17 - 2003

Dossier Studi Culturali

Itala Vivan


Sarah Kane's play Phaedra's Love was first produced in 1996 by the Gate Theatre, a small theatre in Notting Hill, London, which had commissioned it. The revisitation of ancient myths has been a long tradition in the British theatre, and young playwright Kane, then 25, is no exception to it, for several works of hers show a postmodernist approach to famous literary topoi.
In this case, however, myth comes down to Kane with a wealth of cultural references, for Phaedra's story has been told and re-told over the centuries and has generated many famous texts. The ancient Greek myth - or, rather, _____: a tale, a story - has come down to us through the second version given by Euripides in the tragedy Hippolytus produced in 428 b.C.; Euripides' earlier version, entitled Hippolytus Veiled and a source of scandal because of Phaedra's transgressive behaviour - she declared her love to Hippolytus - was lost. Also lost is a previous version by Sophocles, while there survives a long sequel of revisitations, the best known belonging to Seneca, Racine, Swinburne, and D'Annunzio - to which one should also add the various musical works inspired by the character of Phaedra.
The ancient myth is structured around the taboo of incest (between young Hippolytus and his stepmother Phaedra) and has its tragic core in the fact that the transgression, the actual incest, does not happen in reality but is restricted to desire, for Hippolytus refuses Phaedra's love and is accused of incest by her when his father Theseus, king of Athens, comes back to Trezene where the royal family is staying temporarily. Desire, and the impossibility of its satisfaction, constitute then the original subtext of the myth, and it is precisely the theme of impossible love which attracted Sarah Kane, who transformed it into a contemporary situation while keeping intact the force of passion and despair burning at the core of the Greek tragedy. So what is Sarah Kane's purpose in stealing the myth, and what are the added cultural and dramatic values she brings into it by retelling the well known story and offering it to the gaze of the contemporary audience? How is the ancient tragic language reinterpreted and reorganized for contemporary sensibility, and how does violence inhabit the new play? These are the basic questions demanding an answer if one wishes to understand the secret purpose of such a powerful and even awesome text as Phaedra's Love appears to be.
It is well known that there is great pleasure in listening to an old story told all over again. But a special gratification is to be found in stealing it, that is, in retelling and playing with it in order to give it a new mould - in a word, in making new literature out of it, as Furio Jesi (Jesi: 1968) observes - and adapt it to the needs of a new generation born in different times and circumstances.
The Greek Hippolytus and Phaedra were connected to other ancient mythical characters and themes. First of all, Phaedra, a princess from Crete, was marked out for being Pasiphae's daughter and therefore tinted with the bestiality of her origin; secondly, she had stolen Theseus from her own sister Ariadne who had helped him defeat the Minotaur and escape from the Cretan labyrinth. Birthmarks and sins were therefore inscribed in this character, who once in Trezene had to cope with gods and humans in a situation of extreme loneliness, while her husband Theseus was absent and possibly lost. Hippolytus was Theseus' son (and Antiope's, one of the Amazons) and was devoted to Artemides (Diana) who inspired him to lead a perfectly virginal life of extreme individualism. The tragedy of Phaedra's unrequited love for her stepson, her suicide and the punishment of Hippolytus falsely accused of rape and incest, were inserted in the context of an interaction between gods and humans, where individual behaviour was supported by divine will and law, but also by the gods' actual presence in human life. In Euripides' tragedy, the goddess Artemides is hated and despised by Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who feels that Hippolytus should pay homage to her rather than to Artemides, and therefore plans to punish and destroy him through Phaedra. Phaedra's passion for Hippolytus, a burning physical attraction which cannot find an outlet, becomes a sort of madness, a manic desire to possess and be possessed, and drives her to mental distraction and suicide.
In all the versions after Euripides the gods lose relevance or disappear altogether, and the humans are left alone to play out their 'mania' to the extreme consequences. The conclusion however is always suicide for Phaedra and cruel punishment for Hippolytus whose father Theseus invokes the wrath of Poseidon and has him crushed by marine monsters, only to discover when it is too late that the young man was actually innocent of the accusations of rape and incest heaped on him. The transformation of the myth starts with Seneca and from the viewpoint of the present analysis it seems interesting to remark that it was indeed Seneca, that old favourite of Elizabethan dramatists, who switched the tragic attention from Hippolytus - where Euripides had put it - to Phaedra who thus becomes a woman of extraordinary strength and boldness, such as the society in Euripides' time would not have conceivably accepted on stage.
