Collectors​ of dinosaur bones and ammonites, nautilus shells, sawfish teeth, narwhal tusks and other such wonders used to display them in elaborate tableaux or augment them with fancy settings of jewels and gilt; they imagined fabulous stories for them, too. Then, in the more empirical mood of Victorian archaeology, adornment was stripped away and bones were displayed as bones, fossils as fossils, and projection or fabulation sternly dismissed. At least that was what scientists thought they were doing when they reconstructed the world of stegosaurus and Tyrannosaurus rex. But the projective imagination is harder to quell than scientists care to admit, and the Greek names for stars, jellyfish, reptiles, shells keep sending one back to the ancient stories. When Freud surrounded himself with Greek figurines and other ancient curios (amulets, gems) and began reading the myths for what they revealed about the human psyche, he was experiencing the speculative, oracular power of these materials.

His view still holds very widely. While myths might be narrative fossils from unimaginably long ago – astonishingly, there is only one mention of anyone reading or writing anything in Homer – they offer themselves to us as rich objects for reverie and conjecture, becoming the ‘shore of dreaming’ (‘l’orée du songe’), as Roger Caillois called his own collection of stones. Like dream stones, the myths are puzzles, and they keep inviting new thoughts.

The story of Medea intersects with the myth of the voyage of the Argo; but it is the continuing electric power of her myth to disturb and shock, rather than elucidate, that accounts for its lasting presence. She is a daughter of a king of Colchis on the Black Sea, a princess from a country beyond the bounds of civilisation as the Greeks saw it. The golden fleece (of a magical sacrificed ram) is the sacred cult object of her country, guarded by terrible fire-breathing monsters (a colossal snake or a dragon – the sources vary), and Jason has been set the impossible task of fetching this treasure by the usurper of his father’s throne, who, like an evil queen in a fairy tale demanding strawberries be picked in snow, counts on his rival dying in the attempt. Jason builds the Argo, gathers together a band of heroes and sets out for the Black Sea.

Medea differs from other tragic heroes and heroines, from Oedipus or Antigone or Hecuba or Jason himself, in that she is the granddaughter of Helios, the sun, has vast secret knowledge and can work potent magic, and is therefore to a certain extent in charge of her destiny – an agent in her own story. She’s struck by love – and pity – at her first sight of Jason, brews potions for him to use to overcome the dragon and steal the fleece, and then elopes with him, cutting all ties to family, country, social status. Some sources say that when her father set out in pursuit of the lovers, Medea chopped up her little brother Absyrtus and scattered his butchered remains on the road, delaying her father, who stopped to gather them – dishonourable burial being an overwhelming horror in Greek myth. On their journey westwards across the Mediterranean, the lovers halt at Circe’s island to beg her to cleanse them of the pollution of their multiple crimes. Circe is Medea’s aunt, a daughter of the sun, and an even more effective enchantress than Medea, a witch with power over the Underworld who in the Odyssey turns the hero’s companions into pigs. But she has had a prophetic nightmare of walls running with blood, and tells Medea that she doesn’t have the power to purify them. Yet other sources list Medea’s dark arts, telling how, for example, she butchers and boils an old man alive after his daughters ask her to rejuvenate him in her magic cauldron.

Euripides’ tragedy establishes the two main pillars of her story. When she leaves Colchis, she enters Jason’s world as a stranger, and remains marked out irreversibly as an outsider. And when she’s no longer useful to him, he makes a dynastic marriage to a princess of Corinth; in revenge Medea poisons Jason’s new bride (‘murder by toxic frock’, as Margaret Atwood calls it) and kills the children she’s had with him. Ovid, Seneca and Shakespeare all draw greedily from this cup of horrors. In spite of her virulence, the figure of Medea commands our attention – and our sympathy. Dante put Jason in the Inferno for his treatment of her and few since have objected.

The myth was already old when Homer was writing; the audience at Euripides’ first production in 431 BCE didn’t need to be told her back-story when she stepped onto the stage. They wanted to watch her dilemma unfold again. (Euripides’ version was only given third prize at its first hearing.) The myths have become less familiar now and need programme notes and glossaries, but there’s still a sense that they’re generic scripts of the drives that move deep within us. And yet, mythical heroes and villains are markers of the boundaries of experience. Far from revealing the common desires of human beings, Medea, like Oedipus, is a figure of extreme and peculiar abomination, an aberration, the perpetrator of inhuman atrocity.

