“How Far the Fall: A Lyric Essay on Medea in 20 Acts” by Catherine Theis

Image by Caleb Caldwell / @calebcaldwell

“Drama is the most social of literary forms. It exists fully only by virtue of its public performance.”

—George Steiner, The Death of Tragedy1

“The truth is that in this play Medea herself is the dea ex machinâ.”

—Gilbert Murray2

I ask my ex-boyfriend to come with me to see Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles at the Getty Villa. He declines. When I ask my friend Shelley to come with me, she declines as well. She says she never attends any Shakespeare or classical Greek plays because she’s been burned in the past. “I’ve been burned too many times with live theatre myself!” is what my ex-boyfriend says when I tell him the story. I plan on asking another friend, but then get distracted and completely forget about getting tickets altogether. Then at a Hollywood Hills dinner party, a couple mentions how wonderful Mojada is. So when my ex-boyfriend (the television writer) turns to me and says, “Let’s get tickets. Shouldn’t we go?” I almost want to to tell him he’s lost his chance. That I’ve already invited my other boyfriend.

On the subject of tragedy, Jonathan Dollimore writes, “. . .we are most ourselves when we are this destructive, dangerous and suffering state of freedom, violating the restraints of the very history that has produced us.”3 Dollimore goes on to pursue this line of thinking, citing Nietzsche as inheritor of this view (as he understood it from Shakespeare), taking care to make plain that there is a kind of knowledge that does not strengthen civilization but endangers it. What kind of knowledge is this?

Would you rather suffer from a superabundance of life or from an impoverishment of life?

If the artist-philosopher knows too much and can see through her fictions of civilization, unleashing all subversive desires in a fiery affirmation of a powerful destructive life force, isn’t it better to know than to not know? And isn’t the theatre the perfect place to stage such knowledge, not as moral instruction but as pure pleasure?

And what of forgiveness?

For the past few years I’ve been trying to write my own version of the Medea story in a dramatic sequence. In some drafts, my Medea lives in ancient times. In other drafts, she lives in the mountains of Montana circa 2001. Sometimes MEDEA is written as a verse play, other times it’s written as an experimental poetic sequence. Euripides’ Medea was the first piece of literature I ever taught. It was for a general education literature class at the University of Iowa. It remains one of my favorite experiences. I was surprised at how condemning the students in the class were about Medea’s behavior. “The first requisite of civilization, therefore, is that of justice—that is, the assurance that a law once made will not be broken in favor of an individual.”4 At 25 years old, I wasn’t that much older than my 19-year-old students, so why was I so compellingly drawn to Medea and her unfortunate plot? Why did I admire her strangeness? Why did I see her as a life force acting out the incoherence I sometimes felt in my own life? “Isn’t literature supposed to be destructive in some way?” I asked my students.

Because I was a well-behaved young woman, who attended Catholic school and endured long hours in Mass, I looked for any opportunity to reinforce the destructiveness I felt in my spirit. There were many other young women like me, feeling vibrations in the air, feeling chaos and hearing it as refrain. “Of all creatures that can feel and think, we women are the worst treated things alive.”5 Refrain, revolution, twilight. In some way, we were being asked “how to consolidate the material, make it consistent, so it can harness the unthinkable, invisible, nonsonorous forces.”6 In rhythm with ruin, in the fragment, in rhythm with alienation. The auditory hallucinations I was experiencing called me to write everything down. And so, I wrote. I looked for the experience of art to change me because I felt there was perverted truth in that experience.

Why do we attend the theatre today?
Refrain, revolution, twilight.
I wanted it like the Catholic Mass but without a male godhead.

It’s a beautiful autumn night in Los Angeles. The sun has just set, and it’s a touch cool. The amphitheater is completely full. The Getty Villa shines in the slick look of new money. Note the smell of rose perfume.