Racine's Phèdre (produced in Paris in 1677) gives further emphasis and great poetic eloquence and realism to Phaedra's role but pre-empts the enigmatic purport of Hippolytus' opposition by making him resist his stepmother's desire only because he is in love with the young princess Aricia who belongs to a royal family formerly ruling Athens and therefore enemy of Theseus, the usurper of their throne.
The dichotomy of the double opposition Phaedra/Hippolytus disappears in Racine but emerges all over again in a poem by Swinburne (1866) where the tragedy acquires tonalities of extreme cruelty, unavoidable because love itself is cruel - and where Phaedra begs Hippolytus to kill her with his own hands. Swinburne's Hippolytus is a chaste and rigid youth who can only bring destruction - a destruction which seems almost the peak of love itself. A destruction which is indeed the source of an algolagnic pleasure and the substitute for sexual gratification.
Gabriele D'Annunzio's Fedra (1909) gives Phaedra a new sensuality and plunges her story into a nocturnal atmosphere full of anguish and vibrant with voluptuousness. The decadent taste of the time provides exotic settings and a sophisticated, overdecorated language. Queen Phaedra, whom Euripides had hidden in the white sheets of a deep and suicidal melancholy, is shown by D'Annunzio as reclining on a low bed covered with panther skins and surrounded by the most refined and elegant ornaments and pieces of furniture. Her language is heavy with literary allusions and loaded with archaisms, but her silences are filled with a morbid despair induced by a fatal doom and seemingly one and the same with the overriding tide of a forbidden passion. With D'Annunzio it is the very forbidden nature of incestuous love which drives Phaedra towards Hippolytus.
It is evident that the power of the myth itself - the figure of a woman devoured by a passion which cannot be satisfied - allowed Phaedra to survive all the cultural features of different historical periods, and triumph, owing to the sheer strength of her passionate personality.
Sarah Kane accepted the commission from the Gate Theatre because she felt a deep resonance with the Phaedra theme. As she explained in an interview (Stephenson and Langridge: 1997, 131-32), she herself chose Phaedra when offered the rewriting of a mythological theme, and made it into her dramatic manifesto, producing a text of exceptional compactness and stylistic coherence. She used mostly material from Euripides and Seneca, but did not ignore Racine and Swinburne, and looked to D'Annunzio as an example to follow for the rigorous consistency in style. The very title, Phaedra's Love, is a mise en abîme of the whole play, which is a discourse on love centered upon two ancient mythical characters transformed by a new time and culture. Kane's Phaedra belongs to the world of pop culture, and throws it into the face of the audience from the very opening of Scene One, a shock even for those who had seen her previous play Blasted (1995):
A royal palace.
Hippolytus sits in a darkened room watching television.
He is sprawled on a sofa surrounded by expensive electronic toys, empty crisp and sweet packets, and a scattering of used socks and underwear.
He is eating a hamburger, his eyes fixed on the flickering light of a Hollywood film.
He sniffs.
He feels a sneeze coming on and rubs his nose to stop it.
It still irritates him.
He looks around the room and picks up a sock.
He examines the sock carefully then blows his nose on it.
He throws the sock back on the floor and continues to eat the hamburger.
The film becomes particularly violent.
Hippolytus watches impassively.
He picks up another sock, examines it and discards it.
He picks up another, examines it and decides it's fine.
He puts his penis into the sock and masturbates until he comes without a flicker of pleasure.
He takes the sock off and throws it on the floor.
He begins another hamburger (Kane: 2001, 65; italics in the text).