These two ways of looking at tragic heroes are contradictory, but most of us subscribe to both at once. According to the first approach, the myths of Medea, Oedipus and Phaedra reveal terrible truths about human nature that need to be known. Broadly speaking, this approach places myth within the sphere of mimesis: this is how it is, anywhere and everywhere. It gives the figure of Medea and her wracking story a highly contemporary urgency in times when anxiety about family break-up, children’s well-being, maternal ambivalence and the direction of feminism runs very high, as Jacqueline Rose searchingly discussed in her essay ‘Mothers’ (LRB, 19 June 2014). Ever since Euripides showed unexpected sympathy with Medea she has been a heroine for real-world questions about women – their status, their weakness – and about betrayal, blood ties and exile.

The counterpoised approach turns away from reality and looks towards farther horizons of fantasy. Medea is a sorceress so powerful she can make time run backwards, and at the end of Euripides’ play escapes, ascending ex machina in a chariot drawn by dragons. This supernatural being no longer belongs in a story that tells it how it is; this myth imagines things as they might be or might have been. It belongs to an ancient and alien cosmology, and as such opens up alternatives – an impossible escape after an unspeakable crime. As if, not as is.

The fantastical way of reading a myth, often more sheerly pleasurable, is usually discounted as childish make-believe. It has been most powerfully adopted by writers like Philip Pullman who are read principally by children. It also serves the crucial mythic purpose of mapping limits and prohibitions, demarcating the centre ground where fathers don’t eat their children, brothers don’t marry their sisters, and mothers don’t cut their babies’ throats.

Six years ago, when Robin Robertson translated Euripides’ Medea, he added an epigraph from a poem of Brecht’s:

In the dark times will there also be singing?

Yes there will also be singing

About the dark times.

Perhaps the singing of dark times is popular now because tragedies are training us, in a period of pervasive helplessness before the horrors, not to feel, not to flinch? ‘Versioning’ is a new, ugly term for reworking a classic text – often by someone who can’t read the original and uses a ‘bridge’ or crib. Another term, coined by Anne Washburn for her retelling of Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis, is ‘transadaptation’. More eloquently, Alice Oswald subtitled her book-length elegy, Memorial, which revisits the Iliad, an ‘excavation’. There are other words, too: Jeanette Winterson has borrowed ‘cover’ from the music industry for her retelling of The Winter’s Tale. In earlier times, the rhetorical practices ‘emulatio’ and ‘imitatio’ were highly valued, taught to Shakespeare, and fruitfully pursued by him later.

Medea has long attracted powerful female interpreters: Maria Callas in Pasolini’s film (1969), Fiona Shaw in Deborah Warner’s production (2001), and among writers, Toni Morrison, who slants the myth through her novel Beloved (1987), as does Marina Carr more directly in her play By the Bog of Cats (1998), which is set in a traveller community in Ireland. Rachel Cusk’s take on Euripides’ Medea, commissioned for the Almeida by Rupert Goold, bends the Greek play to fit the story she told in her memoir, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation (reviewed by Joanna Biggs in the LRB of 22 March 2012). Here and there in her book, Cusk muses on Greek myth: her two young daughters are ‘interested in the ancient Greeks. They have a surprising knowledge of Greek mythology … When they talk about it it’s as though they are talking about something they personally remember.’ She turns to Freud, who

viewed the formation of individual personality as analogous to human history: I like this way of understanding a life, as a re-enactment in miniature of civilisation. According to this analogy the ancient Greeks are the formative phases of infancy … So it’s fitting, I suppose, that a child should have a special attraction to these tales of gods and mortals, to the joy and anarchy of the early world, in which fantasy and reality have not yet been separated.

On the page, Cusk’s watchful, balanced prose oddly transmits furious bewilderment and confusion, an effect which, like a mad scene in an opera, demands strong powers of control. On stage, the poise vanishes, raw pain taking its place. Several lacerating exchanges between Medea and Jason are taken directly from Aftermath, and the feelings Cusk’s heroine expresses pick up from her own uncomprehending sense of wreckage in that book, where the real discovery she made wasn’t about divorce or living alone, but about maternity; she stumbles on it, seemingly winded by its force. She remembers she said to her husband – and these words are echoed by her Medea to Jason – ‘They’re my children, I said. They belong to me.’ In the memoir, Cusk continues:

In Greek drama, to traduce biological roles is to court the change that is death … The vengeful mother, the selfish father, the perverted family, the murderous child – these are the bloody roads to democracy, to justice. The children belong to me: once I would have criticised such a sentiment severely, but of certain parts of life there can be no foreknowledge.

As a writer Cusk takes no prisoners, and her Medea cries out: ‘I’d rather bare my neck to the assassin truth than run away from him any longer.’ Yet in the final scenes, when it is unclear whether the children, who have taken an overdose together, are going to survive, she has not only drawn back from Medea’s colossal mythic weirdness – domesticated her – but shrunk from the outrage of a mother killing her children. Instead, she reverses the flagrant blasphemy with which Euripides ends, and shows her protagonist withdrawing from the scene, abandoning the children, undone.