Stage goes dark. A woman enters carrying two large palms fronds and flaps them up and down as if they were giant feathery wings. She is older, perhaps in her early 60s, and wears a long white toga over modern-day clothes. The flapping and swooshing of the palms is audible. She takes off her toga as if taking off years of ancient and Elizabethan tradition, and addresses the audience as Nurse.

Is this theatre or spectacle?

Your lines are labored, far too superficial—
The learned myths they treat are artificial.
Give up Medeas, sacrilegious dinners.
And all the tales of innovative sinners.
To make your poetry appropriate,
Some natural catastrophe relate.

—Martial, 5.537

As George Steiner notes in The Death of Tragedy, one cannot separate the state of drama from its audience, or its social and political community.8 Steiner’s entire project cannot help but question if European literature after the seventeenth century ceased to produce tragic art because there simply was no audience in need of it. It’s a tricky question to consider since we cannot know for sure what Athenian or Elizabethan audiences were actually like. Steiner goes on to ask: Were ancient audiences forced to attend the theatre as part of a religious service? Were Elizabethan audiences, comprising of everyone from noblemen to carpenters, in need of pure entertainment, the kind that embraced sensations of impurity, destruction, ruin, and otherness that Shakespeare so often advances? Personally, I’m interested in the private experience of watching a play, among a group of people, in a public space.

Revision: I’m interested in ideas of order and disorder.

I like my catastrophes artificial. I cannot agree with Martial on this point. “There is a bareness and abruptness in their literature which grates upon taste accustomed to the intricacy and finish of printed books. We have to stretch our minds to grasp a whole devoid of the prettiness of detail or the emphasis of eloquence.”9 For Virginia Woolf and other modernist writers who experienced the catastrophe of war, the Greek way of looking directly into the “heart of light, the silence” did seem brave yet brutal.10 But the Greeks knew Time was short, and Fate ruthless. From the impersonality of Greek literature comes its originality. Woolf recognized this phenomenon as a dynamic freed from Christian comforts, and a place where language could “move more quickly, dancing, shaking, all alive, but controlled.”11

Woolf also felt like there was no point in reading Greek translations. Greekless Reader, go away, go home to bed without any supper! She’s quite adamant about this point. What would have happened to the history of philology if Woolf felt differently? If Woolf had tried her hand at translating ancient plays? But Woolf accepted certain luxuries that allowed her to write original texts, an endeavor that was not extended to women in the early modern period.

Translation is always an act of interpretation.12

Translation denies and asserts the translator in varying degrees.13

Translation is only echo, only association.14

What’s peculiar is that for women in the early modern period, the art of translation offered a way inside a scholarly literary conversation they were not welcomed into. Women with means, with access to books and time and money, were generally restricted to reading vernacular texts. In order to gain access to scholarly texts, women started working as translators—hiding out in plain sight of language.

Lady Jane Lumley was finally given credit for having produced the first known English-language translation from the Greek. Initially, the Jocasta of George Gascoigne and Francis Kinwelmershe claimed credit for being the first Greek tragedy in English in The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Drama.15 Scholars have since dated Lady Lumley’s translation of Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis, preserved at the British Museum, to 1554.16 Gascoigne and Kinwelmershe’s Jocasta was performed at Gray’s Inn in 1556, but not published until 1572.17

Why did we forget about Lady Lumley? Harold H. Child dutifully arranged an edition of her translation for the Malone Society in 1909, but Henrietta Palmer seems to have missed it when she compiled her List of English Editions and Translations of the Classics Printed before 1641. It wasn’t until 1998, when Diane Purkiss published Three Tragedies by Renaissance Women, that we fully realized our mistake.18 Two different classicists, in separate articles published in the 1940s, did question whether Lumley translated directly from the Greek, or if she was aided by Erasmus’ Latin translation. Either way, it seems neither classicists nor Palmer thought much of Lumley’s work.

