πρὸς δὲ καὶ πεφύκαμεν γυναῖκες, ἐς μὲν ἔσθλ᾽ ἀμηχανώταται, κακῶν δὲ πάντων τέκτονες σοφώταται / ‘After all, we women are good for nothing – / That’s what they say – except causing trouble.’ – Notes on Euripides’ «Medea» and Colin Teevan’s «The Last Word» – I – Tomás García

πρὸς δὲ καὶ πεφύκαμεν γυναῖκες, ἐς μὲν ἔσθλ᾽ ἀμηχανώταται, κακῶν δὲ πάντων τέκτονες σοφώταται / ‘After all, we women are good for nothing – / That’s what they say – except causing trouble.’ – Notes on Euripides’ «Medea» and Colin Teevan’s «The Last Word» – I – Tomás García

πρὸς δὲ καὶ πεφύκαμεν γυναῖκες, ἐς μὲν ἔσθλ᾽ ἀμηχανώταται, κακῶν δὲ πάντων τέκτονες σοφώταται / After all, we women are good for nothing – / That’s what they say – except causing trouble.’ – Notes on Euripides’ Medea and Colin Teevan’s The Last Word – I


Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix Médée [1838 – Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille – Lille – France]


πρὸς δὲ καὶ πεφύκαμεν γυναῖκες, ἐς μὲν ἔσθλ᾽ ἀμηχανώταται, κακῶν δὲ πάντων τέκτονες σοφώταται

[Μήδεια, 407 – 409]

After all, we women are good for nothing – / That’s what they say – except causing trouble.

[Medea, 407 – 409; p. 16]


This short essay will focus on the representation of gender in ancient Greek drama and its modern performance reception by examining Euripides` Medea and Colin Teevan`s The Last Word. The question whether ancient dramas should be, and how, revisited and made resonate by theatre practitioners in contemporary terms will also be discussed, insofar as those dramas are reimagined in new ways by contemporary playwrights and theatre directors. Can it be recaptured and retained the essential pulse of so distant, both chronologically and culturally, ancient plays? Without doubt this the most challenging question which contemporary stage directors who look back have to face to.

The fact that Aeschylus`, Sophocles`, and Euripides` plays are constantly re-read, revisited, adapted and reworked in so different cultural contexts [1] should mean that their main issues and characters still claim attention. What Fanny Söderbäck thinks of Antigona, for example, –»But as is made abundantly clear by the many Antigones that figure in performance around the world -2,500 years after she first appeared on the Greek stage our heroine continues to be reborn: fueling stories and narratives across the globe, she rise from the dead, time and again, and appears in time of oppression and injustice wherever the need arises for dissidence and resistance»[2]– could perfectly be said, it seems to me, if we focus now only on female characters: Hecuba, Electra, Iphigenia, Deianira, Medea and the like.   

However, when making some of those ancient plays modern and more suited to contemporary needs or styles theatre-makers could run the risk of taking it out of context and the effectiveness of their more specific qualities ruined. On the one hand it is normally due, I think, to historical inadequacies and to a partial and inaccurate understanding of ancient drama`s distinctive traits, on the other [3]. As Rush Rehm points out: “Greek tragedy isn`t holy, and playwrights, translators, and directors have every right to meet the material creatively, to take risks, to change things, to behave as theatre artists do. But the stakes in tragedy are high, and their roots go deep”[4].

One of these roots has grown under the soil of philosophy. From late Archaic period on, Greek thinkers had to tackle the problem of cosmos as an ordered world lying behind the eternally changing realities. They moved beyond the traditional mythological explanations of the world and sought the rational unity of things. As we know, Aristotle claims in his Metaphysics that “it is owing to their wonder (θαυμάζειν – thaumázein) that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize” [5]

Effectively, from the beginning those men, who will become philosophers, were astonished at the strange mismatch between the irreducible diversity of reality in the manifold of its appearances and its required rational unity. The search for a common denominator of different things (ἀρχή – Arche/ λóγος – Logos) carried out by them, however, has always run the risk of simplifying the complex reality of world by using a dichotomous classification scheme (from the Pythagorean tradition on, in a special way). In dividing reality into “the rational” and “the irrational”, things –and, by extension, in my view, human beings –, become put into two classes on an –as John Anderson remarks in his Lectures on Greek Philosophy 1928–, entirely different level (being, therefore, the nature of both classes entirely different as well) [6]. A hierarchical organization of the world seemed to be the inevitable consequence of such way of thinking [7].

