Women in ancient Greek drama

DELPHI – Images of the human body – brave, embattled, transcendent – were a keynote to the start of the XIII Meeting on Ancient Drama at the European Cultural Center of Delphi (ECCD) last Friday. The arresting sculptures by Alexandra Athanassiades in her exhibition «Horses and Armor» explore the body’s fragility and durability. Metal on the verge of disintegration seems to morph into wood in the shape of limbs. Torsos of warriors – now intact, here battle-scarred but still indomitable, there ruined and rusted but still recognizable – reveal the vulnerability and strength of the body and of the notional person inside the armor. Invitation to muse The material itself, corroding and disintegrating, echoes the damage the warrior’s body has sustained. The artifacts – torso and armor, the thing itself and its representation – are an invitation to muse on the body and mutability. «Heroines in Ancient Drama,» a small but evocative exhibition of costumes once worn by great performers opened the following day. The bodies may be absent but the costumes, all from the collection of the National Theater of Greece, possess a curious power, as if still inhabited, the aura of the actors almost tangible. The explosive power of a body stripped yet totally dominant was the visual focus of the first performance, Heiner Mueller’s «Medea Material,» a monologue directed by Anatoly Vasiliev. In a production that paradoxically made half the audience fidget while riveting the other half to their seats, it wasn’t just the transparent phallus strapped to Medea’s naked body that compelled attention. Valerie Dreville gave a tour de force performance of a Medea with a mission who eventually crushes the phallus, releasing its flammable contents to burn two dolls and her costume. Does this reduce her to «a half-crazed children slayer» as Tony Harrison chides men for doing in his «Medea: A Sex-War Opera,» from which he read at Delphi? Kathimerini English Edition asked Vasiliev if he saw Medea as a woman unhinged by grief, who destroys not only her own children but also their father’s ability to procreate, or as something more. «She’s a woman who transcends her destiny,» said Vasiliev, who sees Medea’s slaughter of her children not as revenge but «a sacrificial act.» Director Hans-Guenther Heyme’s decision to make the chorus of Euripides’ «Electra» into a gaggle of giggling girls in bikinis was another choice that divided the spectators. Some stayed, others fled, many argued the toss the following day at the conference, in a rerun of the ongoing argument about just how much innovation is acceptable when staging the classics. Opinions were so divided – participants couldn’t even agree on what they disagreed about – that the post-play discussions were unusually productive. Love and strife Women in ancient drama is the theme of this year’s meeting, and artists, actors, directors and academics came at the subject from every conceivable direction. To mention just a few: Bettany Hughes examined the timeless appeal of Helen, that «incomparable mixture of Eros and Eris, love and strife» in her lively presentation «Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore.» Oliver Taplin, using vase painting to demonstrate that much of what we think we know about Medea is recent invention, argued that the reason ancient Greek drama has such power for reinvention is that it already «contains the seeds of change, the potential for different and rival versions.» For instance, in some earlier versions of the story it is not even Medea who kills the children. Judith Mossman looked at the problem of believing Cassandra whom «nobody ever believes except the audience» because they know their mythology. The symposium ended yesterday, and the meeting continues with a tribute commemorating the 80th anniversary of the first Delphic festivals, more papers, workshops and performances by young theater troupes. The final event takes the theme into the modern world with a two-day session, «The Tragic Heroine as a Symbol in Modern Society,» exploring the role of women in Western and Eastern society, jointly run with the Research Center for Gender Quality (KETHI). Well-attended as always, this year’s meeting attracted a larger number of young people, including students and teachers of theater studies, performers and directors. The ECCD deserves congratulations for maintaining its high standards and broadening its base to attract future standard-bearers for Delphi.

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