Mother Knows Best: Greek Tragedy in London

Euripides Phoenician Women
Tranlsated by David Thomson
Directed by Katie Mitchell
Performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company
The Pit
Barbican Centre

Reviewed by Marianne McDonald
University of California, San Diego

The Royal Shakespeare company performed Euripides' Phoenician Women in the Barbican Theatre in London this June and July under the direction of Katie Mitchell. The woman's touch showed: she brought out the heroism of the women in this play. Euripides makes women, children, and slaves the new heroes. Instead of the heroic Oedipus that we find in Sophocles, in the Phoenician Women we find an Oedipus dragging on a meaningless life after he has discovered the terrible truth that he has murdered his father and married his mother, besides having had children with her. Euripides reviews the entire tragic history in this play, and focuses on the battle between the sons, Eteocles and Polynices, cursed by Oedipus.

The brothers were supposed to divide the rule of Thebes between them, but Eteocles refused to relinquish power at the end of his first year on the throne. Polynices went to Argos and married the daughter of the king who supported his claim to the throne of Thebes, and backed him with an army. Euripides, the master of rhetoric, has the two sons argue in front of their mother before the battle. Polynices tells his mother first about the sufferings of exile, the worst of which is never to be able to speak freely: one is subject to others. Eteocles appears and says that "might makes right" He has power, and he says anyone would be mad to relinquish it. Polynices says he has returned to claim his rightful inheritance, and he speaks of wealth, and how without it one lacks friends. Jocasta, their mother, becomes the mediator and answers both in turn. To Eteocles she says that equality is more sacred than power, and certainly safer. She defends Greek democracy. She also tells Eteocles that he should share his power with his brother as was first agreed. She turns to Polynices and says that wealth is only a transient thing: everyone must return it to God when one dies. It is certainly no justification for bringing civil war to one's native land. Wealth and power are not worth a human life. She speaks sense to her sons, but like Medea, their passion is stronger than their reason, and they proceed to battle.

Both are killed, but the victory belongs to Thebes. Menoeceus, Creon's son, bravely sacrifices himself, following an oracle which demanded his death in exchange for the city's survival. Creon here is not the honorable, if mistaken, Creon of the Antigone. He says that he would rather save his son's life than sacrifice it for the country, but his son takes his heroism in his own hands and shows that a child is more a hero than the traditional adult male. Jocasta goes to the battlefield with Antigone, but is unable to stop her sons from killing each other. She takes her life, and this tragic scene is dramatically recounted in a messenger speech, of which Euripides was the master.
The play continues and reveals the weakness of interpolations by the tacked-on ending. It is as if someone wanted the Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus included, as Antigone decides to accompany her weak and complaining father into exile, as well as bury her brother.

In spite of the textual weaknesses of the play, this company gave a memorable and convincing performance. The set was simple in a theatre in the round with the simplest of props. There were icons of three goddesses with both arms raised, like the mother goddesses of Crete, hung on the wall behind with votive candles in front of them. So all action took place before these goddesses.
The chorus of Phoenician women sent as an offering to Delphi, but delayed in Thebes because of the war, was comprised of both men and women, whose number varied from eleven to fifteen as major characters joined and left them. They performed dances which stressed the ritual aspect of the drama. They stomped so that their feet sounded like drums. At times they used language which was purposely suggestive of Asia Minor, Arabic or Hebrew, but of no recognizable origin. Syllables were used like instruments, and added to the exciting music and percussion for the dance.

The acting was superb and Jocasta and Antigone took the prize not only for heroism but for emotive expertise. The two actors playing the fighting brothers conveyed their characters with the destructive passion required. Oedipus wailed, Creon made his reasonable self-serving arguments, and an aged Tiresias spoke the dire truths that signified death and disaster for all. But the women showed heroism, and illustrated that a life lived for the sake of the common good and for ideals was the life worth living.

Marianne McDonald
University of California, San Diego