restricted access Wiping Blood from the Walls: Medea 's Pleasures of Terror
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Theatre Topics 16.1 (2006) 35-45

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Wiping Blood from the Walls:

Medea's Pleasures of Terror

The change of fortune should be not from bad to good, but, reversely, from good to bad. . . . Hence they are in error who censure Euripides just because he follows this principle in his plays, many of which end unhappily. It is, we have to say, the right ending.
—Aristotle, Poetics 76
For the stagehand who watches the actors from above and from behind the curtain, even the most tragic spectacle is just another show to be put on—he has seen it all before.
—André Green, "The Psycho-analytic Reading of Tragedy" 141

I was there and then I wasn't. The actors were before me and then they weren't. The curtain opened, it closed, and—in the play of appearances and disappearances—something was seen in the vanishings. Remaining, what I now write is a kind of recollected narrative, a reportorial account of British director Deborah Warner's recent adaptation of Euripides' Medea. As a member of its audience one evening, I look back from the strict vantage of the remembered event, from the dual perspective of having seen the performance, but of seeing it no longer, of having been a spectator to the play, but now being a spectator to my memories of it. For my time in the theatre had at its core an ephemeral dimension easily forgotten, but fundamental: "now you see it, now you don't." Coming and going as it did, Medea (and my seeing of it) nonetheless engendered an unexpectedly rich afterlife that extended beyond its immediate staging, beyond this one particular evening, as the play was later involuntarily recalled, or willfully summoned into posthumous shape and dimension.

Warner's production of Euripides' classic Greek tragedy was first performed in North America at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2002, before moving over to Broadway, where I saw it in 2003 at the Brooks Atkinson Theater. The performance I attended was deeply moving and powerfully done, with Medea's familiar story of vengeance, despair, and death progressively building scene by scene, finally coming to a close in all its harrowing emptiness: no hope, no redemption, no return to reason—dark upon dark, seeping into every seam. Like a nothing I'd never seen before.

But then there was more. For that evening, even after the play was finally, formally finished—all of its lines delivered, the dramatic actions carried out, and the curtain fully closed (with many in the audience, like me, shaken by what they had just witnessed)—other events in the theatre were still to unfold. Indeed, actions involving the stage curtain and the curtain call were inadvertently [End Page 35] to extend events beyond Euripides' written conclusion, then on to the unassuming stagehands who literally closed the show. With these additional postperformance activities interrupting, even perhaps transforming, Medea'sotherwise profound impact, it was suddenly no longer quite clear where the play'sdark ending had ended, or where our seeing was finally to stop.

But before jumping to conclusions and discussing these otherextendedendings to the evening—the first involving the curtain and the curtain call, the second my recollected memories of Medea—I'll begin with the play itself, looking especially at those horrific moments that led up to the performance's bloody denouement. In Warner's Medea, the actions on the stage culminate in the mother's gruesome murder of her own two children. In a fit of uncontrollable rage and determined vengeance towards her deceitful husband Jason, Medea (played powerfully by Fiona Shaw) is about to perform the unthinkable. Her little boys attempt to flee, running from their mother, realizing what is happening. Medea, however, frantically catches them, gathers them up in her arms and, just off stage and out of sight, stabs them and slashes their throats—screams are heard in the wings, a broad spray of blood flies out and lands upon a glass-partitioned wall, brightly illuminated and immediately draining to...