Aristotle, on his part, summarizes all these ideas by asserting that τὸ δὲ ὂν λέγεται μὲν πολλαχῶς [8], that is to say “Being is said in many ways”. Aristotle`s words can be translated into “Being is said in many ways”, but, however, by using the middle-passive form λέγεται Aristotle would mean that it -«being»- is not only “said”, but it “shows itself” differently, in different ways. Although Aristotle is elaborating his discourse within a metaphysical context, focusing it here upon the general foundations of ontology, it is not impossible to extrapolate the context and relate it with more specific areas of human being. “Being” is “said” either “male” or “female” from a sexual point of view, for example, being “gender”, however, a questionable issue. “Being” is also “said” as “citizen”, as “slave”, “as “barbarian”, and so on. The strange (and unbearable?) multivocal nature of being seems to be the question.

Conceptual issues related to this type of discourse, that is to say the problem of Nature`s “unity and multiplicity”, on the one hand, and the opposition “nature/ convention”, on the other, had previously arisen. Early Greek philosophers –the so-called “Presocratic” ones-, had from the beginning, as I have previously mentioned, approached such relevant questions and reflected upon them with the aim of defining the underlying unity of all things. Different answers offered by them did not seek only an ontological explanation, but to try also to understand in a comprehensive way all facets of human nature, being probably the definition and construction of political space their main priority and remained so for sophists and subsequent philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle himself.

Naturally, the geometry of such a space was designed by men aiming at defining clearly its socio-political limits and setting up institutional frontiers between “inside” and “outside” (“male space ”/ “female space”, “Greek”/ “barbarian” or “Athenian citizen”/ “metic”, for example). In doing so, they have laid the basis for the quintessential Western ethnocentric-patriarchal social system and shaped the politics of sameness and otherness, which involves the key question of identity and difference. [9]    

The significance of such conceptual (usually binary) oppositions was central to Greek thought -either in the form of conventional philosophy or in that of theatrical practice (the artistic purpose of the latter and the complex set of elements employed by theatre-makers for devising performances obviously being what makes the difference between them). However, tragic characters and their concerns are far from being merely simple abstractions. In this regard, ancient Greek tragedies if this were the case not only bring philosophical abstractions down to earth, so to speak, but they explore and show specific personal, social, and political issues and concerns through fictional characters (some of them being based on real people) shaking the audience and making them face a challenging experience.

This certainly is the most interesting and thought-provoking dimension of ancient drama. The exploration of emotions –where incarnations of genuine conflictive forces are brought into play– and transformation of sorrow into beauty brilliantly carried out by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides is what makes their plays to be somehow the cultural roots of the world we live in. [10]


Tomás García

May 2016



[1] Worth-mentioning, in this regard, are among others the following works: The Returns of Antigone: Interdisciplinary Essays (Suny Series in Gender Theory) edited by Tina Chanter and Sean D. Kirkland; A Handbook to the Reception of Greek Drama (HCRZ – Wiley Blackwell Handbooks to Classical Reception) edited by Betine van Zyl Smit; Latin American Women Dramatists: Theater, Texts, and Theories edited by Catherine Larson and Margarita Vargas, and Dramatic Action in Greek Tragedy and Noh: Reading with and beyond Aristotle by Mae J. Smethurst.

[2] Söderbäck, Fanny. Feminist Readings of Antigone. New York: SUNY Press, 2010; pp. 76-77.

[3] See the excellent article by Foley, Helene P., Modern Performance and Adaptation of Greek Tragedy, with regard to the above mentioned subject [in  Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-) – Vol. 129 (1999), pp. 1-12]. Also available at www.apaclassics.org.

[4] Rehm Rush. Radical Theatre: Greek Tragedy in the Modern World. London: Duckworth, 2003. p. 39.

[5] Aristotle, Metaphysics – I, 982b.

[6] Anderson, John. Lectures on Greek Philosophy 1928, p. 55.

[7] What is not, however, exclusively associated with Western philosophy. It can also be found in Eastern systems of thought. 

[8] Aristotle, Metaphysics – IV, 1003a

[9] From a philosophical point of view, Plato`s Parmenides focuses in the most abstract terms on such a question. However, in recent years it has clearly been the focus of key debates in gender and cultural studies.

[10] What would these dramatists have written about today? Would Aeschylus have written a play named The Syrians,or Euripides another one entitled The Refugees Women?

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