The contemporary setting, as Luca Scarlini comments in his Introduction to the Italian translation of Kane's play, "includes and makes a fine use of many harsh and cruel allusions to the red light reports on the life of the British royal family" (Kane: 2000, vii) - a fact which will become more and more obvious as the play proceeds. From the beginning, we are brought into a closed space, in this case Hippolytus' room; most of the play will take place within enclosed areas, except for Scene Eight when the action is set in the square outside the court where Hippolytus will be led from prison, and finally strangled and torn to pieces. The room is rather dark, a darkness which will stay for most of the play, in contrast with Euripides' text where Phaedra had been a creature of light, so that Nadia Fusini calls her "la luminosa" (Fusini: 1990). Television is on all the time in this room and at the incipit it shows a violent Hollywood film, suggesting what we are going to have on stage from now on - a bad Hollywood story, as real/unreal as a film. Dirt, sloppiness and junk food characterise the room. And the hero - a royal prince - alternatively masturbates and blows his nose into a sock, "impassively", and "without a flicker of pleasure".
The setting, atmosphere, and cultural attitudes introduced by Kane in this play are similar to those used by other contemporary British playwrights, the so called 'very angry young men'. The closest example is Mark Ravenhill, who in 1996 (the same year as Phaedra's Love) produced Shopping and Fucking, with four young characters conveying the squalor and boredom of consumer society, where sex is a commercial transaction and money becomes a central value in life ("money is civilization", Ravenhill: 1996, 85). And it was Harold Pinter who, in an interview with a journalist of "The Guardian", defined both Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill - who created the biggest scandals with their plays - as "Thatcher's children".
What a contrast with Phaedra's white sheets in Euripides or the gorgeous panther skins thrown onto her bed in D'Annunzio's representation of royal glamour - the gap could not be wider. Such a disgusting, overweight, spoiled brat is the heir to the house of Theseus and the object of Phaedra's manic desire, as she reveals in Scene Three in a dramatic dialogue with her daughter Strophe. This piece of information is already known inside the palace: the doctor suggests it with vulgar innuendos when visiting Hippolytus (whom he declares not ill, but simply overweight), while Strophe acknowledges it with a mixture of horror and pity. (In Kane's play, the role of the confidente, hitherto covered by the Nurse, falls upon young Strophe and so increases the tragic weight of the events). Love is "A spear in my side, burning", says Phaedra (Kane: 2001, 69); and adds, "I want him" (Ibidem: 72), almost to be relieved from an unbearable torture: "Wished you could cut open your chest tear it out to stop the pain?" (Ibidem: 69). But the torture goes on, for Strophe tries to make Phaedra understand what type of man Hippolytus is, "a sexual disaster area" (Ibidem: 73).
Hippolytus is an apathetic and repulsive young man who however seems to enjoy the favour of a lot of women and men with whom he has sex but no emotional involvement. An overgrown child, with childish hangovers and problems, he has the body of a fat adult and the social role of a royal prince. He is unable to feel and react; drowned in the bric-à-brac of his untidy room, he lives in a sort of dusky captivity where the compulsive inner drive to self preservation becomes a grim degradation and a destructive factor in his relationship with others.
Events precipitate rapidly in the central Scene Four, when for the first and only time Phaedra faces Hippolytus alone and finds the courage to declare him her love. Again, the scene opens with a long caption describing the situation:
Hippolytus is watching television with the sound very low.
He is playing with a remote control car.
It whizzes around the room.
His gaze flits between the car and the television apparently getting pleasure from neither.
He eats from a large bag of assorted sweets on his lap.
Phaedra enters carrying a number of wrapped presents.
She stands for a few moments watching him.
He doesn't look at her.
Phaedra comes further into the room.
She puts the presents down and begins to tidy the room - she picks up socks and underwear and looks for somewhere to put them. There is nowhere, so she puts them back on the floor in a neat pile.
She picks up the empty crisp and sweet packets and puts them in the bin.
Hippolytus watches the television throughout.
Phaedra moves to switch on a brighter light (Ibidem: 74; italics in the text).
