Musical and Ritualistic Movement in Medea

A contemporary retelling of a classic tale

CW: mentions of violence against children 

Last weekend, Medea, the Reed College Theater Department’s fall main stage production directed by Assistant Professor of Theatre Jaclyn Pryor, concluded its run. The show spanned two weekends, including showings during Parents and Family Weekend. It was an adaptation of Euripides’s Medea based off of Sam French’s translation. When asked about why Medea is necessary now, Pryor suggested that the play’s assertion of the “power of speech and speech acts, and the idea and belief that when we articulate something we bring it into being… feels very relevant in a place where most of what we do is discourse,” be it writing, reading, or discussing in conference. Medea, moreover, is important “in this historical moment where women are degraded and demoralized and the figure of the immigrant and the foreigner is a haunting negative specter… it brings the question of who is an outsider and an insider into view.” 

In trying to emphasize the importance of speech and speech acts, ironically, the script was heavily cut in order to sharpen the dialogue and to increase the rhythm and pace of the show while retaining the central plot points. This made each line more impactful, especially those involving oaths, promises, and plans. Speech and dialogue is the driver of this play. Medea’s husband Jason’s broken oath and the king Kreon’s decree banishing her sets Medea into action. The importance of  speech is emphasized by the singing and music. There was a strong sense that the chorus and music drove the show from beneath the action as they formed the aural and visual backdrop of the show.

The music of the show was otherworldly. Diegetic sound, the harmonium and singing, was clearly used to push forward and echo the plot of the play. Eerily echoing the dialogue, the chorus’s trance-like singing created a mythic atmosphere. It also served to carry forth despair and a sense of the inevitability of the tragic arc of Medea. Songs such as “I wish it had never sailed” in reference to the Argo, the ship that brought Medea away from her home with Jason, sung just after Medea has determined to kill her children, articulates a vain desire by the chorus as they come to understand that they could never actually affect the course of the play.

Photo courtesy of Jaclyn Pryor

Photo courtesy of Jaclyn Pryor

There was also significant use of non-diegetic sound from sources outside of the world of the play, including sound bites from A Streetcar Named Desire, Julius Caesar, and West Side Story. These pieces worked to add texture to the sound scape of the world. You didn’t necessarily need to be able to identify the source to be able to gain a sense of the emotion each sound brought.  

The chorus, of course, was a striking feature of the production. Following from the chorus in Euripides, it retained the sense of the classical chorus as a powerful dramatic force. Backing characters such as the Tutor and Nurse, it became clear that they had a strong influence on the action of the play. They also appeared to serve a role as the audience’s emotional surrogate, especially when Medea cries, “If any here abhor this sacrifice, avert your eyes,” to which they turn their backs on her in unison. 

The role of the chorus, however, becomes more and more clear as the production carries forward. Each named character, with the exception of Medea and the Messenger, introduced themselves by saying, for example, “I am playing the Nurse.” This opening line is finally repeated by a different actor at the conclusion of the play, after Medea has killed her children and fled Corinth. The naming conceit worked to create a sense that any character could be played by any of the chorus members. The repeated opening line at the end worked to suggest that Medea’s story would continually be replayed with different actors in different roles. 

This sense of playing with time and layering over the past is also emphasized by the set. It began relatively bare. At the top of the show, the only set piece was the “magic box,” a golden outline painted around the stage. This defined the playing space; the semi-sacred space in which all action took place. Once entered, the magic box was only left at the very end of the show, just before and then after the children were killed. Throughout the play, the stage gradually accumulated props, becoming cluttered. At one point, a wedding banquet is set up. Medea and Jason fight across the table destroying the cake and smearing it on each other. Cake also ended up all over the stage. Later, rose petals were spread around and confetti was dropped from the ceiling. By the end of the play, the audience was continually reminded of the past action of the play and the mess it created.

This sense of ritual is also important to Pryor. They suggested that they are “interested in thinking about how the poetry of ritual and the spirit work as transformative.” They are interested in “what other kind of work [we] can do,” along with our intellectual work. This sense of ritual is evident in the bearing of the actors. Throughout the play, they hold a high level of tension and hold a distant neutral gaze, adding to the ritual, trance-like nature of the play. 

Medea has always been a difficult play. Medea’s decision to kill her children is easily understandable as the cruelty of Jason and Kreon is clear, and more strongly emphasized in this production. Her precarious position as a foreigner woman clearly drivers her to take action as she has no power to change her situation through conventional means. The decision to “kill” her children on stage, moreover, is a significant change from the original. The killing itself is rather playfully, as the children essentially play with fake blood and then go to “sleep” as Medea sings a Turkish lullaby to them. It seems to emphasize the love and care she bears for them. On the other hand, Medea’s acts themselves are uncomfortable; there are not really occasions where killing one’s children can be read, by itself, as positive. The play calls us to sit with our discomfort and understand Medea’s position. Medea’s story is necessary in this moment as we contemplate the power of speech and the perilous situation of the outsider.

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