Drama Essays - Nick Dear and Liz Lochhead

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With reference to plays by Nick Dear (Zenobia) and Liz Lochhead (Medea) discuss how feminist theory relates to the power struggle in these plays?

Theatre Babel's production of Liz Lochhead's Medea is the largest grossing Fringe production ever; the translation is the fastest selling Euripides translation of Medea in English and has earned Liz Lochhead the prestigious Saltire Award. Although grim and perhaps feminist, the story of Medea seems to have a truly broad appeal, resonating with theatre goers across the globe. Clearly there is something rather different about Lochhead's Medea.

Lochhead's interpretation of the Euripides play consciously rescues the original story from unpalatable demonstrations of inequality at every level. The directorship reflects her efforts. In the theatre Babel production, for example, the composition of the chorus changed. At its premiere, a mixed-sex chorus was used, with everyone in identical attire and make up. The chorus seemed to be dressed as eighteenth-century fashion dolls in corseted dresses, but the male members of the chorus, despite being dressed as women, were nevertheless identifiably male. Liz Lochhead is said to have had reservations about the mixed-sex chorus, and it is worth noting that in the revivals an all-female chorus was used. The identical dress, make-up and hairstyles of the chorus served to emphasise their unity and also to define them as an entity separate from Medea. Uniquely, Lochhead's Medea is written around a sense of the 'otherness' of the eponymous heroine. In the Theatre Babel production Maureen Beattie, attired in a scarlet, velvet, Russo-Polish eighteenth-century dress, delivered her lines in what appeared to be a European refugee accent. In this way Medea was defined as utterly alien; not only through her physical dissociation with the appearance of the chorus, but also through her use of language and pronunciation. She was literally from another place. This alienation is apparent from Lochhead's published text. Before we meet Medea,. Lochhead describes her thus:

From off MEDEA cries out in a voice that is not Scots but a foreigner speaking good English - an 'incomer voice'

Medea is, then, twice removed from the normal standards of power: not only she is a foreigner speaking English - stressing how far she is from her point of origin- but, surprisingly, she is the only character who even speaks English. Medea represents an inversion of the norm, as her learned received English is no longer a passport to success or shortcut to normal discourse, but has become the strange, alien tongue, once displaced into the Scottish setting. As she says to the Scots-English speaking chorus:

no one loves a foreigner

everyone despises anyone the least bit different

'see how she ties her scarf' 'that hair outlandish'

you walked by my house with eyes averted

turned your nose up at my household's cooking smells

'why can't she be a bit more like us?'

say you Greeks

Although the text refers to the chorus of Greeks and the costumes seem to suggest the eighteenth century, the unmistakeable modernity of the language and the use of Scots dialect make a forcible connection with the alienation of the 'other' in twenty-first century Scotland. The Scottish characters are mystifying, incongruous, from Medea's point of view. Clearly the female lead is not the only character struggling to overcome the inherent victimisation of the alienated state: but the Scots find power in numbers and similitude while hers is wrested only- ultimately- in unspeakable violence. Medea's difference, then, signals her vulnerability while holding the key to her power, but also, crucially, highlights the difference of the others to her. Through her isolation, we become aware of the essential isolation and victim-nature of everyone, and soon come to the startling realisation that the only difference between people is the superficial one of coping strategies.

In Nick Dear's Zenobia the eponymous Queen also functions as a tool, albeit in a slightly different way. She first enters the play at the top of the very first scene, as her husband Odainat pins a brooch onto his son's tunic as a reward for fighting well in the day's battle. When Hairan learns where the brooch came from he protests a little, then the men, far from home, drink a toast to her, but Hairan speaks bitterly about his step-mother,

Hairan: the soldiers say she never lets you in her bed, father

Odainat: I have with her five children

Hairan: Five visits only, they say

From the outset the younger male characters, with the possible exception of Odainat, are portrayed as lewd insensitive buffoons,

Odainat: I long to see my life again, to walk with her through the colonnades,

Hairan: That's about all you'll be doing. Odainat and Longinus's discussion about women soon becomes deeply satirical,

Longinus: I have little experience of women - well, none, to be perfectly frank, but surely they all promote their offspring, and resent another's claim?

Odainat: Yes, petty jealousies they nibble at like nuts, to dull their appetite for powershe will live in luxury, the wife of a Consul-

Longinus: I'm sure that's all she's ever wanted

When she finally appears in person, the Queen is contrasted sharply, and rather amusingly, with her teenage son,

Zenobia: It intrigues me, the living muscle of power,

Wahballat: It gives me a headache

Although less overtly feminist than Lochhead, Dear works hard to protect his Queen character from becoming completely asexual, and occasionally signals her femininity. When her son asks her about her relationship with his father, she answers cagily, saying nothing to contradict Hairan's claim in the first Scene. She immediately laments his maturity, and tenderly reflects on his childhood: it becomes clear that she is a sensitive, maternal woman- and, despite being a jealous murderess who lies to her son, Dear may well be appealing for the audience's sympathy for Queen Zenobia, as a woman. Lochhead, too, strives to present Medea as a woman with realistic problems that we can relate to, claiming in her preface that she did not add anything that was not present in the original Euripides play,

How could that feminist critic find him misogynist? Had she been reading the same play?

