It’s All Greek To Me
Though technology and modern research have essentially diminished the primordial religion to lore, the indisputable fact remains that the power of Ancient Greece can be seen in almost every facet of contemporary society. Scholars have argued that the many stories within the scriptures of today’s most practiced religions bear great resemblance to those within Greek mythology, suggesting that none of them are entirely “their own.” They would argue that this is also the case for the majority of modern plotlines. It is this epic unoriginality, this time-defying universality, and an enticing truthfulness that has kept Greek drama accessible to audiences thousands of years later. In adapting the Hippolytus myth into Phaedra Backwards, Marina Carr seems to channel fellow playwright Chuck Mee’s philosophy: “I think of the characters who speak these [Ancient Greek] texts as characters like the rest of us: people through whom the culture speaks, often without the speakers knowing it.” She has found a balance between distant homage and direct modernization, and in doing so, she has woven a slightly skewed myth of her own, complete with similar themes and just as much tragedian weight. The Greeks explained nature and the world around them through their myths because their knowledge of science was inadequate; the playwrights of today adjust and heighten the theatricality of those myths to better suit the needs of the culture.
A striking difference between Phaedra Backwards and Euripides’ myth is the former’s lack of chorus. In a fundamentally structural sense, there is no narrator, so everything we, the audience, must learn is to be learnt through active, catalytic dialogue or monologue. In the David Grene translation, the chorus serves as a plot device, not disclosing their collective knowledge of Phaedra’s love for Hippolytus to Theseus as he prepares to exile his son. No one could have saved Hippolytus if only they had spoken up. The non-presence of these Troezen women in Carr’s adaptation highlights the inevitability of the situation and thus, as is common in many Greek plays, the inescapability of fate. Also lacking in Euripides’ telling of this story (and perhaps rightfully so, assuming that we are supposed to pay the most attention to the character whose name is also the title) is the presence of Phaedra’s family and, therefore, her “baggage.” We never see her mother, Pasiphae, cursed by Poseidon to pine for a white bull. We never see her brother, Minotaur, the grotesque product of her mother’s affliction. We never see her sister, Ariadne, who loves Phaedra’s husband, Theseus, and in full support of condemning Minotaur to the Labyrinth of Crete. Carr insightfully recognized that without all of these characters playing a literal role in the telling of this story, we have less of a glimpse into the psyche of Phaedra and the past that has made her who she is when we meet her. We somehow understand her suicide at an even deeper level after having seen the way these phantoms haunt her.
Though Carr does her share of “adding” in terms of information and back-story that she deems crucial, she has carefully chosen to leave out certain components that Euripides felt necessary for his audiences twenty-five hundred years ago. There is no felt presence of the gods. In the original myth, both Artemis and Aphrodite are portrayed by actors and realized on the stage for they offer invaluable insight into where exactly Hippolytus stands in his world and how he got himself caught up in the tethers of Phaedra’s admiration. We don’t know that Hippolytus has vowed chastity and loyalty to Artemis, we don’t know that he has denied Aphrodite’s advances, and we don’t know how spiteful this has made her. We, the audience, never get to learn why Phaedra would have ever been romantically associated with Hippolytus, her stepson, in the first place—according to the myth, at least). Additionally, we never hear about Poseidon and the three he promised to his son, Theseus, three wishes (one, of course, which would be used to undo the curse placed by Aphrodite on Phaedra).
It is interesting to note that each of the examined playwrights choose to leave out characters and details that justify not only the points-of-view but also the psychological motivations that drive the principle character after whom their play was not named. This suggests a “side taking,” so to speak, and perhaps a sexist one, as Marina Carr, a female, writes on the side of Phaedra, a woman, and Euripides to the allegiance of Hippolytus, a man. This demonstrates that contemporary writers might prefer to explore the cursed as opposed to those who fall in a curse’s path. In fact, they might feel that this is the way the audience must now encounter such an iconic story.
