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 thirty two: anne carson on the importance of tragedy

Today was my third reading of Hekabe (Euripides; school assignment). Rather than submitting you to another report on it here is the first page of Anne Carson’s introduction of ‘Grief Lessons’. 

Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief. Ask a headhunter why he cuts off human heads. He’ll say that rage impels him and rage is born of grief. The act of severing and tossing away the victim’s head enables him to throw away the anger of all his bereavements. Perhaps you think this does not apply to you. Yet you recall the day your wife, driving you to your mother’s funeral, turned left instead of right at the intersection and you had to scream at her so loud other drivers turned to look. When you tore off her head and threw it out the window they nodded, changed gears, drove away.

Grief and rage – you need to contain that, to put a frame around it, where it can play itself out without you or your kin having to die. There is a theory that watching unbearable stories about other people lost in rage and grief is good for you – may cleanse you of your darkness. Do you want to go down to the pits of yourself all alone? Not much. What if an actor could do it for you? Isn’t that why they are called actors? They act for you. You sacrifice them to action. And this sacrifice is a mode of deepest intimacy of you with your own life. Within it you watch [yourself] act out the present or possible organisation of your nature. You can be aware of your own awareness of this nature as you never are at the moment of experience. The actor, by reiterating you, sacrifices a moment of his own life in order to give you a story of yours.

Anne Carson, “Grief Lessons: Four Plays – Euripides”, New York: New York Review of Books, 7.

play thirty one: babyteeth

Milla and Moses.
Milla and Moses.

Author: Rita Kalnejais

Published: 2012

Synopsis: Teenage Milla is dying of cancer when she strikes up a friendship at Central Train Station with Moses, a junkie who helps stop her nose bleed. Their flowering relationship is watched with apprehension by her parents Anna and Henry, who have their own problems with substance abuse. Ultimately, he can pose no great threat in these final months, and we watch as those in Milla’s orbit try to deal with her imminent absence.

What moved me: strangely, in this deeply moving work it was the food that moved me most. Attention is drawn to the figs ripening on the windowsill so we notice that time is running out. There is a moment where Anna – this highly-strung, very-lost mother – chokes on sausage rind, and another where she peels a boiled egg very carefully before smashing it into her mouth whole. There’s something about the irrationality of grief – the arbitrariness of what it throws into relief – that strikes a chord with these brightly-lit moments.

play thirty: brothers wreck

The fantastic Ms Alberts.
The fantastic Ms Alberts.

Author: Jada Alberts

Published: 2014

Synopsis: A Darwin family try to deal with their grief as it ripples out from the most recent death in their community. Young Ruben, Joe, and Jarrod had a good thing going with their patched up fishing boat, the Front Yard Challenge. Disaster strikes even harder, then, when Joe decides to kill himself. Ruben is unable to shake his sense of responsibility for Joe’s decision and it takes a great coming together of his family to not let his grief chew him and spit him out as nothing but sad bones.

What moved me: I heard Chris Mead speak recently about the importance of understanding dramaturgy more dynamically than we currently do – that we should think of it as the membrane of a living organism rather than as a slab of meat that can be sectioned into plot, character, themes, etc.

Reading ‘Brothers Wreck’ immediately brought this image of an organism to mind. This play is a living, breathing beast, a working muscle pumping blood that is covered in a fine membrane of grief, grief which also shoots its roots (or tentacles) down into the beast itself. I had to wrestle with this text. I know Darwin – the sticky air, and the people who have had to deal with death every day of their lives. As I read, I cried, in sadness but also in wonder at how alive it was, at its vitality, at its youth and its sad-bone-weariness. Alberts made the strength of the “skin-ship system” of the play beat as steady as a heart and made me long to be part of something with such a close weave.

play twenty one: cat on a hot tin roof

What a pair.
What a pair.

Author: Tennessee Williams

Published: 1955

Synopsis: A family sweats around the unspoken in a plantation home in the Mississippi Delta. It’s Big Daddy’s birthday and he’s been given false hope about his terminal illness, his youngest son Brick is drinking himself to death, Brick’s wife Maggie is doing her best to make what she can of a loveless marriage, and the whole family are festering over who will inherit.

What moved me: like Arthur Miller, I think the full strength of Williams’ genius can be found in the clarity and depth of his stage directions.

BRICK [stopping short downstage as if backed to a wall]: ‘Not right’?

BIG DADDY: Not, well, exactly normal in your friendship with –

BRICK: They suggested that, too? I thought that was Maggie’s suggestion.

[Brick’s detachment is at last broken through. His heart is accelerated; his forehead sweat-beaded; his breath becomes more rapid and his voice hoarse. The thing they’re discussing, timidly and painfully on the side of Big Daddy, fiercely, violently on Brick’s side, is the inadmissible thing that Skipper died to disavow between them. The fact that if it existed it had to be disavowed to ‘keep face’ in the world they lived in, may be at the heart of the ‘mendacity’ that Brick drinks to kill his disgust with. It may be the root of his collapse. Or maybe it is only a single manifestation of it, not even the most important. The bird that I hope to catch in the net of this play is not the solution of one man’s psychological problem. I’m trying to catch the true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent – fiercely charged! – interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis. Some mystery should be left in the revelation of character in a play, just as a great deal of mystery is always left in the revelation of character in life, even in one’s own character to himself. This does not absolve the playwright of his duty to observe and probe as clearly and deeply as he legitimately can: but it should steer him away from ‘pat’ conclusions, facile definitions which make a play just a play, not a snare for the truth of human experience. […] ]

BIG MAMA [terrified, rising]: Is there? Something? Something that I? Don’t – Know?

[In these few words, this startled, very soft, question, Big Mama reviews the history of her forty-five years with Big Daddy, her great, almost embarassingly true-hearted and simple-minded devotion to Big Daddy, who must have had something Brick has, who made himself loved so much by the ‘simple expedient’ of not loving enough to disturb his charming detachment, also once couple, like Brick’s, with virile beauty.

Big Mama has a dignity at this moment: she almost stops being fat.]