Many scholars have noted that Lumley’s translation is corrupt. But even so, what’s remarkable about her work is that it uses an Elizabethan English “unenriched by Shakespeare.”19 Lumley cuts out large sections of the choral odes, softens Euripides’ cruelty, and refuses to use Greek names. Walton reads Lumley’s translation of Iphigenia’s sacrifice as a repositioning of Elizabethan economic ideals rather than the brutal hand of ancient Fate. As such, Lumley questions the disposability of a woman’s life perhaps in a different way than Euripides had intended. Perhaps Lady Lumley wrote an original play and not a translation.

Why did early modern writers adapt Euripides’ stories? Why did early modern translations of Euripides begin to appear? Perhaps it has something to do with Woolf’s claim on originality, impersonality, and the ability to fill a willing vessel constructed of durable bronze.

Perhaps it’s as simple as this—a good story can be performed ad infinitum.

Remember we’re not allowed to talk about audiences with any historical certainty. But I do know that the amphitheater at the Getty Villa on Friday, October 2, 2015 was nearly full for the production of Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles. I know I sat next to a young woman, who drank a glass of rosé wine, with my ex-boyfriend on the other side of me also drinking rosé. I was drinking a glass of rosé of my own, though not as quickly as the lady to my right or my ex-boyfriend. We drove to the Getty Villa via Pacific Coast Highway 1. Parking was an additional $10 even though the tickets were $48 dollars each without service tax. I know my ex-boyfriend paid $55 dollars for a light supper, including the two glasses of rosé wine. (He later went back to get two more glasses.) As audience members, we did not talk to one another, save for the people we came with to the theater. In fact, several audience members arrived by themselves, sat by themselves, and spoke to no one before and after the performance. I remember laughing a lot, and feeling a slight chill in the air. We took a photograph of ourselves after the play ended. There was no intermission since all Getty performances must end by 10 pm.

I wore a pink cashmere sweater. My ex-boyfriend wore a red flannel shirt. My drama is not pure entertainment. I remain “prepared to take the risks of terror and revelation implicit in tragedy.”20 I cannot help the age I was born in. Please forgive me.

I often think about Woolf’s essays and her stunning articulations about the importance of language’s aural and sonic qualities—its ability to rush into our bodies forcibly. Most of Woolf’s writing hits me like a vector, an arrow of pure expressed thought. What is this need for instant impact? Why are we gathered around this dark stage waiting to catch our first glimpse of Medea? It’s the ignition of the imaginative world we hope to catch. Forever I am hoping the world entire burns in flame.

Seneca liked Euripides’ Medea enough to make a version of his own. Most likely Seneca’s audiences were accustomed to the hyper-reality and extreme violence “in accordance with Hellenic modes and what seems to have been standard Roman republic practice.”21 These same Roman audiences probably stomached the public killings of gladiators and criminals with relish. Seneca refashions Euripides’ Medea by making changes to the story as a way to control the narrative of violence so as to be in conversation with the bloody experience of sitting at gladiatorial games.

Seneca is interested in anger. He writes about it in his prose works. So it only seems natural that Seneca is interested in the Medea myth known to him through Hesiod. Seneca plays out Medea’s anger, and its inherent violence, as a way to determine what is appropriate within a civilizing social order. Unlike Euripides, Seneca’s play opens with a dialogue from Medea. “Gods of wedlock, and thou, Lucina guard / Of the marriage bed. . .”22 By not giving the Nurse the first speech, Seneca immediately places the character of Medea as our central focus point. As such, Medea assumes great authority in her appeal to the gods. What’s also curious is how Seneca’s play begins with the word “Gods” and ends with “there are no gods.”23 His finely wound circle begins in media res and ends back in the same middle. When Medea’s appeal quickly turns into a revenge speech, her presence is only further heightened.