Aside from character, both Euripides (via Grene) and Carr choose to unfold the narrative in different ways. Essentially, what is pinnacle to one play’s plot is completely twisted in the other’s. This is probably for a plethora of reasons, among them the need to demonstrate ingenuity and creative license. In Hippolytus, for example, Phaedra is truly in love with Hippolytus. We know this because she has resorted to plans of death as an escape from Aphrodite’s curse:
At first when love had struck me, I reflected how best to bear it. Silence was my first plan. Silence and concealment. For the tongue is not to be trusted: it can criticize another’s faults, but on its own possessor it brings a thousand troubles. Then I believed I could conquer love, conquer it with discretion and good sense. And when that too failed me, I resolved to die. And death is the best plan of them all (Grene, 254).
These “thousand troubles” are the weights that weigh her down and the insatiable feelings that she cannot bear to have disclosed. When they are, she is crushed by their tonnage and commits suicide.
Things play out much differently in Phaedra Backwards. In Carr’s play, Phaedra is not in unrelenting pursuit of Hippolytus but, in actuality, it is the other way around. Phaedra enjoys flirting with Hippolytus but attempts to conceal them. Hippolytus, however, does not give up. In a very theatrical way, we see the demons of Phaedra’s past gnaw at her flesh and thrust her into a whirlwind of moral uncertainty in terms of reconciling her brother Minotaur’s murder which was committed by her husband, Theseus, and of what to do about her unresolved feelings for her stepson. This does, however, also lead to her eventual suicide.
In Hippolytus, Theseus learns from a note on Phaedra’s person about an alleged (and false) rape and seduction by Hippolytus of Phaedra. In Phaedra Backwards, the emotionally worn title character tells Theseus of Hippolytus’ actions. Though the latter is more theatrical and tragic, Theseus is moved by both means of advisement to exile Hippolytus which will, in both accounts, result in Hippolytus’ death. What is especially striking about the differences between the plays is their conclusion. At the end Hippolytus, Artemis explains to Theseus that Phaedra lied and exposes the error of his ways. Theseus goes to Hippolytus who forgives Theseus for banishing him without a trial. It takes an tremendous amount of selflessness to forgive a transgression of that depth and magnitude. If we ever had a doubt that Theseus was innocent or heroic, it is gone in this moment. In Phaedra Backwards, Theseus simply banishes Hippolytus. It is then, with nothing left to live for, that Phaedra goes “into the sea” and, so we infer, to her self-willed demise (Carr, 74). The ending is somehow less valiant and much more dissonant. We feel a greater sense of injustice for everyone, in fact, even those we don’t want to like, which is certainly another contemporary component involved with experiencing the play. Both plays are tragedies in their contexts. Euripides’ version involves the death of a good man after a cursed woman’s suicide tangles the lines of communication; the notions and themes present here are astronomical, not unlike everything else “Greek.” In Carr’s adaptation, we see a 21st Century sort of tragedy:
THESEUS. Then why [did you tell me Hippolytus did it]…?
PHAEDRA. Told you on a whim…I was bored.
PHAEDRA. Wanted to wring some juice from the evening. (Carr, 5).
From Aeschylus to Sopholces to Euripides, Greek Drama has withstood the test of time. Translations of the original “greats” have had generations of successful reception. What remains so fantastic about adapting these classics, however, is the power they then can hold within a new setting or context that, perhaps, has different needs. Examining Phaedra Backwards and Hippolytus exposes the incredible power and relevance of the myth itself and reinforces the incredible, always-evolving nature of theater as an art-form and as a literary avenue. Adaptation is an incredible tool, not necessarily designed to be the art of “cutting and adding” but to expose what always lingered within something. Adaptation is simply repositioning the lamp, and in the hearty realm of Greek Drama, it seems that there is never a shortage of light.
I like things like fire and avocados and being in parks and taking bike rides and finding cool old books in cool old bookstores and only ever thinking about reading them. I'm a Capricorn. Grilled cheese is my kryptonite. I want to work in Theater or Film and TV. I don't believe in wasting time. I like telling stories. My life is about THE PURSUIT [a web series] (www.thepursuitwebseries.com) and Saladworks and Christmas.