The Athenian (male) society of his time which Euripides' scourged for its smug and conventional attitudes of unthinking superiority to foreigners and women is unfortunately not totally unrecognisable, quaint or antique to me as I survey mine two and a half thousand years later.

Lochhead's unconscious equation of foreigners and women is telling, and points to another similarity between her play and that of Nick Dear. Both writers tackle themes of power through attempts to establish certain equivalences among all their characters. Lochhead includes markers of similarity and gender sameness in the dress of her chorus; Dear in the dress of his soldiers, the cross-dressing of Porphyry and the feminisation of Malik.

Zenobia: My sex is immaterial! There is nothing manly in the field of battle that I cannot equal!

Zenobia may not be presented as worse than a man, but she is certainly not presented as any better. Indeed, from the way she talks it seems as though the Queen's primary motivation is to equal and better men, in all his awful manifestations. It is a slightly naïve interpretation of the feminist drive, as is the emphatic aggression that seems to characterise the woman. Zenobia's monologue at the beginning of Scene 4 seems to find her settling into her role as a soldier, emphasising that anyone can be a killer, that there is nothing male about it, but it is virtually mechanical, even rather beautiful, process, if you can alienate yourself from yourself,

Now I know why they like it so much. The sheer exhilaration of being left alive at the endThere's no great mystery: you throw your weight through your shoulder, and swing. Sparks decorate your shield. A shudder rocks your arm as you strike a bone. A man's eyes glitter in your face, then fade. You step over his corpse, and go on. Always forward. Never backMy first battle. Now I am bloodied. Now I know why they like it so much.

Her triumphs are systematically extinguished throughout the play, however, as if even the playwright fears his creation and is continually working to undermine her. After her final conquest at Palmyra, Zenobia turns to her son and muses mysteriously, Strange, though, how when you've achieved what you most desire, it does not satisfy. (Scene 9, p.57) There immediately follows a humorous exchange where her son's sexuality is called into question and Zenobia, snapping into her role as neurotic mother, is made a ridiculous and comical figure as the moment of her greatest power, as she attempts to castrate her son bychasing him around with her sword. There is more Freudian symbolism, and more power undermining, in the discussion between Syrus and Cato, where Syrus explains to his friend why the Queen won't have sex,

Syrus: It's energy, you seeShe saves it all for fighting. Fucking coiled like a spring. Fucking killing machine. She'll cut your cock off for a trophy - hang it round her neck. Death with tits, mate, I'm telling you.

Cato: You'll stand firm. But I pity the bloke who has to kill her

Syrus: Like running a spear through your mother

Like the identically clad chorus in Lochhead's Medea, when dressed in armour, everyone must act like a soldier, and gender becomes beside the point. This is why Zabda's reaction to her wounding blade is so amusing and disturbing. Rather than treating the pain as pain, or as a regrettable but inevitable battle wound, he eroticises it. His reaction is amusing because it is so inappropriate: just moments after the levelling scene of armoured soldiers fighting, all Zabda's poetic assumptions about Zenobia's irresistible femininity flood back. The playwright's sympathies again appear to lie with the powerful female.

Zabda: Aagh the pain! Where she touched my face! Delicious pain! Her fingers, like snowflakes on my skin. She could slice every cord in my body for one more touch of those hands!

Similarly, in the most famous production of Lochhead's Medea, Theatre Babel's chorus achieved a more comprehensive representation of women by refusing to individualise any of them throughout the play. Their uniform appearance and synchronised movement served to minimise differences in the age and appearance of the actors, ultimately with their thoughts transcending their physical presence. Medea's initial address to the chorus is loaded,

ladies of all time ladies of this place

and others

The ladies of all time is aimed at the chorus but Lochhead appears to invest the chorus with a certain timelessness, in addition to their meta spaceless quality as intertextual referents. Kraus writes on the unique role that the chorus plays in structuring theatrical artifice in Medea,

In this play, particularly, the rhetorical ability of Medea sophe is fundamental, and enables her to manipulate audiences inside and outside the play, becoming no less than a new playwright constructing her own plot. And in her increasingly independent plot, various stage conventions, including that of the sympathetic female chorus (201), are - perhaps - stretched (metatheatrically) to their limits: that is, we are meant to question the plausibility of the choral support, or (better) to notice its artificiality.

