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Thursday, January 23, 2020

A Conversation Between Medea Writer/Director Simon Stone and Producer David Lan

David Lan: Simon, why choose this very old play about things that happened very long ago?

Simon Stone: Because what happens in the play keeps happening. The curse of our humanity is that we keep making the same mistakes. We try to escape this destiny, to learn from history, yet there’s a resurgence of these themes, these acts as though there were some kind of cosmic karma. We do these plays because, unfortunately, women still kill their children—infrequently and far less often than men—but it happens, and despite the fact that there’s this ancient story of Medea as a warning.

DL: A warning of what?

SS: Of what happens if we isolate and marginalize women at vulnerable moments of their lives. In the earliest versions of the story, Medea is a witch. She makes potions and casts spells. At the same time, she is woman who sacrifices everything for her husband Jason. She kills members of her own family, becomes a refugee, exhausts all her power by, for example, putting a dragon to sleep. When they arrive in a safe place, Jason realizes it’s to his advantage to transfer allegiance to another family and simply swaps one woman for another with no loyalty to all Medea has given him. That’s a story I see throughout history.

DL: This story existed before Euripides. What did he do to it?

SS: He had the perversity of thought to imagine that the mother would kill her children. In the pre-Euripides version, after Medea has killed Jason and escaped, it’s local citizens who kill the children as revenge for the murder of their King. By the change he made, Euripides created one of those moments where, as in Oedipus, you go, “Wow, he really went there.” We all have dark moments of feverish imagination but nobody writes it or even talks about it. He put the unthinkable into words. Of course, if any woman says “I wish I didn’t have my children,” or “I feel incapable of love for my children”...

DL: Because they’re also the children of the man I hate...

SS: Maybe, but also perhaps because inherently she doesn’t feel motherly and never did. That’s one of the great taboos. People find it easier to imagine Medea as a monster, a witch, so they can separate what she did from what might be the reality in their own home.

DL: So that’s what Euripides did to the story. What did you do to Euripides?

SS: He rewrote the ending of a myth and I rewrote the beginning. I’ve kept what Euripides added and reimagined what happens before and how we get there…and I suppose I’ve drawn on moments I’ve witnessed in my own life, in my own relationships…and I found a person from our world—a case study—called Deborah Green, who committed a similar act in 1995 in Kansas City.

DL: One could say our ability to take old plays and remake them is a great thing because it’s a continuity with our past. On the other hand, Medea is about a terrible act of violence. Why do we go on telling these violent stories?

SS: I believe our idea of progress is another of the great myths. Think of Yemen and Syria, countries that are part of our modern “progressive” world. It’s a stupid myth that nowadays extreme violence only occurs in backward countries. Before the war, Syria was a sophisticated, literate, well educated, outward-looking society. Its elite, educated at Cambridge and Oxford, was capable of extreme acts of terror. Hanging out at university, looking at art, listening to opera doesn’t save you from being a person who tortures or rapes or condones mass murder.

DL: So what saves us?

SS: I don’t believe anything saves us. Some of us have fallen on the lucky side. It’s sheer chance. And “how can we avoid the horror?” is the wrong question. The right question is “how, at this moment in the world in which we’re all living, can we help those who are deep in it?” We should use the historical awareness that it’s not our greater brilliance or our remarkable personalities that have enabled us to avoid it, it’s sheer chance, and the compassion that that understanding gives us should affect the way we react to those in need nowadays. It’s astonishing to me that when great horrors occur some people go, “No, but this time it’s different, this time there’s a reason to have less tolerance for the wave of refugees coming out of Syria or Yemen, this time I need to worry about my security rather than that of others.” It’s not different. It’s the same story over and over again.

Medea runs through Mar 8 at the Harvey Theater at BAM Strong.

Photographs by Richard Termine
© 2020 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

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