but not the kind you wanted to see, not woman’s modesty. She was ashamed at the core. Ashamed to have veiled Hippolytos in himself. What do we desire when we love other people? Not them. Something else. Phaidra touched it. You hated her for that.
Hippolytos Veiled was what I called my first attempt to write a play about Phaidra. This play did not succeed. It disappointed you. You thought the title meant Hippolytos would be shown in scenes of deep revulsion, veiling his head before the wantonness of the mother. You thought the shame was his, the veil was his, the love was wrong in some simple way that you could grasp before the first choral song. But we all burned our hands on that Phaidra, didn’t we? It was her shame that ate the play. And her shame wasn’t simple. It pullulated and turned on itself and stank at the bottom of the pit of the question of desire – what is the question of desire? I don’t know. Something about its presumption to exist in human forms. Human forms are puny. Desire is vast. Vast, absolute and oddly general. A big general liquid washing through the universe, filling puny vessels here and there as it were arbitrarily, however it lights on them, swamping some, splitting others, casually ruinous – an ‘Aphrodite’ as we call that throw of the dice that comes up nine and changes the game. Doesn’t win the game, just changes it.
But to continue. You didn’t like Phaidra so I started over. Wrote another play; it took years. Called this one Hippolytos, no veil. To get rid of the veil I had to pull shame out of the inside of Phaidra and spread it on all her surfaces, on all the surfaces of the play, like a single hurt colour. She became not Phaidra but [Phaidra]. Shame is many things. In Hippolytos, shame is what the boy worships as a goddess in the form of Artemis, a pure uncut watergreen shame that reminds him of his own virginity. Shame is also the blush that dyes [Phaidra] so hot she cannot live in the same body with it. Odd that this virtue, also a vice, is one they share without seeing how.
‘Shame lives on the eyelids’ according to an old Greek proverb.I guess this means it makes you cast your eyes down, or that it blinds you. Both [Phaidra] and Hippolytos seem to be in a blindness as they grapple, deflect and slip past one another into death. There is no moment of confrontation or truth between the two. They never exchange a touch, word or glance. Shame segregates them so effectively they live and die within earshot of one another, out of reach on the same stage. Pathos! You like that don’t you? How about first prize this time? But pathos isn’t the reason I wrote this play.
In general I like women. I like to slide women’s language around. It has more bends in it than men’s. [Phaidra]’s of course is inflected by shame. Listen to her explaining herself to the ladies of the chorus after they’ve learned about her lust for the boy:
Women of Trozen –
once in a while in the long night I ponder
mortal life and how it is ruined.
Not from bad judgment
do people do wrong – many are quite reasonable –
no look, it’s this:
we know what is right, we understand it,
but we act otherwise . . .
That my deed and my disease were
that as a woman
I would be hated. I curse that female
who first shamed her bed with another man.
It began in high-class houses.
When corruption hits the rich
the poor soon join in.
I despise those women who talk self-control
while they’re burning hot on the inside.
Aphrodite! how can such a wife
look into her husband’s face without fear?
What if the darkness, her accomplice –
what if the very rooms of her house began to speak?
For me now, ladies, death is the answer.
I must not shame my husband
or children – I want them to live free . . .
To win at life
you need a good and righteous mind.
Time shows who is evil
sooner or later,
holding up a mirror as to a young girl.
I pray I don’t look like one of them!
Look like one of whom? Someone evil? A young girl? How many sides does her mirror have? It’s a sloppy analogy. And I can’t admire the argument overall. She’s weak as milk! pious! elitist! casuistical! – and besides all that, unclear. How I long for the pure chain-smoking nihilism of my first Phaidra, pacing the cage of her own energy. What rushed through her speech wasn’t fuss about mirrors, righteous minds or the demographics of adultery. Only a fool would have asked her for a moral position. Her own people feared her. Her own spirit feared her. You feared her.
So, Phaidra – a work in motion, surpassing her, surpassing itself, disappears again and again into Phaidra after Phaidra, Phaidra after [Phaidra] – but she is not gone, her disappearance in fact reverberates everywhere in this so-called second version.
I wrote it to show how that feels. Phaidraless world.
Her great soul withdrawn, the story goes through its tricks in a weak voltage of vicious reactions and bad piety, which I’m sure will amuse you but come now, admit: there is no shock in it anywhere except Aphrodite. Aphrodite is pure shock. When she comes on stage in the prologue and tells you about a few simple stitches she is going to take in the lives of [Phaidra], Hippolytos and Theseus, you feel the salt of absolute cruelty sting your face. That needle flashes in and out of living skulls.
Oh yes, [Phaidra] will die –
you didn’t think I’d put her suffering
ahead of my right to punish enemies, did
I guess by the time I came to write the prologue (I like to write the prologue last) I had pretty much given up on saving Phaidra, the real one. But there is a residue of her gone down into Aphrodite’s anger. It is sexual anger. (Or is all anger sexual?) Little matchless breeze of what is perpetually igniting in her at the core. Remember the advice Phaidra gives to her pale groaning husband, in the first play, when he confronts her about the boy:
Instead of fire – another fire,
not just a drop of cunt sweat! is what we
women are –
you cannot fight it!
Are you safe from her now? Yes you are safe from her now. The sun is sinking fast, the evening sacrifice has just begun. You will hear a laugh in the night. Then nothing.
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.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.