Cusk is by no means alone in refusing Euripides’ unrepentant ending. When Christa Wolf in her novel Medea (reviewed in the LRB by Helen King, 12 November 1998) portrays her as the blameless victim of a smear perpetrated by Corinthians intent on covering up their own cult of child sacrifice, she was drawing on sources that predate Euripides. In the 15th century, Christine de Pisan patched things up as best she could: ‘Medea … loved Jason with a too great and too constant love … after everything went just as he wanted, he left Medea for another woman. For this reason Medea, who would rather have destroyed herself than do anything of this kind to him, turned despondent, nor did her heart ever again feel goodness or joy.’ Cusk doesn’t go this far.

‘Of all living, sentient creatures, women are the most unfortunate,’ Medea tells the women of Corinth in her first speech in Euripides’ play (the translation is Robertson’s). Nietzsche criticised Euripides for searching too far into motives and feelings. He contrasted him unfavourably with Aeschylus and Sophocles, for whom the principle ‘in order to be beautiful, everything must be reasonable’ meant the story must be subject to law, divine and human, without allowing individuals or their passions to make a difference. Euripides took this reasoning to extremes, Nietzsche argued, by claiming that ‘in order to be beautiful, everything must be conscious.’ His commitment to consciousness inspired him to feel for his characters, whatever depths of wickedness or folly they plumb. The feelings that circulate through the chorus, the women who stand by and know what is happening, then flow out into us, in the audience.

In Medea, the chorus tremble with fear at what Medea may be driven to do; they are also dismayed by their own powerlessness – the plight of all women. The conductors of our responses, they lead us to compassionate her, to use the Italianate word Mary Shelley gives the Creature when he begs Frankenstein to treat him with understanding. In Cusk’s version, by contrast, the nurse opens with tart sarcasms about Medea, captured with a clever and remorseless ear for clichés, for female bêtise, in a misanthropic tone worthy of Flaubert: ‘Whatever will people think? I said to her, pull yourself together for their [the children’s] sake.’ And later: ‘I said to her, all that feminism you went in for! You always gave the impression you could manage just as well without him, and now look at you – sobbing like a schoolgirl with a broken heart! Equal this and equal that – I said to her, the trouble was you let him think he could do as he pleased.’ In Euripides, Medea’s old nurse tries to soothe her ‘dear mistress’, and when she urges her to keep lying low and to say nothing, it’s from cowardice, not malice.

Later, in the Goold production, the women ‘jiggle’ dolls – sometimes menacingly – as they patter and babble unfeelingly about Medea. These mothers at the school gates are cleverly caught and orchestrated, but they’re seen not from the inside, Euripides-style, but from the outside – as it were by that tribunal of the distant gods whom Nietzsche praises. Deborah Levy describes a scene very similar to Cusk’s in her acute essay, Things I Don’t Want to Know, but her sense of belonging is different:

I found myself thinking about some of the women, the mothers who had waited with me in the school playground while we collected our children. Now that we were mothers we were all shadows of our former selves, chased by the women we used to be before we had children. We didn’t really know what to do with her, this fierce, independent young woman who followed us about, shouting and pointing the finger while we wheeled our buggies in the English rain. We tried to answer her back but we did not have the language to explain that we were not women who had merely ‘acquired’ some children – we had metamorphosed … into someone we did not entirely understand.

The ‘we’ here is Euripidean, not Sophoclean. Euripides’ Medea cries out, in her first speech in the play: ‘I have no time for those who think themselves above the rules, or better than the others.’ But in Cusk’s play she splits herself off from that ‘we’ of female diminution, of maternal metamorphosis. She doesn’t entreat or make common cause with the other mothers; in the name of honesty, she’s vicious: ‘I know what you’re like. It’s warm in your beds, warm and dark, and you’re half asleep … All that dissembling has made you ugly … Sleep, woman, sleep.’ This is a very different mood from the bewildered feminist mother adrift with her two children, evoked in the wastes of Aftermath. The memoir was criticised for self-pity: here anger has taken up all the space where pity might cling on. The production – and the text – set aside the restless to and fro debate and shared anguish about the depths of human suffering and especially women’s sufferings that keeps Euripides’ play so compelling.

