Mother as Monster: A Sicilian Medea

Euripides' Medea
translated by Maria Grazia Ciani
directed by Mario Missiroli
Summer 1996

Reviewed by Marianne McDonald
University of California, San Diego

The National Institute of Ancient Drama performed this spring Euripides' Medea in the ancient Greek theatre of Syracuse in Sicily. Professor Umberto Albini masterfully directs this institute and selects outstanding productions each year that provide excitement for the international visitors that flock to Sicily to see outstanding Italian productions of ancient drama.

The well-known and talented Italian actress Valeria Moriconi plays the passionate, barbaric Medea, who exacts a horrible vengeance and triumph over Jason by killing the children she bore him as well as the princess of Corinth for whom he had abandoned her. In Corinth Medea was a stranger, but respected for her knowledge, albeit feared. Jason should have learned to be afraid. When a person murders out of passion, they can murder again, and Medea had murdered her own brother to help Jason escape Colchis after stealing the Golden Fleece.

There are different versions of the myth, but it is possible that Euripides was the first to devise this ending in which Medea intentionally kills the children, seeing it as the best way to torture Jason for the rest of his life. Euripides builds up suspense as character after character mentions children: the nurse; the tutor; Medea; Jason; Creon who expresses concern for his daughter; and Aegeus who has just consulted an oracle about his own childlessness.

Moriconi, with a voice that plumbs the depths of Hades, delivers a performance one can never forget. She emerges from a pit in the middle of the stage, as ghosts and chthonic deities may have done in Greek tragedy, and certainly did in Roman plays. We see the back of Medea first with her long black furry hair which is as much a mane as a head of hair. We wonder at first if this is some nightmarish animal crawling out of its cave to attack everyone.

Her modulation varies from the angelic (with her children) to the infernal (with Jason). She is to be taken seriously. Only Medea can control Medea, and we learn from her famous monologue at 1019-80 that she cannot control herself: 'My passion is stronger than my reason.'
What is horrible about Medea is that she is sane and can reflect about her condition before she implements her passion so effectively. She picks the worst revenge possible, destroying Jason's future along with his past. She predicts Jason's future as she sits safely in her dragon-drawn chariot at the end of the play, in the place where most gods and goddesses appear to make pronouncements ex machina. She foretells that Jason will die ignominiously, struck on his head by a plank from the Argo, the ship that saw his heroism.

Euripides shows us Jason as sophist with variable truths, attacking Medea and her fixed truth; Medea wins morally and intellectually until she oversteps her own humanity by committing the most loathsome crime a wife and mother can: killing her own children. She is every straying husband's nightmare, and Moriconi is this times a thousand. Her feminine charms are not what impress us, but rather the intensity of her suffering, anger and hatred. She goes into the depths of her soul and demons emerge from her mouth in her unearthly, unholy words. As Medusa's stare turns a man to stone, so can this woman's voice which has to be heard to be believed. Here is anguish and anger distilled to make an unbearable brew.

As Medea is told of the princess' death with her father the king, she lounges beneath one of the many olive trees dotting the set, and at times she seems to doze in a languorous sleep. In back there is a gigantic circle perpendicular to the circular stage surrounded by huge stones which seem like the magical prehistoric megaliths at Newgrange or Stonehenge. The disk resembles the Medea's grandfather sun; her aunt was Circe. She had powerful allies in high and low places. Medea descends into the pit to slay her children. We see her next triumphantly hurling taunts from her chariot which flies out of the center of the gleaming bronze disk. The chthonic Medea has joined the Olympians.

We find ourselves caught in the old heroic code: Help your friends and harm your enemies. Bernard Knox in his article on Medea's heroism shows how she reincarnates the Sophoclean hero, who in turn can be traced to Homer. Now it is a woman who wins honor by exacting and paying the worst price a parent can pay: the death of children. Euripides' perversion of the heroic code is made all too human by this brilliant actress. Our thanks are due to Sicily for making Medea live once again for modern times in an ancient setting.

Marianne McDonald
University of California, San Diego