Finding a Voice Through Classical Tragedy: Tony Harrison’s “Medea: a Sex-War Opera” and Criticism Against Misogyny

by Valeria Spacciante, MA student at Scuola Normale Superiore

Medea

Traditionally, Classics has been perceived as a prop for the status quo (Haffenden 1991, 241-242) and a way to legitimise the dominant culture. This is particularly true in England, where classical education has (and partly still is) long been reserved for the upper classes. In this context, Tony Harrison (b. 1937) is the exception: although born into a working-class family, he was talented in literature and obtained a scholarship to advance his studies. He thus received an elitist classical education, but constantly felt excluded from that society (Butler 1994, 94). For this reason, Harrison is a man of two worlds: he personally experienced the elitism of the English educational system and the use of Classics as a means of legitimising the upper classes. Therefore, he felt the contradiction between the idea of Classics as a shared heritage and the exclusiveness of classical education, which stubbornly perpetuated anachronistic values. For this reason, his restagings of ancient works aim to destroy the idea of Classics both as a unique possession of high-brow culture and as the repository of immutable truths, with the purpose of inviting the audience to consider different versions of the same story. Challenging  traditional interpretations, Harrison tries to shed light on the text’s most obscure points, thus exposing hitherto neglected points of view.

His Medea: A Sex-War Opera (1985) is a clear example of the dialectical relationship between Classics and the author, since it has the crucial aim of giving voice to both the modern audience and the women who are usually ignored by a reverential approach to classical literature, and who can, for this reason, be interpreted as a symbol of non-élite groups. Harrison’s standpoint is that texts are historically determined: by offering a historical interpretation of Euripides’ tragedy, he reinterprets Medea the infanticide as a scapegoat for the male-dominated Greek society. Moreover, he is strongly persuaded that there is not a unique version of a story, but that every society has the right to rewrite and reinvent it over the centuries according to its own values. This assertion of course implies the right to question Classics, thus defeating the traditional assumption that they transmit immutable truths. Accordingly, Harrison’s Medea is democratic: it strongly asserts the author and the audience’s right to engage with classical texts and even to reverse them. Within this viewpoint, his second instance of democracy takes place. Harrison depicts his heroine as the victim of the Greek male-dominated society’s plot, and thus rejects Euripides’ accusation that Medea commits infanticide. Therefore, Harrison’s play is democratic in the sense that it foregrounds Medea’s point of view, giving her the chance to defend herself.

The text’s polyphony is physically represented in Harrison’s play by the simultaneous presence of two different choruses that support the ever-contradictory male and female points of view. A clear example of the relativity of Classics is found in one of the female chorus’ songs:

 

As the sex war’s still being fought,

which sex does a myth support?

you should be asking.

What male propaganda lurks

behind most operatic works

that Music’s masking?

Beneath all Greek mythology

are struggles between HE and SHE

that we’re still waging (Harrison 1985, 370-371).

 

As it emerges from the text, according to Harrison, myth has always had an ideological function, which means that it is used as a justification of belief. Consequently, the text through which myth is told cannot be considered the keeper of truths, since it is necessarily historically determined as well. Harrison’s goal is therefore to draw the audience’s attention to this point, and try to destroy the cliché of Medea as murderer. According to this idea, he encourages the audience to reconsider the entire story on the basis of their own experience. By exposing that Euripides’ Medea is a product of Greek ideology, he claims his right to do the same.

This principle of course has an effect on the reception of the Euripidean tragedy: Euripides’ role is accordingly reduced to the spokesperson of a social trend rather than the prophet of universal truths (McDonald 1991, 311). This means that the message of the tragedy is rooted in Greek society rather than in the human spirit, thus implying the fundamental fluidity of texts. This statement is often highlighted by the perpetual conflict between the two choruses, each fighting their corner:

 

DOWNSTAGE MAN. This isn’t true. It was the mother.

DOWNSTAGE WOMAN. That’s the male version. Now watch the other.

DSM. Why all these children? They were only two.

DSW. Only according to male pigs like you.

DSM. No, according to these stories, the proper ones.

DSW. NO, the true story is there were fourteen sons.

[…]

DSM. Euripides says there were only two

and that it was the mother who slew.

DSW. Another male plot to demean

woman’s fertility. Fourteen! Fourteen!

Euripides blackened her in his play

 

These MEN bribed him. He was in their pay (Harrison 1985, 430-431).

