The Medea is a classic tragedy with its historical, cultural and social origins firmly in Ancient Greece. Since originally being written by Euripides, the play has been rewritten and reinterpreted by many different playwrights and directors throughout history. Each time the Meda has been re-imagined, it takes on different meaning, born from the context of the playwright and the message they wish to convey through this powerful play. This essay will cover the original play by Euripides, as well as the versions from Jean Anouilh and Wesley Enouch. It will discuss how the different contexts, historical, social and cultural, have shaped the play that was written and performed.
Euripides was born in Athens in 484 BC and died in 406 (Sparknotes on Medea n.d.). Euripides version of the Medea was originally written and first performed in 431 BC (McNamara 1999, p7). This was during the ‘Golden Age’ of Greek civilisation where Democracy, philosophy, medicine, and the alphabet (among others) was discovered (McNamara 1999, p7). During this time, the concept of tragic drama and theatre was conceived, and flourished in the city state, with Euripides being one of the most prolific and influential playwrights of his time (Sparknotes on Medea n.d.).
In this era, the Greek’s of Athens were always ‘at edge’ with the constant threat of war to their city state and allies (McNamara 1999, p7). Just before Euripides was born in 490 BC the Athenian’s won a decisive battle against the Persian’s, winning the right to pursue their free democratic ideals, as well as gaining dominance over the Mediterranean (McNamara 1999, p7). However towards the end of Euripides lifetime, Athens power and influence was wanning, with much of it being lost after a protracted defeat to Sparta during the Peloponnesian War (431 BC – 404 BC) (Sparknotes on Medea n.d.).
Within Athens there was also some social upheaval which came in the form of younger thinkers challenging the notions of the elders (McNamara 1999, p7). In particular the concept of rationalism or “the pursuit of truth by the pure exercise of human intellectual powers” was gaining popularity despite being fiercely resisted by conservatives (McNamara 1999, p7-8). Euripides established himself as a free thinker and became the “dramatic face” of this shift in perspective on social ideologies (McNamara 1999, p7-8). Euripides challenging the status-quo of Athenian culture was also reflected in his plays through criticism of traditional religion, the 2nd class status of women and the subjugation of slaves (Sparknotes on Medea n.d.). This critique and commentary resulted in Euripides being “roundly abused and less favoured than traditional playwrights” during his life, but many of his works endure today and are in the cannon of classic literature (McNamara 1999, p8).
Jean Anouilh was born on June 23rd 1910 in a small village near Bordeaux in France and died in 1987 (Freeman 2005, p vi). His mother was a violinist in the casino orchestra and has been credited with influencing his formative years towards the arts where he became familiar with light music and operetta (Freeman 2005, p vi). Anouilh has been credited with completing the writing of his version of the Medea in 1946 with it being eventually performed for the first time in 1953 at the Theatre de I’Atelier, running for 32 performances (Freeman 2005, p X). During the time of its writing (or just prior to its completion) France was occupied by Nazi Germany (1940-1944) (History of France 2011). Anouilh was briefly part of the French army before its surrender to Germany in 1940 and during the occupation he continued his pre-war workings of being a playwright and director (Freeman 2005, p vi).
The occupation was seen to have a significant influence on Anouilh’s musings at the time where his most well known play, the Antigone was seen as a thrust towards the Nazi occupiers and the ‘puppet’ French Vichy government that was installed...