“I tried to suppress my mad feelings. That didn’t work. You can’t suppress Aphrodite.”
—Euripides (trans. Anne Carson), Hippolytus
“The first sight of him ripped my wounds open. No longer a fever in my veins, Venus had fastened on me like a trigger.”
“Can’t switch this off. Can’t crush it. Can’t. Wake up with it, burning me. Think I’ll crack open I want him so much.”
—Sarah Kane, Phaedra’s Love
There are few figures in Greek mythology as tragic as Phaedra. And, if we accept Greek mythology as the benchmark of tragedy (rivalled only by the works of Shakespeare), then we must accept Phaedra as one of the most tragic figures in all of literature.
Though married to Theseus, Phaedra is in love with his son Hippolytus, her stepson. She cannot bear it. It literally makes her sick, killing her slowly. Her nurse, Oenone, tries to save Phaedra by telling Hippolytus of her symptom and the cause. Hippolytus is disgusted and threatens to tell his father. Phaedra, ashamed, kills herself, but not before leaving a note accusing Hippolytus of her crime. Theseus ends up cursing his son with the aid of Poseidon. Eventually he learns of the truth.
There are many iterations of this story in theatre. I have read three. There is the original Hippolytus by Euripides, which closely follows the above synopsis. The cause of Phaedra’s love is directly attributed to the goddess Aphrodite in this version, punishing Hippolytus for spurning love and women. Love is a tool of the gods, something humans cannot overcome. There’s a fatalism and inevitability in the premise.
The second version I am familiar with is Racine’s Phèdre. In this version the gods, while blamed, are never directly attributed to the cause of Phaedra’s sickness. So, while acknowledging the Greek setting and the relevance of the Gods at the time, Racine is more concerned with the psychological ramifications of the story. In his version, Hippolytus is no longer represented as a sort of asexual figure. This is used to add an element of jealousy to Phaedra’s love for him. Overall it’s a pretty faithful retelling of the story with subtle additions that ground it in a more modern perspective.
The last version I’ve read is Sarah Kane’s tragicomic bastardisation Phaedra’s Love. Her main contribution to the story is an intense nihilism mixed with sex and profanity. With no regard for the original setting, she makes the language contemporary. It works though. It’s a fucked up play. In this version Hippolytus doesn’t rebuff Phaedra’s affections, but he doesn’t quite return them either. He just uses her for (oral) sex and rejects her. The rest of the play follows somewhat closely to the original, though filtered through grand guignol.
It’s interesting to note that the naming of the later plays is indicative of an understanding (on the playwright’s part) that the heart of the story is Phaedra rather than Hippolytus. She is the driving force behind the narrative, both her love and shame.
I love this whole fashion of taking classic stories are remodelling them to suit your own needs and intentions. And I don’t just mean in a dramaturgical sense. I don’t mean changing Macbeth to a corporate setting and cutting a couple of scenes and you’ve got a new play. That’s not a new play. That’s looking at an old play from a fresh perspective.
I’m talking about building upon the ideas of our predecessors. That to me is the crux of all writing. Firstly, we must accept no thought or idea can be truly original. Secondly, we must accept nothing is sacred. Thirdly, we must to what we can to be, above all else, honest. Forget about originality. What matters is sincerity.
Bastardise. Steal. Adapt. Translate.. Recreate. Deconstruct. Rebuild. Abridge. Expand. Mutate. Invert. These are just a few our tools as writers. We’d be foolish not to use them.