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Male Medea

From: Helios
Volume 38, Number 2, Fall 2011
pp. 149-164 | 10.1353/hel.2011.0008

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This essay is situated in the knot made by the intersection of several strands of critical thinking. The first thread is the one provided by increased contemporary attention to performance practice in theatre; once you stop thinking of the ancient plays as texts and remind yourself that they were written to be performed, the role of the actor becomes more salient. Related to that thread is critical theory’s increased interest in the body, and particularly the gendered and sexed body. In the current phase of gender studies, the body has ceased to be taken for granted as the source of gender identity; rather, gender is increasingly emphasized as a performance. As a result of these two developments, there has also been heightened attention in classics to the convention of the male actor in ancient performance. An integral part of this changed scene is increased attention to modern performances of ancient drama. We now have research resources (notably, the database of the Oxford Archive of Performance of Greek and Roman Drama and that group’s publications, and the Classical Reception Studies Network of the Open University in the U.K.) which help to facilitate the study of performance, an evanescent medium that can only be researched if it can be captured beyond the moment of production.

I am building here on the work of Helene Foley (2004) as well as my earlier work on the male actor of female roles in antiquity (1998). In the latter article, I hypothesized many positions from which to interpret the convention; but in my focus on gender I did not devote much time to sexuality. In writing this essay, I have reexamined my preconceptions, taking this as an opportunity to raise some questions about the interrelationships of camp, cross-dressing, and politics in the performance of Medea by male actors in modernity. While focusing on the Ridiculous Theatrical Company of Charles Ludlam, I will try to put Ludlam in a larger theoretical context.

Let me start by sketching some of the possible meanings or significances of the male actor playing a female role.1 On the level of the ancient convention, we can see that the male actor could easily indicate tragedy’s relevance to Dionysus, through his characterization as a long-haired [End Page 149] and effeminate deity (Bacchae), and one worshipped with transvestite ceremonies at the Oschophoria (Seaford 1981; Segal 1982; Henrichs 1982, 158–9).2 More than that, the ancient cross-dressed actor can be taken as an emblem for the artifice of the form; he makes clear the constructedness of the signs that the audience is perceiving (on theatrical transvestism, see Garber 1992, 40; Duncan 2006, on Agathon; cf. Dollimore 1990, 483 and Herrmann 1989, 141).

Feminism has contributed a great deal to our understanding of tragedy. In looking at the ancient actor, there are two main lines of interpretation available. One extreme position is that articulated early on by Sue-Ellen Case. Focusing on the male-dominated aspects of the tragic genre and its association with the city, she points out that the maleness of the actors stresses that association. As a result, she argues that tragedy can tell us nothing about women: “‘Woman’ was played by male actors in drag, while actual women were banned from the stage. . . . The classical plays and theatrical conventions can now be regarded as allies in the project of suppressing actual women and replacing them with the masks of patriarchal production” (Case 1988, 7; Case 1985; cf. Ferris 1989, 30). Richard Seaford (1994, 258–75) goes so far as to speculate that the original move to exclude women was intentional—“muscling them out” of what would have been a traditional religious role for them.

A second position, based on the “love-affair” that “the critical left” has been having with gender ambiguity (Epstein and Straub 1991, 7), would take tragedy as a critique of gender. For instance, Marjorie Garber (1992, 10) finds “one of the most important aspects of cross-dressing . . . the way in which it offers a challenge to easy notions of binarity, putting into question the categories of ‘female’ and ‘male,’ whether they are considered...