 

The idea of meaning’s fluidity is taken to the extreme by pleading that Medea is innocent. In this way, Harrison completely reverses the ancient play, defying its authority. His own work is an open challenge to the status quo in two ways: firstly, Harrison destroys the mythical stereotype of Medea the murderer, questioning the whole Western reception of the myth; secondly, by showing the historical origin of stereotypes, he teaches the audience a lesson about contemporary prejudices against women.

The crucial point behind Harrison’s democratisation of Classics is the idea that theatre must have a social mission (Butler 1997, 106-107). In this respect, his works frequently engage with the “historical defeat of the female sex” (Haffenden 1991, 241-242). In other words, he wants to use Classics to reverse male-dominated societies’ stereotypes (ibid., 242). He therefore tries to use a classical text to affect contemporary society by giving it a new meaning. For this reason, the author often emphasises in his play the parallel between the ancient story and modern times:

 

chorus [w] [dsw]

Not strings, an ambulance that skids

round the traffic, carrying kids

killed like MEDEA’s.

Some mother, some deserted wife

kills her kids with a kitchen knife,

here, today!

When you read the press reviews

of what you’re seeing she’ll be newspaper and not a play.

MOM KILLS KIDS reads New York Post

and that “Mom”’s MEDEA’s ghost

still unfulfilled.

As long as things go on like this

without a sex-war armistice

kids will be killed.

Not costumes and old myths of Greece;

the Argonauts and Golden Fleece –

Manhattan!

Infanticide appears to grow

and in the female crimes bureaux

files fatten (Harrison 1985, 370).

 

Harrison’s Medea is the archetype of every unhappy woman: she is the victim of a historically determined male plot (ibid., 447). In order to rehabilitate women’s role in current society, Harrison takes Medea as a model for the perpetual battle of sexes and associates her with contemporary news stories, bridging the gap between past and present. Yet, at the same time, he challenges Euripides’ authority by seriously modifying his version. Medea is innocent, whereas the murderer is Hercules. It is an invasive intervention, aimed at provoking the audience and warning them against ancient texts’ uncritical reception.

It is thus evident that Harrison’s correction of the classical archetype is democratic, because it gives voice to the ones who have so far been excluded from a dialogue with Classics. By rehabilitating Medea, Harrison frees the modern audience from the burden of tradition and gives them the example of a constructive response to Classics.

The most significant intervention is probably the chorus’ last song, during Medea’s electrocution. They are dressed as modern New York women and, facing the audience, they sing a multilingual song (ancient Greek, Latin, French), thus showing the many possible interpretations of the myth. At the end, some journal articles are displayed behind them. They are all about women killing their own children, except one:

 

 But the final projection which freezes the music and the CHORUS is:

 A FATHER CUTS HIS 4 KIDS’ THROATS [The Sun, 19 October 1983].

The “FATHER” of the headline has been crudely underlined in red (Harrison 1985, 448).

 

Through this last reversal of the original play, Harrison fully rehabilitates his Medea, who provocatively turns from killer to victim. His play is exemplary of a “democratisation” in more than one sense: at a basic level, it is the chance for Medea to defend herself before common sense; more deeply, it argues for a draw in the battle of sexes, with the implication that there is neither sex is evil (McDonald 1992, 145). Women and men are equal, as they are equally capable of doing evil things. Harrison uses the play to respond to society’s demand for gender equality. By reversing it, he demonstrates that there is no legitimisation of sexism. Thus, in a broader sense, Medea’s rehabilitation in front of society is an open challenge to general elitism. By using Classics to defend a socially disadvantaged character, Harrison proves that they are not necessarily the expression of the status quo.

In conclusion, Harrison, who benefitted from a partial democratisation of Classics in Britain, tries to offer ancient texts to a wider audience and demonstrates that they need not be an upper-class privilege. Moreover, he destroys the idea of Classics as natural legitimation of status quo, proving that there is no natural right in elitism.

In other words, Harrison’s Medea is a claim to social participation to Classics. The modern audience has the right – not to say the duty – to question their cultural heritage. That is, in fact, the most fruitful way to give them meaning.

 

References:

Butler, C. 1997. “Culture and Debate”. In Tony Harrison: Loiner, edited by S. Byrne, 93-114. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Haffenden J. 1991. “Interview with Tony Harrison”. In Tony Harrison, edited by N. Astley, 227-246. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books.

Harrison T. 1985. Theatre Works 1973-1985. London: Penguin.

McDonald M. 1991. “Internal, External, Eternal Medea”. In Tony Harrison, edited by N. Astley, 303-312. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books.

________ 1992. Ancient Sun, Modern Light: Greek Drama on the Modern Stage. New York: Columbia University Press.

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