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Fresh perspectives on Euripides's Medea

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Published Date

February 18, 2022


A dark screen transforms into a cosmic expanse as a meteoric sculpture scrolls into view. The 3D image of the sculpture is replaced with words from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1969 film, Medea: “A vessel full of knowledge that is not mine.” The words seem like a perfect commentary on the video-art, which a roomful of Princeton students watch, hushed. They also speak to the pedagogical method used by Classics Professor Brooke Holmes to teach Euripides’s Medea by introducing students to different modern adaptations.

“There are multiple ways of knowing the text,” Professor Holmes says. “There are so many re-adaptations of these narratives and myths, which is itself an empirical demonstration that […] they are amenable to multiple forms of storytelling.”

Professor Holmes rethought Princeton’s intermediate-level translation class after writer and producer Shivaike Shah reached out to discuss their upcoming tour of Uprooting Medea. Francesca Amewudah-Rivers and Shah’s award-winning adaptation of the ancient Greek tragedy, which features a global majority cast, explores underplayed themes about belonging and otherness, race and identity in the play. “We are trying to create a rounded approach by making new work and encouraging new perspectives on Classical theatre without making it into a bastion of ‘western civilization,’” Shah says.

Uprooting Medea will arrive in Princeton next week, on February 24-25. Students will be invited to watch extracts of a new film and participate in discussions about Classical theater and pedagogy with Shah and other members of his production team.

Professor Holmes invited Shah to collaborate on designing the final project assignment for the class on Medea last semester in a bid to show students that precise knowledge of an ancient Greek text is always counterposed by the polysemic responses it produces around the world. Students worked on line-by-line translations of the original, and were tested in translation exams, but they also produced a final project engaging Medea in a creative way.

These final projects, developed in conversation with Shah, included several different approaches. One group of students explored lighting and movement in Medea, while another reimagined the play in a French banlieue, inspired by the movie La Haine. A graduate student produced an architectural analysis of Medea’s home, or oikos. Students said the final projects prompted them to consider “tragedy as part of the Greek world."

“We saw the parallel in La Haine because in the French suburbs people are often foreign, or immigrants, or from immigrant families and there is this sense that they’re not properly French,” says Davis Kline, a junior in the Classics department. “And it’s the same with Medea—when she arrives in Corinth, she’s a foreigner and her relationship to the state is mediated through Jason. When Jason leaves her, she’s in this flux between belonging properly to the state, and being on the outside if she doesn’t fulfil her role as mother."

Davis’s partner on the project, Henry Cammerzell, a freshman, added that experimenting with adaptation encouraged a deeper consideration of the play: “I was surprised by the course. It was unique and really combined a lot of the standard improve-your-translation aspects with reception and interpretation, which led me to think about the text a lot more deeply."

Aside from Shah, the Humanities Council, together with the Cull Fund, supported the Classics department in inviting a number of other scholars and practitioners to present their work during the course. These included Athens-based artist Stefania Strouza, as well as Yujhán Claros and Rosa Andújar, alums of Princeton Classics’ undergraduate and PhD programs respectively, and specialists in ancient and modern performance.

Katie Hameetman, a Classics major, said the class on ancient Greek music, taught by Anna Conser and Vanessa Stovall, transformed her understanding of another Euripides play, The Bacchae: “There are specific accents over syllables in ancient Greek that dictate how the text would have sounded,” she says. “A group explained to us what it would have sounded like musically […] which fed into my junior project looking at the turning point in Euripides’s The Bacchae and Wole Soyinka’s adaptation. I realized there is a textual and vocal marker of that turning point."

Stefania Strouza piece

Students were also introduced to Strouza’s artwork, which was recently shown at annexM in Megaron the Athens Concert Hall in Greece. Strouza draws on adaptations of Medea by Pasolini and Heiner Müller to explore the relationship between environmental and economic crises in modern Greece and the myth of the destructive outsider in antiquity. She told the class her recent exhibition (pictured above) was inspired by an asteroid found in Croatia and named “212 Medea.” The name became part of the recent exhibition’s title, 212 Medea (Recited from an Empty Middle). She says she sees parallels between the asteroid and Medea, both imagined as violent and unpredictable outsiders “interrupting the flow of History.”

According to Professor Holmes, Classical texts play a special role in shedding light on the present: “Medea is a kind of internal bomb that explodes questions about modernity,” she says. Strouza adds: “In my mind, the ancient brings the modern to life by going against it."

Students said discussing adaptations made Medea resonate more directly with their lives: “As the number of people who can read the text with relative fluency has decreased, translations are the main method of accessing Medea,” says Grant Bruner, a junior. “If people aren’t thinking about the possibilities of making it a performance, that lessons the scope of interpretation.

“[The City Dionysia] was a state festival, a community bonding exercise that all the Athenian males go through together. So it answers the same questions for them as a group,” he adds. “We’re a diverse, multicultural audience with different media silos and don’t all have the same backgrounds. I think it’s really important in this context for people who are studying with an academic lens and creative lens to talk to each other."

Kat McLaughlin agrees: “Classics is such an old study and there’s so much conversation about the same things, I think it’s very easy to get caught in a Classics bubble if you don’t talk to other people.

“Taking up those artistic and modern ideas brings more to the field, rather than just having it as an old boys club or an old classy field.”

Image: Selina Jones captured by Adam Pietraszewski