The lost voices of women in Greek theatre
Writer and broadcaster Fiona Lindsay takes a look at the forgotten heroines of Greek theatre whose stories have been hidden and told by men over the centuries
When composer Joanna Marsh contacted me last summer about a new commission she was working on with the BBC Singers, I had just finished working on a short documentary series on Greek theatre and had booked myself onto a yoga retreat in Crete.
I’ve been involved in theatre for all of my professional life, mainly classical and mainly with plays written by dead men, and my aim has always been to explore innovative ways to connect the then of them to the now of us. The purpose of any play is to hold a mirror up to nature and reflect what’s happening now. If the text was originally sculpted as far back as 5 BCE, as the Greeks were, then it’s imperative to engage with a bit of imaginative time travel and creative archaeology.
Sitting on a sunny rock in Crete, the birthplace of Zeus and so many ancient tales of wonder stirred me into thinking about how art always blends the past with the present. Upon the rocky shoreline, looking out over a choppy Aegean Sea, I began thinking about the Greek Chorus. A line of masked men who stepped in and out of roles—male and female, old and young, servants and masters. This group of a dozen or so men commented on the action, posed questions and reflected humanity back at the audience.
"If you looked around the theatre at that time, you wouldn't have seen any women in the audience, nor on stage—it simply wasn’t permitted"
They were the core of the play. But what if the chorus line wasn’t masked men, instead formed of masked women who harnessed their inner voices, ripped off their masks and stepped into the light to tell their own story, in their own way?
The playwrights Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides gave voice to some of the most important and impactful female roles in theatre. Here were women unafraid to speak their truth, women driven by the elemental forces within them, women unashamed to be powered by their raw emotion. But their words were spoken by men. They were written by men. They were represented by men. What if these wonderful women of legend came to life?
Picture the scene. It’s springtime in Athens 5 BCE. Excitement is in the air. The city is gearing up for the largest festival of the year; the Festival of Dionysus. If you looked around the theatre at that time, you wouldn't have seen any women in the audience, nor on stage. It simply wasn’t permitted, and the female perspective wasn’t regarded in society at all. And yet, here in that theatre, invisible women actually wielded great power.
These women of myth amplified the tensions between the state and society and because of their legendary status could be seen to exist outside the house but in doing so always coming to a catastrophic end. It’s as if their stories were to serve as tales of caution. We’ll never know for sure, though. What we do know is, that over time, and at the hands of others, lines have been crossed and blurred in the telling and re-telling of these ancient tales and it’s often the women who have been marginalised and misrepresented.
The daughter of the King of Thebes, who by a series of unfortunate and predestined events, unknowingly married her son Oedipus. What a (mythical) life she led! And yet most of her story is spoken by others and she’s mainly visible on Grecian urns in the display of ancient artefacts in museums. What would she say if she got to speak for herself?
Could Medea have prophesied the re-telling of her fate at the hands of Euripides? He cast her as the woman, who, blinded by rage, kills her children. Why would he do this? Why would he present this version to an audience of men when the myth suggests that it was the Corinthians that killed them? Was it because she was a Barbarian and regarded as an outsider who could disrupt society by her differences? The only true voice is her own.
Helen of Troy
She was only seven years old when she was deemed the most beautiful and the most dangerous woman in the world. To even glimpse upon her put the viewer in mortal danger. Oh, and she was "hatched” from an egg, apparently! There’s so much contrariness in all of this, so much ridiculousness. If she could step out of the shadows, what would she say?
The daughter of the unfortunate Jocasta, Antigone wasn’t afraid to speak her truth and stand up to the authority of Creon, her uncle, when he refused to give her brother his rightful funeral. She’s a rule-breaker, whose courage and determination was undeterred. Impressive and beguiling word play is her super power which enrages Creon. He condemns her to death which in turn leads to her taking her own life. What if he had seen her for her potential and for her commitment to the state? What a powerhouse they may have been!
And what of Pandora? She was forbidden from opening a box that was put in her care, and like Eve before her couldn’t resist the temptation. The box was opened and seven of the deadliest sins exploded over the world. But it’s all a bit confusing, and what’s rarely addressed is that hope was also contained within the box, and this was itself a blessing. Pandora also brought hope and wonder within her treasure chest of charm, but this detail has escaped the narrative around her to this day.
We close our scene with the formidable Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon, mother to Iphigenia, Electra and Orestes, who, enraged by her husband’s treacherous sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia, plots her just revenge and is condemned for it. She doesn’t hold back. All she wants is his death and her truth to be told. She stands by her actions and is willing to pay the price. She roars. What a tale she would tell if she was able to take to the stand in her own voice and be unmasked.
In a way, we have all been masked. It’s been dramatic in a whole other sense and the unmasking of ourselves after two years of imposed isolation has brought an urgency within so many factions of society to demand that they be more fully seen and heard. I wrote the words for SEEN as a testimony to quietened voices, past and present, fictional and real in an attempt to creatively shift the impersonators and imposters of the truth, out of the way to enable those others to sing their songs.
The world premiere of SEEN, featuring the BBC Singers with music by Joanna Marsh, live electronics by Glen Scott and words by Fiona Lindsay, takes place on May 20 at Milton Court, Barbican Centre. Tickets are available here
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