Entrancing and mesmerizing, we turn ourselves over to Medea when she utters, “It’s born now—vengeance—born: / I’ve given birth.”24 We now know there is no turning back. We’re implicated, family now with this pronouncement. And who is the head of this family? Within the first ten lines of the play, Medea names herself. This self-naming creates another power structure within the play. Medea proclaims her authority to all those listening, as well as to herself. Self-consciously, she sees herself and creates herself like this: “Of silent rites—and gods by whom Jason / Swore oaths to me and whom Medea more / Rightly invokes. . .”25

As A.G. Boyle outlines in notes to his translation of Seneca’s play, Medea positions herself as a character very much aware of herself and, as such, in control. In this way Medea enacts the theatrically powerful customs and practices found in imperial Rome. Compare Seneca’s version to the opening speech made by the Nurse in Euripides’ version as translated by Gilbert Murray (T.S. Eliot hated his translation): “Would God no Argo e’re had winged the seas / To Colchis through the blue Symplegades:”26 Not only are we kept away from Medea, but she is described as “her spirit wounded sore with love of Jason.”27 The Nurse goes on to describe Medea’s ill health and sorry state. In this version Medea, lovesick and weak, does not impress us.

Strange thing but William Shakespeare’s impurity is his admission ticket. Printed on his ticket reads the following:

dismembering the sacred for years to come

Steiner believes Shakespeare to be lucky since he missed the Greeks and the heavy weight of their influence. Uninhibited by these originals, Shakespeare was able to roam freely in experimentation, picking and choosing narrative strains from a variety of sources. Many of Shakespeare’s plays question the social order within worlds, both real and imaginative, but they should not be drunk as moral instruction.

As Katherine Heavey acknowledges in Early Modern Medea, many early modern writers were familiar with Ovid’s version of Medea as a sorceress, and they exaggerated her ferocity because they were interested in highlighting issues of “witchcraft, security of government, or women’s conduct.”28 Because Medea is resistant to male modes of control and because she goes unpunished for her crimes, her story is an affirmation of liberty.29 Shakespeare-the-writer knew all about the power of suggestion and, like all writers, he could use the Medea myth to address current political and social circumstances.

In Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, it is Tamora who resembles Medea “[i]n her foreignness and particularly in her desire for bloody revenge. . .”30 Her son, Alarbus (“the proudest prisoner of the Goths”31) is cut up at the start of the play despite Tamora’s pleads. Heavey reminds us that Tamora is described as a “tiger” in Shakespeare’s play, an epithet given in both Golding’s Metamorphoses and Studley’s Medea.32 But when Tamora enacts revenge on Lavinia by having her tongue cut out, she relies on the handiwork of her two sons. Because of this difference, Tamora does seem not as powerful as our Euripidean Medea since Demetrius and Chiron knowingly carry out their mother’s plan of revenge, relishing in the rape and savagery of Lavinia with a pleasure all their own. Language stolen from those who need it most.

On the other hand, Tamora’s coupling up with Aaron provides a striking resemblance to the Medea narrative. Because Tamora is a Goth who sleeps with Aaron, a Moor, they function as outsiders in Shakespeare’s play. They meet and make love outside the city walls, outside civilization. Aaron keeps the forest as his own. Medea, having to flee her own land because of her love and commitment to Jason, holds this outsider status as well. But Tamora is visibly upset when she learns Titus has killed Demetrius and Chiron, unlike Medea who personally dismembers her sons. An unlike Medea, Tamora must be killed in order to preserve the sanctity of order.

Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is unusual in the sense that it draws up on multiple classical stories—just think about Lavinia as Philomel from Ovid, but also as Lucretia, the ancient Roman matron raped by Tarquin or Virgil, too. Shakespeare does not follow one set story or model. Corruption, impurities, multiple versioning. . .was Shakespeare enjoying himself or what?

Is it too late to mend the ruins?

Perhaps because Euripides asked so many difficult questions.

And what of forgiveness?

Perhaps because Euripides staged surprise so well.

Perhaps because he ended five of his plays with the same language.

