play thirty four: hippolytus

Phaedra, please.
Phaedra, please.

Author: Euripides

Published: 428BC

Translator: Anne Carson

Synopsis: Aphrodite is furious for Hippolytus’ refusal of her power and his avowal of chastity to the goddess Artemis. She curses him by forcing his stepmother, Phaedra, to fall in love with him. Phaedra wishes to kill herself to be released from this illicit burden but her nurse is convinced she may swear Hippolytus to secrecy and make him understand. She fails, and Phaedra kills herself when she overhears the disgust of her stepson. She leaves a note claiming to have been raped by Hippolytus so that he may not reveal her desire to his father Theseus. Theseus finds the note and banishes his son, calling on his father Poseidon to kill him. Poseidon does so by calling out a sea monster to frighten Hippolytus’ horses and drag him to his death. Hippolytus’ dying body is brought to Theseus and Artemis appears to reveal Aphrodite’s trick. Theseus seeks his son’s forgiveness as he dies in his arms.

What moved me: What I love about this work is the mortality of its gods. Aphrodite is the queen of sass and Artemis might be a frosty librarian and both are equally governed by human desires. They experience the desire for power over others just as we do and are subject to the pettiness of rivalry, the pangs of longing, and the sweetness and bitterness of grief.

play twenty seven: cleansed


Author: Sarah Kane

Published: 1998

Synopsis: this is the first Kane that I have read and I find it difficult to articulate the explosion of images that it created within me. I’m going to fall back upon Mark Ravenhill’s fantastic Guardian article about his relationship with her as a writer, in which he said the following about Cleansed.

“[It] had been triggered in Kane’s imagination after reading Roland Barthes’s line that “being in love was like being in Auschwitz”. She had found his comparison morally repugnant but discovered that it stayed with her, and decided to write a play that explored her reactions to the idea. Cleansed draws a group of characters – a twin brother and sister, a gay couple, a peepshow dancer – into a concentration camp, overseen by the figure of Tinker, who is part Prospero, part Nazi commandant.”

I will note, though, that because of my understanding of Kane’s life I presumed that the framework was a psychiatric institution and that Tinker was the sadistic head doctor. I guess the beauty of theatre is that both of these understandings can rub shoulders comfortably.

What moved me: I have never read anything like this. I’ve never encountered a work that makes the idea of taboo seem superficial and unimportant. I’ve never read a text in which its theatricality exists on such a challenging scale: make a field of daffodils appear, or a giant sunflower; perform backyard transsexual surgery; have an army of rats carry human limbs offstage. What a dark dream to have to deliver.

play eight: speaking in tongues

Author: Andrew Bovell

Published: 1996

Synopsis: “Two couples set out to betray their partners…

A lover returns from the past and a husband doesn’t answer the phone… A woman disappears and a neighbour is the prime suspect… Contracts are broken between intimates and powerful bonds are formed between strangers.

In Andrew Bovell’s masterfully interconnected polyphony, an evocative mystery unravels at the same time as a devastating tale of disconnection between individuals, partners and communities.” (Taken from Australian Plays, which can be accessed here.)

What moved me: what moved me is the reason I cannot choose an image for this play. It is a polyphony: a simultaneous combination of a number of parts, each forming their own melody whilst also harmonising with each other. The sensation of reading this play, or listening to this play, is of being enmeshed in a musical tapestry in which you must choose a strand for your ears to pay attention to whilst you are surrounded by the throb of the weave.

play seven: don juan comes back from the war

Stormtroopers Advancing Under Gas, Otto Dix, 1924
Stormtroopers Advancing Under Gas, Otto Dix, 1924

Author: Ödön von Horváth

Published: 1938

Synopsis: Don Juan returns from the Great War in search of his jilted fiancee. In this period of massive inflation and despair he is the only man left alive. The world now revolves around women, who cannot help but revolve around him. Contracting influenza, his journey to the house of his fiancee’s grandmother (where he believes she is staying) is delayed long enough for his reformed nature to gradually deteriorate with each new affair. He is constantly looking for a reminder of his ideal beloved. With his health steadily declining, his eventual arrival is met with the grandmother’s triumphant news that her granddaughter died of heartache in 1916. He visits her grave and sits down in the snow to die beside her. His ideal may have always only existed in death.

What moved me: the way Don Juan tries to love a part of every woman he encounters in order to reconstruct his ideal love, just as every woman tries to recreate him in the image of the men they’ve lost. It creates a terrible melancholy and the sense that he is Frankenstein trying to make his own bride in a world where all values have been dislocated.