play eighteen: phaedra

Phaedra (1880) by Alexandre Cabanel
Phaedra (1880) by Alexandre Cabanel

Author: Racine

Translator: John Cairncross

Published: 1677

Synopsis: Phaedra, wife of King Theseus of Athens and granddaughter of Zeus, has fallen in love with her stepson Hippolytus, the son of Theseus and Amazon Hippolyta. She is near death in her anguish for the impossible situation, as well as for Hippolytus’ infamous virtue and his consistent spurning of all women. Unbeknownst to her, Hippolytus has fallen in love with Aricia, the only survivor of the royal family vanquished by Theseus. The news that Theseus has vanished to the underworld spurs Phaedra to confess her love, to the horror of her stepson. However, Theseus is in fact still alive and Phaedra, at the suggestion of her nurse, Oenone, accuses Hippolytus of forcing himself upon her. Theseus asks Neptune to avenge his wife, for he himself is unable to kill his own son. As Hippolytus flees, a sea-monster appears from the depths of the ocean to frighten the young man’s horses, who drag him to his death. Theseus realises his mistake too late, as Phaedra confesses her guilt before dying from the poison she has imbibed.

What moved me: Phaedra. This difficult, wild-blooded woman who is literally consumed by her own desires. There is little about her that is redeeming. Her jealousy is ugly, as is her desire to save face, and yet there is a tarnished nobility to the steadfastedness of her love. Of course, one version of this story is that the wrath of the spurned Aphrodite condemned Hippolytus to be loved by the next woman who saw him, so Phaedra had no control in this unrolling of her fate. However, Racine’s treatment is much more complicated, much more focused on the fragility of the human heart and its refusal to be governed. To the end, Phaedra loves, and it consumes like wildfire.

play ten: thyestes

Tantalus
‘Tantalus’ [the progenitor of the House of Atreus] by Gioacchino Assereto (circa 1640s)

Author: Seneca

Translation: Caryl Churchill

Date: c.62 CE

Synopsis: Atreus is king of Mycenae and is intent on revenge against his brother Thyestes. Sons of Pelops, they were destined to take turns ruling the country and keeping the symbol of power, a ram with a golden fleece. However, while Atreus was king, Thyestes seduced his wife and together they stole the ram. Civil war ensued. Now Atreus is king again whilst Thyestes and his three sons are in exile. He lures his brother and nephews to his kingdom on the promise of peace and the offer of sharing his crown. Unbeknownst to Thyestes, Atreus murders the boys and cooks them (save their heads, hands, and feet) to serve to their father for the celebration feast. Revenge is realised when he reveals to the sated Thyestes the fate of his young sons.

What moved me: the economy of Churchill’s version has stripped back the slight floridness usually associated in my mind with much translation of classical tragedy. She exposes a perfectly-working muscle. Blunt. Fast. There is little hope of redemption. Seneca’s decision to end the play with the rotten Atreus, instead of the Chorus, is no accident.

An example of this bareness:

FURY: […]

Then there’ll be nothing

anger thinks forbidden,

brother terrifies

brother, father sons and

sons fathers, children’s

deaths are vile and their births

even worse. A wife

destroys her husband,

wars cross the sea to Troy,

the earth is watered with

blood and great leaders

are defeated by lust.

Rape’s a joke and love and

laws both fade away.

The sky’s not exempt. Why

are the stars shining?

do their flames still owe the

world glory? Let night

be something else. Let day

fall out of the sky.

So stir up your gods, call

hatred, carnage and

funerals, and fill the

whole house with Tantalus.

(Caryl Churchill, 1995)