Greek tragedy fights its environment in Medea

Photo by Angelina Abitino

Rehearsals for “Medea” began just like one of the lines of cocaine I’d witnessed, as an innocent bystander, being cautiously sniffed two and a half weeks ago by some faceless and nameless Swattie and his friend in the dark, off a small, rectangular mirror: sitting upon the surreal grass-carpeted stage in the amphitheater like a stage within a stage: which is to say, sprinkled and focused delicately by the director into the serene souls and language of a talented group of Swarthmore College actors.

Not unlike how Swarthmore College drags the limits and infrastructure of that contemporary and apparently “Western” civilization we inherit in the form of the academic departments, the disciplines and their deference to the Dream, already darkening in a cool, autumnal evening gloom, ‘tech’ crews dragged ladders, extension cords and power strips across the grass for the purposes of intensifying the light and capacity of the ancient, almost 2,500 year old Greek play to serve as a mirror.

Enter mosquitos.

The lights were being hung now onto various poles and wires for the purpose of the performances, situated before the mortal foliage of the Crum Woods and seeming even more unnatural to the dark soul one might share with the forest at night than the iPhone screen I’d witnessed two and half weeks ago being held by that silhouette of a Saturday-night Swattie for the purpose of illuminating that Swattie’s particular choice of aesthetic experience.

I was in shock, intoxicated, because Greek tragedy, contrary to popular opinion, is highly addictive; only Director Joshua Wolfsun never warned me.

Apparently, once any individual or civilization starts observing the never-quite-dead gestures and imagery of the past, adjusting slightly the prescription-lens forms for it to becomes clearer, it also starts to look at itself from that distant perspective. One sees Medea and one looks at oneself as Medea would: betrayed, perhaps. Or one perhaps projects one’s inappropriate identity into Sophocles, the writer of “Medea,” and begins to struggle to inhale the intoxicating melodrama of Medea and Jason’s souring marriage as economies struggle to inhale abstract values and natural resources today . One sees, as Robinson Jeffers sees, the translator of “Medea” and struggles to bring the expressive Greek imagery out of Sophocles.

It was my intoxicant of choice, “Medea,” not even because I was even listening to the rehearsing of the lines as they floated through the politics of the English language and the orange, blood-stained leaves only to be suddenly stabbed, like Jason’s children, off-stage, invisible to observers and fall to the ground, buried and profaned by the rumbling of passing SEPTA trains as they shoot over the Crum Creek bridge on their acceleration on the Elwyn line and the symphonic sound of millions of crickets who call the Crum Woods home…

“You don’t necessarily to want to fight the loud things,” said Director Wolfson to an actor whose Greek words were struggling to compete with the magnitude of nature. “If something is coming, you can, you know, pause — because it’s a part of your environment.”

“Look at the noise, react to it,” emphasized Wolfsun, shrugging his shoulders. Why not? he seems to be asking.

Though Wolfsun wasn’t talking to me, I took his advice. Swarthmore College and modern life in general fail to look at the noise of their surroundings.

“Can I have,” asked Wolfsun, “a couple pairs of hands from tech just to get the door up?” I couldn’t tell if he was speaking to the students present or to the time-tested hands of the art, which as a disinterested character in itself, continues to write the images of transcendent suffering onto the minds of we moderns.

“If you havn’t already,” instructed Wolfsun, “get into your character pose.”

There was the sound of squirrel foraging, for fall remained several feet away from the stage like a director scouring the imagination of theater for something worthy of Drama-Board funding. It clashed with the sound of a miter-saw off somewhere in the distance, dismembering God-knows-what tree or stone and the roar of more semi-trucks as they made their ways north and south during rush-hour on Interstate-476. The industry of my environment overwhelmed my ability to focus on the play, distracting my ability to focus on the truth-content of the Greek tragedy with the accelerating truth-content of the economy.

“As you walk, imagine where you were one year ago today — you being your character.” But where is one really walking? Through history, language, through the strides of a self-reflections on time, on what one is not, or through the stage and fiction of Swarthmore’s both human and plant nature preserves?

“What were you doing? Where were you walking? Who were you walking with? Where did you expect to be? Hope to be? If you have any fears about where you would be…”

The tech team put up a ladder to one of the light poles for the purpose of connecting the sound equipment, not unlike how Wolfsun was preparing his actors to extend a ladder or an oil-drill of sorts down into the fermenting fossils and long-contemplated gestures of drama.

“Who did you talk to?” Wolfsun continued.

Pacing back and forth across the, the actors, staring in their own various directions, appeared almost ready to begin the conversation they were assigned to perform: between the childhood of drama and the decaying remnants of post-industrial institution of Higher Education.

As the dialogue between the rehearsal and history quieted down, the sun fell lower; the darkness grasped hold of the sky; and the crickets became louder than the hum of the highway.

“And now what you were doing earlier today — what were you doing when you woke up this morning — did something wake you up? Or did you wake up on your own?”

Holes in the illusion — the suspension of disbelief — were visible. That’s the beauty of the Crum.

“What did you do to get ready for your day? Ok — Stop — Do whatever you need to do to prepare, to do the show.

The actors made eye-contact with the single audience member, a selfish journalist. Texts come out of backpacks as actors crammed additional lines into their preparations. Another mosquito landed on the hand that was typing this article.

“Josh,” an actress asked the director, “are we going to have WALLS?”

Did they want to block out the imagery, the sound, the input of the present?

“We will… eventually”

With it being “naïve” in Roberto Calasso’s words, “to pretend to interpret myth, when it is myth itself that is already interpreting us,” it seemed obscene to write an article convincing Swarthmore students to attend a tragedy based on a myth for the sake of the play itself.

No, I don’t know anyone who can sell you cocaine.

Medea will be performed October 24, 25 and 26 at 7 p.m. in Swarthmore’s Scott Amphitheater. The rain Location for “Medea” is Upper Tarble.



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