Sometimes, it’s a great idea to pull a classic off the shelf and get lost in it. You never know what ideas or insights you might find to enrich and enliven your own work. On one of my shelves is a comely, peach-colored little volume simply called, Two Greek Plays. It was translated in the late 1920s by a fellow named John Jay Chapman. I’m not sure exactly who he is, but his shining english prose and thoughtful notes have made me a fan.
One of the plays, Medea by Euripides, is a scorcher of a story — and must surely still rank high on the list of the greatest dramas of all time. from the first lines, as a viewer, you know you are in for a raw emotional ride. interestingly, the first speakers on stage are Medea’s old nurse and an attendant. Medea appears only after they have laid out the long list of her woes for us. I wonder if Shakespeare read Euripides and took a leaf from him: just think how often minor characters open the Bard’s plays.
Medea is mind-blowing. In about 50 pages of non-stop action, the tragic story races forward, climaxing in Medea’s horrendous act of violence. To avenge herself against an unfaithful Jason, she murders their two sons. horrible, unbelievable. And yet…
Somehow as only a master can, Euripides impells us not to withdraw all our sympathy from Medea. Repelled as we are by her despicable, unspeakable act, in the end I believe the audience feels more for Medea than it does for Jason. how does Euripides manage this artistic feat?
First, there’s the masterstroke of having Medea’s old nurse open the play. We see Medea’s suffering through her nurse’s compassionate eyes — and her fierceness as well. Second, we hear Medea’s voice before seeing her — her anguish assaults our undefended ears.
Third, for the first half of the play we learn about Jason and his betrayal only second-hand through the comments of the play’s other characters. By the time Jason comes on stage, all our sympathy has been consumed by Medea. All his rational excuses only serve to intensify Medea’s emotional pain — and our identification with her. And finally, the chorus of women — it’s us! The women in the audience! Every one of us who’s been tricked or trampled or traumatized or toyed with by a man — we’re right up there on stage with Medea. In spite of ourselves, we feel her pain. Amazing artistry by a master of emotional overload — what can we learn from it?