Letter from Epidaurus

To some people, Oedipus and Medea may as well be aftershave or perfume brands. To others, Oedipus is someone who married, as you remember, his own mother, and as for Medea, she was a beautiful, albeit awful, witch. For most Greek tragedy traditionalists, however, the dilution of the most magical properties in Euripides’ tragedy «Medea» (where the title character ends up killing her own children when her husband Jason cast her aside to marry the daughter of King Creon for financial and political gain), is, to say the least, annoying. Directed by a modernist par excellence, Stathis Livathinos, the Greek National Theater’s pointless production, featuring Russian-born Tamila Kulieva, was dead and breathed dead air. Moreover, it was precariously reminiscent of another recent «Medea» production. Directed by Deborah Warner and starring Fiona Shaw (Medea) and Jonathan Cake (Jason), this other «Medea» was presented at BAM’s (Brooklyn Academy of Music) festival earlier this year, and later in London. Irish actress Fiona Shaw received rave reviews in the West End for her Medea, which transformed this ancient revenge story into one of the most modern dramas in town. Is it a coincidence that the English-language «Medea» and the one in Epidaurus were so very much alike in spirit? There was a pool of blood in both plays. Both actresses, Shaw and Kulieva, were cast as anti-heroines, as women down on their luck. But it’s better for us to forget the shameful Epidaurus «Medea,» which was not just absurd; it was plain silly. Anyway, for the fervent theater-loving readers of this column, here is a reminder: One of the best-established Irish-born stage actresses of our time, Fiona Shaw, will be playing Arkadina in «The Seagull» by Anton Chekhov, which opens today (running until Saturday 23, August) at the Edinburgh International Festival. Peter Stein is the director and this is the first time the prominent German director has worked with an English-speaking cast. It’s one of the rare performances worth seeing this summer – if you can make it. By the way, since we are speaking of Medea, this sexually charged, psychologically complex everywoman, some people exist (i.e. a Homer Thrace, a naive American amateur philosopher from Middletown, Connecticut, alias director-screenwriter Jules Dassin) who, no doubt in jest, have maintained that Medea never murdered her children. No. In Dassin’s gem «Never on a Sunday» (1960), Ilia (Melina Mercouri), an independent hooker and a fervent tragedy fan as well, keeps insisting throughout the film that since Medea bows after the performance holding her children by the hand, she could not have possibly murdered them. Ilia keeps maintaining that the Greek tragedies somehow all have a happy ending, and that «at the end, everyone goes to the beach to have a good time.» In the musical «Ilia Darling» made after the film – it opened on April 11, 1967 at the Mark Hellinger Theater on Broadway – there was a very funny parody of «Medea» titled «The Medea Tango» (music by Manos Hadjidakis). This pearl of a film, with black-and-white cinematography, is set in the Greek port of Piraeus and the cast is almost entirely Greek. The bouzouki theme song and music and Oscar-winning best song for «Never on Sunday» by Manos Hadjidakis – first introduced to us by Ilia’s little phonograph – are irresistible. Dassin captures the essence of the devotion of the Greeks to the sea and to seafaring vessels. The opening scene reveals Mercouri ready for her daily swim, watched admiringly by fisherman and port police. This «Greek-American film classic» does a good job of exploiting the myth of the happy prostitute. Ilia prefers to see her many admirer-clients as her friends rather than exploiters. (Note the famous episode of Theodote, the ancient Greek courtesan, on meeting Socrates, when she stated to the philosopher, «If someone who has become my friend wants to benefit me…») One wonders if public attitudes have changed since those vigorous days? Can an independent prostitute of our modern times choose – as Ilia did – her own clientele? (In Aristophanes’ «Plutus» we find this: «They do say those Corinthian hetaeras pay no attention whatsoever when a man without means tries to seduce them, but if a rich man comes along they bend over and present themselves in no time at all.») This is an important point: Prostitution is legal in modern Greece and registered prostitutes undergo regular health checks and pay social security. Another fact: The sexual attitudes of any given society are the result of political decisions. Good. Now, it would be interesting to observe how Ilia («Darling») or the Colchian (they were fierce people) Medea would react to that recent joint statement from those maternally minded, gender equality ministers of Northern European countries who have expressed their «abhorrence» at the regulation of illegal brothels in Athens for next year’s Olympic Games. (Athens’s mayor, Dora Bakoyianni, denied the charge, saying she was only trying to regulate illegal brothels by making them apply for licenses.) And how would Ilia and her colleagues – who always took advantage of a massive boom in trade every time the US Sixth Fleet anchored in Piraeus – act in response? Or an even more essential question: Could it be morally permissible to enforce morality as such in the EU? Doesn’t Sweden’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Gender Equality Margareta Winberg, who, in a Medea-like fury, wrote the letter and encouraged the other countries to sign, know that state laws in the field of moral legislation – and not only in Greece – are seldom invoked in practice? «We hope we will manage to stop the expansion of brothels, but also to start a discussion on whether this is in line with Olympic ideals [themselves ill-defined] to use women and girls in this way,» she said.