While Phaedra is trying to ingratiate him and promises him a special present (it is his birthday), Hippolytus starts abusing and humiliating her in all possible - and impossible - ways. "When was last time you had a fuck?", he asks her (Ibidem); and includes also his father (and her husband) Theseus in his spite, suggesting he is betraying his wife. He rejects the wrapped up presents people have sent him, and keeps playing with the toy car, a self made present; when Phaedra out of jealousy asks him "Who gave you that?", he answers, "Me. Only way of making sure I get what I want. Wrapped it up and everything" (Ibidem:75) - and thus gives away his deeply engrained autoerotism. An even stronger statement comes when Phaedra remarks "You only ever talk to me about sex", and he replies, "It's my main interest", and then adds, "I hate people" (Ibidem: 77). The dialogue between the two reaches points of growing ferocity, with the woman becoming more and more ingratiating and the young man increasingly spiteful and aggressive. The two opposite trends appear mysteriously linked, as if each of them were necessarily producing its opposite other. Then Phaedra's tension snaps and she confesses her love. "I love you." "Why?" "You're difficult. Moody, cynical, bitter, fat, decadent, spoilt. You stay in bed all day then watch TV all night, you crash around this house with sleep in your eyes and not a thought for anyone. You're in pain. I adore you." (Ibidem: 78-79)
Phaedra, crucified to her passion, is unable to tear herself away from it. Then comes the happening which innovates the tradition of the ancient myth:
They both stare at the television.
Eventually, Phaedra moves over to Hippolytus.
He doesn't look at her.
She undoes his trousers and performs oral sex on him.
He watches the screen throughout and eats his sweets.
As he is about to come he makes a sound.
Phaedra begins to move her head away - he holds it down and comes
in her mouth without taking his eyes off the television.
He releases her head.
Phaedra sits up and looks at the television:
A long silence, broken only by the rustling of Hippolytus' sweet bag.
Phaedra cries (Ibidem: 81; italics in the text).
So in our times Phaedra and Hippolytus do break the taboo of incest and have sex together. The extreme squalor of the scene is devastating. Hippolytus is adamant and persists in his attitude of absolute rejection and indifference, furtherly humiliating Phaedra and tormenting her with the revelation that he has made love to her daughter Strophe who however had become Theseus' mistress on Theseus and Phaedra's wedding night. What a family, this royal family, knotted with betrayal and conflict, and living in a perennial state of inner war. All these horrors, worthy of an Elizabethan tragedy, fall into a pool of moral and emotional indifference and inertia, boredom and apathy.
The high tragedy of ancient times, where the taboo of incest was so awesome that nobody would even mention it, is degraded, and lovemaking is reduced to a merely mechanic sexual practice exposing Hippolytus' selfishness and Phaedra's humiliating self-abnegation. The innovation brought by Kane with the insertion of a sexual relationship of some sort between the two main characters, does not lead to the satisfaction of desire. Desire remains an unknown territory where Phaedra places her aspirations and needs, by now so cogent and desperate as to require a solution. The long and articulate Scene Four, which closes with Phaedra calling Hippolytus "a heartless bastard" (Ibidem: 84), will change the situation and create a turning point in the destiny of the characters.
In Scene Five a furious Strophe confronts Hippolytus and informs him that Phaedra has committed suicide and accused him of rape. This fact awakes him out of his torpor and makes him feel excited: "Me. A rapist. Things are looking up", and "A rapist. Better than a fat boy who fucks" (Ibidem: 87-88). Phaedra now speaks with her death, and through her daughter who tries to make him admit to the rape without confessing it in public, so as to preserve the honour of the family. The drive for preservation is now in Strophe's hands, while Hippolytus refuses to acknowledge any family ties ("You're my brother". "No I'm not", Ibidem: 88). The whole of this play is also a meditation on and an indictment of the situation of the Greek royal family, as a token for the family in general in contemporary western culture.
When Strophe tells Hippolytus that Phaedra has left a note saying explicitly that he had raped her, he reaches a state of exhalted jubilation, and exclaims, "This is her present to me", "Not many people get a chance like this. This isn't any tat. This isn't bric-a-brac"; and concludes, "She really did love me". "Bless her" (Ibidem: 90-91). The result of this momentous discovery is a newly acquired awareness of reality which compels him to turn himself in as the culprit.
