by Manuel Fernandes
University of California, San Diego
409 Studio Theatre
Reviewed by Marianne McDonald
Department of Theatre
University of California at San Diego
Hippolyta is based on Euripides' Hippolytus. Euripides' first version of this play was unpopular because it showed a brazen Phaedra approaching her step-son with lewd suggestions (called Hippolytus Kalyptomenos, because he covered himself in horror in response to her advances). His second version, the one that has survived, shows a modest Phaedra who tries to overcome her passion for her stepson. A short review of the plot may help us with our comparison. In this version Phaedra is undone by her own maid, who oversteps her duty by acting as a go-between: she tells Hippolytus about Phaedra's unlawful passion. This passion was unlawful because she was married to Theseus, Hippolytus' father by the deceased Amazon Hippolyta. Hippolytus rejects Phaedra, who, to save her modesty (and to secure an inheritance for her young son) kills herself and accuses Hippolytus of rape in a letter she leaves for her husband. Theseus has been away on various adventures, and there is a possibility that he is dead (Racine in his reworking has Theseus' death reported to Phaedra). But he returns, and curses his son after reading the accusatory letter. Poseidon, Theseus' father, carries out the curse, sending a bull from the sea to frighten Hippolytus' horses. Hippolytus is killed as he is dragged by the reins of his chariot in which he is entangled. Hence the manner of his death explains his name, he who is 'destroyed by horses.'
Aphrodite began the play by saying that she was going to punish Hippolytus for ignoring her. Artemis, his patron goddess, appears and tells Theseus the truth, that his son is innocent and that Phaedra was lying. Theseus begs his son for forgiveness, and it is given. In Euripides it is more often the humans who forgive than the gods.
Hippolyta was ably directed by W. Miller Hall. Manuel Fernandes in his Hippolyta has done a modern reading of this powerful text that deals with passion and its expression and suppression. The set was simple, just a chair when needed. Our minds supplied the props. The costumes put this family in lower middle class America. In Fernandes' play, a daughter named Hippolyta is attached to her deceased father: she remembers him with great love. Her mother remarries, but her stepfather seems even more interested in her. These characters are unnamed, simply called 'mother' and 'stepfather.' He continually touches her when he sees her, and spends hours looking at her while she is sleeping. She asks him to stop, but he presses his suit, and asks her to make love with him, just once, and this will cure him of his passion. She refuses him in horror. She tells her mother about his advances, but she does not believe Hippolyta. After Hippolyta screams as her stepfather tries to rape her, he leaves, but sends a letter. He says he left because of Hippolyta's continual advances. He thinks she is a nice girl, 'but she has problems.' The mother tells Hippolyta to leave the house and never return. Hippolyta finds a gun and uses it 'to join her deceased father.' The audience hears a gunshot as Hippolyta spirals to the floor. Her mother screams as she intuits her daughter's death. She is left to suffer with what she realizes is her mistake, a fatal mistake.
This shows that myths are as vital now as they ever were. This story tells us about child abuse, which is so common, and yet so rarely dealt with effectively. The child is often molested by a family member, or by a close friend of the family. Parents often refuse to believe what they cannot accept. It is hard to accuse the other parent, relative, or friend of an offensive crime and the child is then the one who suffers. The mother in this play is to blame for not protecting her child, but her response is understandable, and all too tragically frequent.
Fernandes has eliminated the gods, and there is no nurse as a go- between: his play shows a blatant attempt at seduction, which thus resembles Euripides' original version. No one tells the mother the truth, as Artemis did Theseus. The mother comes around out of her own love and need for Hippolyta. Each in this modern play do not think about others until it is too late. Euripides' Phaedra at least was concerned for her child and her reputation, and the nurse was concerned for Phaedra. This is a play which is brought up to modern times, with its secularity and need for explicitness. Cacoyannis followed the same path in his films of Euripides' plays, Electra (1961), The Trojan Women (1971) and Iphigenia (1976). The gods are eliminated, and what is suggested or described in the text is enacted on the screen. We lose a certain universalizing quality, and Aristotle's spoudaion becomes a bit more everyday. Perhaps this underlines us being in an age of the individual and the particular.