How can I “serve my madness, not my reason.”33

I drank, to give my burning veins some peace,
A poison which Medea brought to Greece.
Already, to my heart, the venom gives
An alien coldness, so that it scarcely lives;34

Who drinks to extinguish her burning veins? Medea and her poison will pave a slow road of death. Medea’s reputation as a powerful sorceress extends into various plays. Her presence stains, permeates, bleeds over—

And what of pleasure? And what of forgiveness? Pity and terror moves us, Euripides knew as much. And we humans are ever forgetful, sometimes most contrary. In our best moments, we are prophetic.

Epilogue: “Very few treat art seriously. There are those who treat it solemnly, and will continue to write poetic pastiches of Euripides and Shakespeare; and there are others who treat it as a joke.”35 Which are you, dear Reader?


1. George Steiner, The Death of Tragedy (New York: Knopf, 1961), 113.
2. Gilbert Murray, “Introduction,” Medea, (London: G. Allen & Company,  1913), xi.
3. Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003),  xxxv.
4. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents (New York: Norton, 2005), 81.
5. Euripides, trans. Paul Roche, “Medea” Three Plays of Euripides (New York:  Norton, 1974), lines 230-231.
6. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, “The Refrain,” A Thousand Plateaus, Capitalism  and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 345.
7. Martial, trans. Garry Wills, Martial’s Epigrams (New York: Viking, 2008), 93.
8. George Steiner, The Death of Tragedy (New York: Knopf, 1961), 113.
9. Virginia Woolf, “On Not Knowing Greek,” The Common Reader (New York: Harcourt  Brace & Company, 1984), 34.
10. T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land,” Collected Poems (New York: Harcourt Brace  Jovanich, 1963) line 41.
11. Virginia Woolf, “On Not Knowing Greek,” The Common Reader (New York:  Harcourt Brace & Company, 1984), 36.
12. This statement is attributed to half of the poet-translators I know.
13. This statement is attributed to the other half of the poet-translators I know.
14. Virginia Woolf, “On Not Knowing Greek,” The Common Reader (New York:  Harcourt Brace & Company, 1984), 36.
15. J. Michael Walton, Found in Translation: Greek Drama in English (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2006), 27.
16. Helen Ostovich and Elizabeth Sauer, eds., Reading Early Modern Women Writers  (New York & London: Routledge, 2004), 327.
17. Michael Walton, Found in Translation: Greek Drama in English (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2006), 27.
18. Ibid., 27.
19. Ibid., 29.
20. George Steiner, The Death of Tragedy (New York: Knopf, 1961), 116.
21. A.G. Boyle, Seneca’s Medea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014)   l.
22. Ibid., 5, lines 1-2.
23. Ibid., line 79.
24. Ibid., 5, lines 25-6.
25. Ibid., 5, lines 6-9.
26. Gilbert Murray, “Introduction,” Medea, (London: G. Allen & Company,  1913), 3, lines 1-2.
27. Ibid., 3, lines 7-8.
28. Katherine Heavey, Early Modern Medea (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 4.
29. Ibid., 5.
30. Ibid., 106.
31. William Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, “Titus Andronicus,” The Norton  Shakespeare (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008), Act 1, Scene 1, line 96.
32. Katherine Heavey, Early Modern Medea (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015),  106.
33. Jean Racine, trans. Richard Wilbur, Phaedra (Orlando: Harvest Book, 1986), 56, Act Three, Scene 1, line 58.
34. Ibid., Act 5, Scene 7, lines 45-48.
35. T.S. Eliot, “The Possibility of a Poetic Drama,” The Sacred Wood (London: Methuen, 1966), 70.


Catherine Theis is a poet working and living in Los Angeles. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently a Provost’s Fellow and PhD Candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California, where she also translates contemporary Italian poetry into English. She has a book of poems, The Fraud of Good Sleep (Salt Modern Poets, 2011) and a chapbook, The June Cuckhold, a tragedy in verse (Convulsive Editions, 2012). Her play Medea was a finalist in the Leslie Scalapino Award for Innovative Woman Playwrights, forthcoming by Plays Inverse Press (2016).