Deconstructing Phaedra


The Minotaur in his Labyrinth

The dashing prince slashes clear a path through a thicket of brambles. He pauses over the threshold of the prison before him –  long enough only to draw out a ball of twine from his leathern pouch. He bounds ahead into the maze of subterranean passageways that encloses captive the helpless, royal beauty. Her empty sobs tear away over cold distances, twisting their resolve through the labyrinthine passages of despair and hope, wending a confusion for the prince’s ear. He stops. He strains. Is she to his left or his right? A pause too long. The beast cocks his head. He inhales. This is his lair. Who challenges him? He charges. Deftly leaping through corridors, confusing to others, his clamouring gait is a crescendo of war-cries to his foe. With the stranger in sight he doesn’t slow. He leaps. The prince, edgy with anticipation, swoops low his sword and thrusts high. With the skill and strength of a gymnast, the prince tackles his opponent.

The prince slays the bovine beast, frees the damsel . . . and marries her sister! Almost Disney but not quite there. Such is the story of Theseus, Ariadne and the Minotaur. The sister was of course, Phaedra, and the Minotaur, half-man half-bull, was her half-brother, her mother having forsaken her royal bed for the beastly, bestial pleasures of a bull.

Chivalry and romance don’t feature prominently in Ancient Greek tragedy. Desire, eros, duty, honour, obsession, yes, but not romantic love. When Achilles offers to save Iphigenia from the sacrificial alter, battling any or all of the Greek Trojan-heroes-in-the-making, it isn’t out of romantic love or sexual desire – he may as well be risking his life for a comrade-in-arms. Romantic love, tied up as it is with concepts of chivalry came later in history, in the Middle Ages. How should we, who have been inundated with mythologies of romantic love, understand the tale of Phaedra then? And how do we bring across its meaning on the stage?

Fedra i Hipòlit, mosaic del museu d'Ismailia

Phaedra, Eros, Trophoe, Hyppolytus ad two others whose names have not survived in this mosaic

After Theseus slew the Minotaur he eloped with Ariadne. She however was already married to the god, Dionysius. Theseus, disappointed in Ariadne, abandoned her to face the wrath of the gods alone. And then took her sister. When Phaedra married Theseus he was a mature man. He had been married to the Queen of the Amazons and had a son by her. Hippolytus was a handsome youth with the athletic physique of a hunter. Phaedra on seeing him was smitten. Endeavouring to be a dutiful wife, she bore Theseus children. But her attraction to her step-son was never sated. It grew by abstinence. She was obsessed with him. She had him exiled from Athens in her attempts to quell her own desires. When Theseus was reported dead, Phaedra professed her love for Hippolytus –  to his disgust. When Theseus returned from his hunting trip alive, Phaedra in fear for what his son may tell him, accused Hippolytus of seducing her. In a rage, Theseus cursed Hippolytus. Poseidon hearing his plea, drove the horses of Hippolytus’ chariot mad. They took him over a cliff to his death. Out of grief? guilt? self loathing? Phaedra poisoned herself. Such is Greek tragedy.

Viena-Wien. Leopold Museum. Exposició temporal Nackte Männer. Joseph-Désiré Court, La mort d'Hipòlit, 1828

The Death of Hippolytus by Joseph-Desire Court in tghe Leopold Museum, Vienna

The events that transpired leading Hippolytas to his death differ according to whose retelling of the myth. The tale is told by Euripides, in his play entitled Hippolytus. In this version of the myth Hippolytus brings the wrath of the gods down on his own head by refusing to worship Aphrodite. Instead he makes supplications to Artemis, the goddess of Hunting. He pledges himself to a life of chastity and the chase. In Racine’s version of the tale, told in the 17th Century, Hippolytus himself is denying an obsession with another woman. Both versions have very different messages. Where it can be argued that Euripides is preaching in favour of living a well-balanced life, Racine’s is a watertight exploration into desire, unrequited love, suppressed emotions and obsession. Racine’s play is a product of the Age of Enlghtenment. He leaves no questions as to why his characters act, everything is explained. Euripides on the other hand leaves us with many questions.

In my previous post, Staging the Classics, I advocated deconstruction as a way of extracting the meaning of historic texts and bringing them closer to us. Gods, curses, the importance of reputation, taboos of an ancient culture, all  have to be felt today by a theatre audience to give this play a similar resonance. What if Hippolytus is portrayed as an Olympic swimmer? He is a demi-god to the mere citizens of the nation state. He has sacrificed so much of his life for his sport that his life is not balanced. Could it lead to his mind becoming unbalanced? What if the closeted life that women lead in Ancient Greek society were called to mind by a Phaedra wearing a muslim, hijab scarf. The chorus of judgmental, observers, keeping the order of society would be a bevy of bloggers commenting and enlarging on the action. The private world of Phaedra’s mind would be guarded by a military commando unit. Inside her room images of our demi-god would cover the wall in a style of decor more suitable to a star struck teenager. Theseus, of course, would be the millionaire playboy, so privileged he hasn’t a doubt in his head over the order of society. The walls around the acting space would be hung with byzantine-styled icons telling the backstories –  of Phaedra’s mother and the bull, of Theseus and Hippolyta, his first wife, of the Labyrinth. Phaedra’s story is part of a religious storytelling tradition that cannot be ignored, afterall. Living statues of Artemis, Aphrodite and Poseidon would rearrange each scene and express their reactions to the action in studied poses from pedestals throughout the acting space.

With all of this abstraction, the playwright’s meaning is meant to be brought closer. We have not walked away from the text. The trap in using this method of story telling is bringing new meaning, modern resonances, that may muddy the waters. When Euripides tells us that Phaedra has gone and tried Hippolytus outdoor pursuits, I would be tempted to give her floaties. Phaedra can’t succeed in embracing Hippolytus’ pastimes. I could be perceived as making an anachronistic comment on the need for muslim children to learn to swim. It is an issue that is discussed in society but has nothing to do with Euripides text. Once allegorical connections are made, the meaning taken from the performance becomes more diverse. The risk is in the hands of the director and his/her motives. If s/he retains the integrity of the playwright without wandering off completely, the audience can only benefit. If the director abstracts to the point that the play isn’t recognizable, disappointment may be the result. Better rename the performance than risk disappointing expectations.


Photo credit: Foter / Public Domain Mark 1.0

Mosaic of Phaedra and Hippolytus

Photo credit: Sebastià Giralt / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Death of Hippolytus

Photo credit: Pilar Torres / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


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