Scene Six takes place in prison and is an interlude where Hippolytus and a corrupt priest reason about morality, love and the role of royalty. Not unlike Strophe, the priest also tries to convince him to conform to common morality and keep up with the conventions of decency - but in vain. Hippolytus by now has acquired a precise vision of reality and refuses any substitute for it.
After a short glimpse at Phaedra's body being burnt on a pyre in Scene Seven, there comes Scene Eight with the conclusion of the collective tragedy in the best of Senechian traditions: Theseus and Strophe, disguised, are outside the court when Hippolytus is led out of prison and attacked by a ferocious crowd. But it is Theseus himself who, in a raptus of almost dionisiac fury, strangles his own son and gives the body away to be evirated and torn to pieces; he then turns on Strophe, rapes and kills her, apparently without recognizing her.
In spite of the tortures he has undergone, Hippolytus, cut up and dismembered, is still able to see and speak. He rejects his father (who kills himself) and lies down, but then reopens his eyes and looks at the sky. "Vultures", he murmurs, smiling, "If there could have been more moments like this." Eventually he dies, while "A vulture descends and begins to eat his body" (Ibidem: 102-103).
Kane's version of Hippolytus' death - his being beaten and lynched by the mob and slashed open by Theseus, and then his surviving all this, till he reaches a new emotional situation, almost a peaceful admission of joy - is certainly in the style of postmodernist drama, from Beckett onwards, and through Bond; but it is also surprisingly close to Euripides' text, where the young hero, maimed and crushed by the marine monster Poseidon has launched against him from the sea, finds the strength to talk, express compassion and forgive Theseus. The final catharsis of the ancient tragedy resonates in Sarah Kane's play where some sort of atonement is reached, although in a negative way, because her Hippolytus finds joy and redemption in self destruction and in the prospect of being devoured by vultures. What bleak humour in such a catharsis. The image of a rapacious vulture soaring down towards its prey did in fact appear on the cover of the first edition of Phaedra's Love - again, a mise en abîme of the central issue of the play.
It is of some relevance to observe the peculiar approach to myth (and history) used by Kane and her contemporaries. In the Nineties it was no longer possible to adopt the approach of parody, as it had been in the previous years, when satire had been the tool against still recognized and recognizable social hierarchies. Now such hierarchies no longer exist, and therefore, as suggests Fredric Jameson, satire gives way to pastiche where styles of the past are freely adopted without any satirical intention, in a language fit for contemporaneity. The loss of all cultural dimensions and depths due to the lack of historicity in our present time generates a quest for history and myth from the past. The phenomenon, which Jameson classifies as typically postmodernist, is a consequence of a life totally centered on the present and dominated by self-referential simulacra which are the products of mass media (Jameson: 1991, 37). Kane's Hippolytus is a perfect prototype of this new man.
Sarah Kane's play is a laconic text where the characters' statements are as heavy as stones and overloaded with meaning. The play is pivoted around a tremendous conflict, a war taking place within a family, a royal family - the theme of war continuing Kane's first work Blasted of 1995. But there is deep confusion as to the evaluation of what a family is. Phaedra does not acknowledge her role of 'mother', and when Hippolytus in Scene Four challenges her by saying "Come on, Mother, work it out", she snaps at him, "Don't call me that" - to which Hippolytus replies, "Why shouldn't I call you mother, Mother? I thought that's what was required. One big happy family. The only popular royals ever. Or does it make you feel old?" (Kane: 2001, 78). Later on Hippolytus, in a heated dialogue with Strophe, defines her "Not my sister after all. One of my victims", and when she insists that he should not acknowledge Phaedra's rape, for the "Sake of the family... You are my brother", he insists, "No I am not" (Ibidem: 88). Hippolytus often wonders why there should be such strange ideas of what a family is or should be; to Phaedra he says, "I was born into this shit, you married it. Was he [Theseus] a great shag? Fucking must have been. Every man in the country is sniffing round your cunt and you pick Theseus, a man of the people, what a wanker" (Ibidem: 77); and to Strophe, his step sister, "Strange. The one person in this family who has no claim to its history is the most sickeningly loyal. Poor relation who wants to be what she never will" (Ibidem: 88). During his encounter with the priest while in prison, Hippolytus, invited to consider "the family" and keep in mind that "It is not an ordinary family" (meaning that it is a royal family), replies, "No. None os of us are related to each other" (Ibidem: 93). In final Scene Eight, Theseus who does not recognise Strophe, and in his wrath rapes and kills her, is one more, dramatic, signal of confusion within the family.
