March 8, 2011

Wreckage and Medea, or Caridad Svich and Euripides

In a recent article for Theatre Journal, Caridad Svich explains that she was in graduate school before she came across the work of experimental women playwrights such as Adrienne Kennedy, Maria Irene Fornes, Adele Edling Schank, and Gertrude Stein. She writes, “In these dramatists’ works, there was theatrical ‘misbehavior’ of all kinds, including an unusual attention to poetic language, the examination of women’s roles in the public and domestic sphere, and a formal fearlessness I had not quite encountered before, except perhaps in the radical plays of Euripides!” Svich has referred to Wreckage as her “distaff Medea.” Her admiration for Euripides is evident in some of her other works, notably Iphigenia crash lands falls on the neon shell that was once her heart (a rave fable), currently running at the Greenhouse in a Halcyon Theatre production. Svich’s admiration for Euripides also provides a useful frame for understanding Wreckage as an adaptation of Medea. In Wreckage, we can hear Euripides as a distant, haunting memory.

The characters in Wreckage are marked by Medea. In some ways, Wreckage is a play about adolescent boys discovering their sexuality: two boys wake up after they have been killed and take different paths. One pursues an older woman and becomes a pawn in her sexual gamesmanship with her husband. The other meets an older queer character and embarks on a career as a sex worker. But these boys have memories of Euripides’ text, and so we can also read them as Medea’s children. The children in Euripides’ Medea are hapless victims who do everything their mother tells them to do. They do not speak until the very end of the play, when they are inside the house and Medea is preparing to kill them. There is no evidence that they attempt to escape. In Wreckage, Svich gives First Son and Second Son some opportunities to make choices, but their deaths remain seemingly inevitable. And yet, as the cycle begins again at the end of the play, Second Son makes a new effort to control the boys’ destiny, informed by what he has learned from Nurse and figured out on his own. His refusal to “swim in the dark ocean full of tears” represents a break with the past, a denial of history’s dominion over the future.

Svich employs specific lines from Euripides, but changes the context. For her characters, it seems as though Medea is a distant memory, an ancient source text that has palpable, yet inexplicable effects on their lives (or afterlives). In the opening scene, First Son notes that Second Son is “beauteous,” which leads him to recall a line from one of Medea’s final speeches before killing her children: “Beauteous babe, you have a city where far from me and my sad lot you will live.” In the context of Euripides, this line is ironic. On the one hand the city could mean Corinth, where Medea’s children are welcome to live, though she herself has been ordered to go into exile. On the other hand, Medea knows that she is about to kill her children, and the city may refer to the underworld, where they will live without her because she will still be in the world of the living.

First Son goes on to misquote a line from the same speech: “Behold my lover’s laughing eyes.” In Euripides, Medea says “Behold my children’s laughing eyes.” This conflation of child and lover is crucial to the sexual ambiguities of Wreckage. It is not completely possible to know all the filial relationships between the characters. They are named Woman, Husband, First Son, and Second Son. Woman brings First Son into her household, but it is not clear whether First and Second Son are her biological children or whether she constructs a sexualized Mother-Son relationship with First Son. She may murder Second Son because he has taken on the role of Husband’s mistress. The challenging nature of intersubjectivity in this play is reflected in Svich’s appropriation of Euripides’ text.

Woman’s appearance in the play introduces a different connection to Medea. Reading this character as Medea lends a sense of irony to several of her lines. She tells First Son, “You’re nothing without me.” If she is Medea and he is her child, this is true because he would exist only to help tell her story. She also says “I might do something awful,” which is humorous in a way that is reminiscent of Jocasta in Cocteau’s Infernal Machine saying “This scarf will be the death of me.” Woman speaks two additional lines from Medea in her first scene with First Son. When he says “You’re wrong about me,” she replies, “I wish I were. Damned child, son of a doomed mother.” The second sentence of her reply quotes lines 113-114 of Medea (line references are to the Loeb Classical Library edition, edited and translated by David Kovacs). Medea’s speech continues: “may you perish with your father and the whole house collapse in ruin.” The second specific line Woman cites is from near the end of Euripides’ play: “These brief days we forget, and only after do we lament” (l. 1248), a line spoken by Medea.

The character of Nurse takes on aspects of Nurse, Tutor, and Chorus from Euripides’ play. “I’m no one in this world. I keep low, safe,” he says. This speech echoes the philosophy of humility espoused by Medea’s Nurse in Euripides. In his opening and closing monologues, Nurse functions as a Greek Chorus, commenting on what he has witnessed and drawing conclusions about the significance of these events.

While the conflict between Jason and Medea undergirds the action in Euripides’ play, the conflict between Woman and Husband in Wreckage is quite different. What they have in common is a focus on words and games. “Woo him with my words,” says Husband, as he observes Woman’s interaction with First Son. Later, Husband asks, “What game is this?” Euripides’ Jason accuses Medea of starting a “contest of words” (l. 546).

In Euripides (ll. 1025ff), Medea laments the fact that she will not be able to see her sons grow up to get married, and specifically mentions the ritual bath that would take place before the wedding. Later in the same speech, Medea addresses her children as follows: “Truly, many were the hopes that I, poor fool, once had in you, that you would tend me in my old age, and when I died, dress me for burial with your own hands.” The ritual bath haunts Wreckage, as Woman bathes First Son after he comes home with her. First Son later appropriates Medea’s words in his anger at Woman: “Idle hope you should have that I will ever nurse / you in your old age and deck your corpse with loving hands.”

After she kills First Son and Second Son, Woman quotes snippets of speeches by the Chorus in Medea:

“Of one alone, one woman alone
Sent mad by heaven.
O women’s love,
So full of trouble,”
They will say.

As intriguing and complex as Svich’s textual borrowings are, her truly original engagement with Euripides comes through her characters’ riffs on aspects of Medea. Medea’s last tender act before sending the children into the house to await their death is to kiss their hands. As she kisses the boys’ hands, she speaks of their tender skin, their sweet touch, their fragrant breath. While the words “tender,” “sweet,” and “fragrant” recur throughout Wreckage, the image of a woman kissing the boys’ hands has the most power for First Son and Second Son. Second Son’s memory of a woman kissing his hands and the boys’ discussion of the merits of this kind of kiss in the opening scene give way to fear and distrust on First Son’s part when Woman kisses his hands.

Wreckage is emphatically not Medea, but this play does have strong connections to Euripides’ tragedy. To borrow an image from the play, Svich’s process of adaptation is akin to the way a conch shell distills the sound of the ocean. Listening to a conch shell—saved as a souvenir of a trip to the beach—evokes the sound of wind and waves, and memories of time spent in sand and sun. Euripides’ words and ideas resound through Wreckage, but distantly, allowing us to remember a Medea of long ago and far away while we live resolutely in the present.

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