What about the major opposition that Aphrodite and Artemis symbolize? What about the fanatic Hippolytus, for whom we have little sympathy until he forgives his father Hippolytus' fanaticism is mirrored in Hippolyta's overattachment to her father. She claims, 'And as they put my father into the ground, I knew that I would never love any man as much as I loved him. I couldn't love any man as much.' Here we do not have an Hippolytus who has renounced sexuality in his worship of Artemis and a life of sport. But we do have some of the id e fixe that Hippolytus clung to, being wrapped up in his own self-righteousness, as both Phaedra and Theseus note. Phaedra in her last speech says that at last Hippolytus will learn sophrosyn, or moderate self-restraint, the very virtue he seems to claim for himself (Hipp.731). Hippolyta in this play seems intolerant of her mother finding a new love so soon after her father's death. She is a little like Electra in both her accusations against her mother and her attachment to her father.
Fernandes' play enlists our sympathy for Hippolyta more than Euripides did for Hippolytus. Yet this play did something very valuable for me. I dismissed Hippolytus as a biased prig, and had inordinate sympathy for Phaedra, doubly so because Aphrodite admits that she is an innocent victim (euklees men, all' omos appolutai, Hipp. 47). But he is killed by his father's curse, hardly a punishment justified by his actions. He is more 'sinned against than sinning.' One also has to modify sympathy for Medea at the point that she kills the children in response to Jason's marrying another woman. Euripides shows us people who go too far, both victims and perpetrators of violent passion.
By seeing Fernandes' play, I could sympathize more with Hippolytus. Hippolyta is a clear victim, but she goes too far, and this is also in line with Euripides' heroines. She does not return to her mother, and in response to one act of rage, which the mother regretted shortly after, Hippolyta kills herself. This is different from Hippolytus who does not commit suicide. The emotional movement of Fernandes' play is the reverse of Euripides'. In Euripides we find Hippolytus disagreeable at the beginning (we understand Aphrodite's complaints), but we develop sympathy towards the end, after he has been unjustly killed and after he forgives his father. Hippolyta is more to be pitied when she is being victimized by her stepfather, but if we put her suicide in perspective it is an act of cruelty against her mother. She is representative of many teenagers who in their self-righteousness act totally heedless of other's feelings. Shakespeare provides the parallel in the suicides of Romeo and Juliet, leaving their parents bereft and guilty. In this case Hippolyta has condemned her mother to a living death. Euripides' Theseus condemned himself.
The differences between the two plays let us understand the earlier model. They show how the earlier myth can be adapted for modern times. A small quibble: I missed the sympathy that we felt for Phaedra in the original. The stepfather is pure evil. He is not a tragic figure, but is comparable to villains like Aegisthus, or Odysseus in Philoctetes, or Agamemnon and Menelaus in Ajax, or Menelaus in Orestes that Aristotle faults for his evil. Tragic figures are best in their combination of good and evil. Nevertheless this play is a powerful realization of the original myth, inverted to describe modern tragedies: child abuse, the emotional excesses of teenagers, the miscommunications between parent and child. Then when we think about it, we realize that this is also what Euripides did. Theseus might have had the same reservations about Hippolytus asking for his first chariot that we do about our children asking for their first car. Euripides' play was about a teenager who knew it all, and showed what happened when ignorance escalated. The misunderstanding on the mother's part is also, obviously, not to be minimized.
This myth shows us how destructive lies can be. It also shows how difficult it is to know the truth, particularly if one is not willing to search. But if one does not search for the truth, the outcome can be tragic, as indeed it is here. This is a parable for our time. (It can be applied to politics also, and countries that do horrible things, but because they are our allies, we do not blame them.)
Greek tragedy speaks to us and begs us to listen and question what we see every day. As Plato said, the unexamined life is not worth living. And Greek tragedy makes every day valuable, because it forces us to see what we would rather not see, but what we need to see; perhaps if we see it on the stage we can avoid seeing it in our own lives. If it happens in our own lives, and then we see it on stage, perhaps the second suffering can teach us, if nothing else, how to live with inexpressible pain.
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University of California, San Diego