Social values, ethical principles, are implicitly but bitterly questioned in the play. References to the British royal family and its sexual scandals are visible, but superficial, and do not suggest a specific satirical purpose: the core of the tragedy is somewhere else, in the "burning spear" finding no explanation in taboo, since no one believes any longer in taboos. Phaedra and Hippolytus do not acknowledge the reality of the taboo of incest, and in any case do not consider themselves mother and son.
Where, then, does the root of conflict, the tragic difference blocking their existences lie? Why do they destroy their lives? Why do they end in self inflicted violence, extreme and repeated violence? Why does that love so intensely craved by Phaedra never win over individual resistances? Kane is not in fact trying to explain things. The task of the artist is to represent them, embodying them in the shape of human beings, making a new story out of an old myth. The necessity of violence derives from the fact that violence is the only language these characters can use: they have no alternative to it. There is no other language left outside the lurid fiction of the dirty Hollywood film which life is. That is what the market offers nowadays in the consumer society inhabited by this royal family. And the choice of a royal family is a device to make everybody realize that these things happen here: exactly as in Blasted, where the setting was a plush hotel in Leeds which later, after a night of domestic violence (Kate's rape), changed to civil war in former Yugoslavia. War is everywhere among us, in all houses and families.
Phaedra is burning with a "want" (the word 'passion' is never mentioned in the play) which is symmetrical and the very opposite of Hippolytus' situation. This fearful symmetry creates a perverse geometry of passions and generates disaster: but while being the individual tragedy of two human beings, it is a mythical story too, a symptom and a typical example hinting at universal confusion and unavoidable calamity.
The only way out of the impasse must therefore be destruction: and that is why the awful vulture brings redemption - quiet. Silence. The end of life. No more words. Sarah Kane surreptitiously quotes Hamlet, another story/history which has been cryptically present from the beginning in Hippolytus' apathy and restless inactivity - a perfect oxymoron, lying at the root of the character.
The fearful symmetry of Hippolytus' and Phaedra's positions might also be read as a representation of male/female gender difference. The past, conventional representation of male and female identities is no longer valid and whoever sticks to its dated rigidity is going to be broken by the fatal wheel of necessity. Fate, which used to be in the hands of the gods, has been taken over by human beings who misplace it and create havoc, in the general confusion of their minds and in their sexual re-orientation, or perhaps misdirected orientation. Among its many perceptible meanings, Phaedra's Love enshrines also a secret and tentative interrogation concerning order and classification in sex and love: since there are no more hierarchies, roles and fixed identities, how does the geometry of passions combine with sexual urges, practices and habits? Is it still possible to think of a common 'passion' linking a man and a woman (or two men or women), or perhaps the end of an external system of social order - and therefore of taboos - has made it impossible for two humans to be a loving couple? How should human beings re-adapt to the new landscape they find themselves in?
Maybe those who try to recreate the marvel of the old fashioned couple are bound to fail, and both man and woman will end in failure. One asks for something the other one cannot possibly give, and if the two are honest (and do not care for the "sake of the family") their relationship will be only a sequence of conflicts ending in destruction. The ancient Greek myth is here deprived of the awesome aura of taboo, but acquires an even more awesome meaning of unavoidable catastrophe for those human beings who want love. Love cannot be, it is only a phantasmatic element, a driving force, a dream and maybe a nightmare. Love as a reality is impossible.
So it might have been for the real Sarah Kane who in 1999 put an end to her own life with the enactment of the complex suicide she had repeatedly imagined and staged in her plays. But of course Phaedra's Love must not be interpreted as autobiographical, as a projection of the self of the artist, for the sheer power of Kane's Phaedra stands by itself and finds a wide resonance as a story, a contemporary story of daily violence and chaos brought to their extreme consequences.

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