Reviewed by Caterina Barone
Universita di Padova
Dipartimento di Scienze dell' Antichita
Piazza Capitaniato, 7
Franz Grillparzer's Medea (1820) is the third part of The Golden Fleece, a trilogy dedicated to the myth of the Argonauts. It follows The Host (1818) and The Argonauts (1819). The three works trace a path from the events in Colchis prior to the taking of the fleece all the way through the tragic epilogue of Medea's sacrifice of her own sons as revenge upon her treacherous husband.
Grillparzer reconstructs the final act of the love between Medea and Jason step by step, starting from Creon's welcome to them on their arrival in Greece. This nineteenth-century version of Euripides' play shows the romantic feeling characteristic of pre-Ibsen dramatic works; Grillparzer is careful to sound out every psychological nuance of his characters. He brings out Medea's love for her husband and desire to please him, and emphasizes the anxiety caused by total, absolute love when it is obstructed by a world completely different from the one where Medea has grown up.
Grillparzer's Medea is less important for her magic than for her 'alien' and 'barbaric' qualities, which set her apart from the civilized world she is living in. Her efforts to adapt herself to the Occidental outlook are all in vain. She incurs Creon's prejudice from the beginning, when he refuses to receive her because he fears her magic. When he turns her out he describes her as '...the one whom hell has spewed forth.' Yet Grillparzer's Medea is not as guilty as her more familiar mythological counterpart. She does not kill her brother to aid in her lover's flight; instead Absyrtus commits suicide so as to avoid becoming a hostage. There is even a possibility that she is not responsible for the death of Pelias. Creon himself puts the box containing the Golden Fleece and the deadly instruments of her magic into her hands; Medea had hidden it in an attempt to break with the past. Less cunning than the Euripidean original, Grillparzer's Medea nonetheless feels sincere passion and sorrow. Even the decision to kill her sons is an extreme choice of love, a means to save them from inevitable unhappiness as well as of revenge against her husband.
Grillparzer's Jason is a hero in decline, an egocentric man without any kind of morality. His actions, so far from being magnanimous, are actually mean. The ideals, ambitions, and adventurous deeds of his youth have disappeared, and he finds in his past--personified by Medea--an obstacle to the realization of his current desire for a 'middle class' peace based on welfare and the kind of false glory and reassurance which a devoted bride like Creusa might provide him.
Creon's daughter, on the other hand, is a dignified, sensible young woman who understands her rival's sorrow at her forced separation from her sons. Creusa tries to ease Medea's adaptation while rebelling against the city's integrationism, which rejects Medea without pity.
Garella's direction focuses on the conflict between immigrants and society and he succeeds in showing, without rhetoric, the concrete problems in the assimilation of a foreigner into a new social reality, when differences in culture and tradition can create a social outcast. The performance opens with the play's concluding scene. Medea has triumphed painfully over her husband, recognizes her guilt, and is willing to make a more courageous expiation than Jason will. She knows that fame and happiness are only the shadows of a dream. (In 1834 Grillparzer based The Dream, a Life on this theme, inspired by Calderon de la Barca.)
Both the prologue, written by Garella to sum up the previous episodes of The Golden Fleece, and the first act of the tragedy take place in a suggestive atmosphere of folk and Oriental songs, with everything wrapped in a darkness only feebly lightened by the glittering sun in the background. On the other hand, a vivid light fills the stage--a bare raked platform cut by three cracks and covered by a rectangular sheet--during the second act, which takes place in the royal palace. The director wishes to underline the 'chromatic' difference between the Greek world and the barbarian world, follwing Euripides' description of 'the magic land of Colchydes....there the day is night and th enight is horror' (451). (This is in direct contradiction to Pasolini's vision of a bright, sunny Colchis and a dark Greece.)
The linguistic differentiations of the German version were lost in translation. In Grillparzer's original the Greeks use the iambus, the poetic structure of classical Germanic tragedy, while the barbarians speak in free verse. Medea, divided between two worlds, alternates iambics and irregular lines. To compensate, the performance used costumes to underline the cultural differences: Medea wore a Berber dress complete with chador to demonstrate both her origins and her Oriental devotion to her husband. In her attempt to integrate herself into Corinthian life, she wears Occidental dresses but they make her uneasy and she tears them off when she is rejected by her hosts and repudiated by Jason.
Although there is something to be said for this interpretation (Pasolini, too, had his Medea throw her old dresses and jewels away when she arrived in Greece), the staging is made less effective by the extravagance and specificity of the costumes. In the last scenes Medea is dressed only in a black petticoat, which creates an effect inappropriate to the character. And while Ottavia Piccolo, despite some uninspired moments, is believable enough as a middle- class, betrayed Medea, Graziano Piazza is less convincing as Jason, shouting too much and failing to capture the character's progressive degeneration. The supporting performances, however, deserve positive recognition.
This production will be playing at the Teatro Studio in Milan from 25 January through 5 Februrary.
Universita di Padova
(Caterina Barone has just completed a translation and introduction to Euripides' Helen for publication this year.)