While ladies of this place locates the chorus specifically in the dramatic time, it also- due of the location of the chorus near to the audience, implicitly includes the women of the audience. Although this place is textually Greece, the wry theatrical implication is that it is as relevant to the women here and now anyone of any time. Again, we find this kind of attempt at time-defying feminist solidarity in the work of Nick Dear. Although Zenobia regards Porphyry with some suspicion, as a woman capable of dissembling for her male disguise, the tone is heavily ironic. Dear's intention appears to be to draw attention to the similarities between the women; both strong willed, both androgynous, both passionate. However, their contrasting feminisms are exemplified twice. In the first instance, Zenobia is weak and must trust Porphyry to restore her health. Porphyry's assertion Longinius is a good man is met with the Queen's bitter retort There are no good men. The second exchange, right at the end of the play, finds Porphyry in a weak position, as the disillusioned young woman attempts to break away from Zenobia's service,

Zenobia: There are walls you know, there are limits and constraints, on what is available to us!

Porphyry: I tear down the walls! It's what I do!

Zenobia: I build them! There's our difference

As Zenobia becomes increasingly monstrous, Porphyry's appeal grows. While the younger woman relishes her femininity, and disguises herself only to pursue her dream of studying science, Zenobia's disguise is an end in itself. She wants to be like a man because she perceives strength and nobility as uniquely masculine qualities which, as a woman, she cannot be credited with. Nor does she see such qualities in any other women. Immediately after the first battle, her fey servant Malik removes her armour and they discuss their bizarre sexualities. Malik wishes he were a woman, perceiving femininity in the manner despised by modern feminists such as Camille Paglia and Germaine Greer- that is, as a lack.

Malik: You have things done to you, you do not have to do them

Zenobia: I hate womenTheir flabby arms, their make-up, their smell of cooking oil

Malik: This is why you sent away your daughters?

Zenobia: Women are a distraction in war.

Malik: Yes, they were pretty.

Zenobia: No they weren't. They were just weak.

Dear's final assault on Zenobia comes through his undermining of her very reality- she is transformed into a pantomime dame and a grotesque cartoon superhero. Both Dear and Lochhead make strong statements about vengeance and redemption and parenthood, but these are, perhaps, almost too overt. Zenobia's story is a feminist fantasy wrought by a masculine imagination; it features appalling violence towards men and a woman who dreams to be more male- but the misfire must be taken in context. The murder of males is framed by the core hierarchy: although the Queen has many males on her hit list, her real target is herself, a female- and, by extension- all females. Her disdain for women is shocking in part simply because it is surprising and unusual, and as part of the giant transgender game that constitutes the play does feel rather unnecessary.

From one perspective both Medea and Zenobia depict a world steeped in sexism of various degrees of subtlety, from the repeated torments of the soldiers to scorn, punishment and humiliation heaped on the protagonists for failing as women, first, and later as human beings. The males do occasionally receive their just desserts, but the fact remains that every event in both plays somehow springs awkwardly from woman-hating attitudes. Throughout the whole of Zenobia, it is unclear whether Nick Dear is misunderstanding feminism, satirising it, or characterising female aggression as irrational hysteria and a cold drive for masculine power. The question is apt for the Zenobia, too- whose agenda is driven entirely by a hollow paradoxical desire to be other, while also succeeding as other.

Although both plays circulate around themes of sexism and misogyny, it does not necessarily follow that the movie is condemnable, lazy, or worthless. As Medea and Zenobia are concerned with abuse, abuse of everyone and everything in every direction, they manage to corner the market on it, and uphold this monopoly as a means of vindicating themselves for continually representating it. Clearly depicting is not the same as endorsing, but it can be. In Medea and particularly Zenobia we find constructed in sexism the most pervasive and intangible challenge faced by the protagonists. Clearly just investing the Bride with surprising, virtually supernatural willpower and stamina does not constitute postfeminist empowerment and perhaps one of the more unfortunate and masculine of the protagonist's characteristics is the inability or unwillingness to fight the less obvious but more pervasive sexism on any more than the most personal level.

The fact that neither character lifts a finger to change this world of endemic misogyny might hint that the apparently woman-hating frame around her character is not, in fact, the point. Like any mythological hero, Zenobia finds her mission directed by symbols, and the glaring misogyny that appears to form the background of her world is not to be taken too literally. The regular markers of woman-hating in Zenobia are, it seems to me, not to be read as anything more than extensions of the semiotic value of the core misogynist males. Zenobia's anger towards herself has extended into a general wrath to all those associated with her injustice, male and female, but this does not necessarily amount to a masculine hatred of the female, on her part. Nor does it amount to a feminine hatred of females, or any kind of irrational or juvenile aggression that might be suggested in male adolescent taste for violence. Zenobia's psychological association of everyone responsible for her tragedy is identical to the semiotic connection of all the misogynistic events and characters in the play. This play is after all hyper real, a fantasy and a myth before it is anything else, and as such must be read as a symphonic expression of semiotic and psychological equivalence.


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Lochhead, Liz. Medea UK: Nick Hern Books (2000) p.6