In Shakespeare and Classical Antiquity (reviewed in the LRB by Michael Neill, 19 March), Colin Burrow described the way Seneca’s blood-soaked play about Medea haunts not only Macbeth, King Lear and The Tempest, but even A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Seneca tilts the audience’s response towards not pity or empathy but horror – hence the affinity with Jacobean drama. When Lady Macbeth says she would have plucked the nipple from her infant’s mouth and dashed his brains out, she is remembering Seneca’s Medea – the couple are childless, after all, as Macbeth’s obsession with his future lineage makes plain (there is no suggestion that Lady M has murdered a baby in the past). Senecan ferocity shoots through contemporary returns to Medea, even when only Euripides is credited, as in Ben Power’s version at the National Theatre last year. Power blended many gory Senecan scenes into Euripides’ tragedy, giving a fierce, sexy Medea, as played by Helen McCrory, the chance to raise smoky hell from below the stage.

One day during the summer, the team behind the Greeks season at the Almeida staged a reading of the whole of the Iliad – around 16 hours in all. Famously tedious extended passages, exhaustingly resistant to silent reading – the catalogue of the ships, the rampage of Diomedes – were blasted into excitement by the energy and skill of one performer after another. But the recitation ultimately revealed a preference for harshness that the Almeida team developed in their treatment of myths throughout the season. The effect followed partly from the translation of the Iliad they’d chosen, Robert Fagles’s from 1990. Fagles goes for the choppy, hard stuff, preferring percussive consonants and end-stopped monosyllables. Some of the pastoral and domestic similes were cut, and a few of the interpolated myths were dropped. The effect was to man up an epic that is already ‘the poem of force’, in Simone Weil’s words, to throw the emphasis on the relentless violence and the immediate frenzy of the action as action:

Lycon, flailing,
chopped the horn of Peneleos’ horsehair-crested helmet
but round the socket the sword-blade smashed to bits –
just as Peneleos hacked his neck below the ear
and the blade sank clean through, nothing held
but a flap of skin, the head swung loose to the side
as Lycon slumped down to the ground.

Simon Goldhill, who advised the creators of the event, told us at the start that what was being done ‘was remarkably Greek’, that at the Great Panathenaia, Homer was recited in the theatre on the Acropolis. The sound of these works matters; the harmony they make is strange, but in any language it should reach our ears. For audiences in antiquity, however complicated their relationship to the epic or the play, mythic narrative resonated with their belief system and their society. But for an audience today, what can be the meaning of the inexorable vision of Greek myth? The Iliad is returning because it matches experiences of war that we know are happening now; for the same reasons, Aeschylus’ Persians, the oldest surviving Greek play, which tells the story of the Persian defeat at Salamis from their point of view, was recently revived in Palermo, reimagined in modern times by the playwright Roberto Cavosi. The Almeida season did its utmost to make the ancient Greek stories seem to speak about us, now: Agamemnon kills Iphigenia by the chemical method of a Dignitas-style assisted death; Medea is suffering a terrible divorce. At one point in Cusk’s play, Medea breaks the fourth wall to look out at and berate the audience: ‘What have you come here for? Why are you watching me? Go on, have a good look – help yourselves, feel free!’ This address to the audience casts us as voyeurs and judges. Indeed, what are we there for?

According to Aristotle, tragedy was about elite figures, whose terrible fates served to warn us lesser folk, delivered some kind of satisfaction at the spectacle of the mighty fallen, and sobered us up to go back home and give thanks for our uninteresting lives. Burrow, writing about Seneca, asks audiences and readers to attend closely to grammatical mood and tense in tragic speech, and shows how crucial they are in the layered transmission of the myths. This sounds a bit abstruse, but it throws light on contemporary revisionings of tragedy. The wishful moods (subjunctive, jussive, optative) can convey hopes, and act apotropaically, setting limits on what might happen. By contrast, tenses like the present indicative or the past historic do not hypothesise, they unfold what is taking or has taken place. Cusk’s Medea tracks horrendous marital breakdown as it happens: Jason and Medea are fighting, for real, here and now, in the present indicative. Only at the end, when Kate Fleetwood in the title role throws great shovelfuls of earth into a gaping hole in the stage floor against a hemispherical backdrop of roiling sunsets, does the action move into the metaphorical plane and the mood change to the subjunctive: she might kill her children, she might have killed her children, she would kill her children if she could, she must kill her children. By imagining such extreme possibilities, the drama staves them off.

In this version, Medea avenges herself by writing: her work as a writer is her only weapon. But the black cleaner, the migrant worker who acts as another chorus figure, dismisses her art: ‘Words ain’t worth a thing. Words is just women’s money, that’s all. Only thing it buys you is scraps from the man’s table.’ When it comes to stories, however, words are all there is, and they need voicing, as the Nurse knows when she says to the chorus: ‘We need a tune when there’s no food there to eat.’

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