December 9, 2014
On ancient stories and current events:
This Friday, students at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas www.obu.edu will be performing my one-act play Medusa’s Tale. I’m thrilled of course. I’m thrilled anytime anybody anywhere performs any of my plays. And naturally I take it as a compliment to my skills as a playwright that since its 1991 publication in Plays in One Act, Medusa’s Tale has been performed all over the world. In 2014 it’s been produced at high schools in Oskaloosa, Indiana and Fountain, Colorado as well as at the San Diego Fringe Festival and the University of Tulsa. Previously, it has served as the subject for a senior thesis written by a Classics student at Monash University in Australia and has been performed by students in the English Drama Society at Peking University in Beijing (in English with Mandarin side titles). It has also been performed in London, Manhattan, San Francisco, Tokyo, Brussels, Guam, Fairbanks, Barstow, Kalamazoo … and so on. Mostly by high school and college students. It’s my most-produced play by far, and I doubt that its appeal comes entirely from the quality of my writing.
Medusa’s Tale is about rape. It’s about “justice” serving the needs of those in power. It’s about turning the victim into a scary thing so that instead of eliciting empathy, the monster can become fair game for the hero. In other words, it’s relevant to current events. But the story is a very old one. The plot comes straight from Ovid’s Metamorphosis: the god Poseidon rapes the girl Medusa in the goddess Athena’s temple. Athena gets angry. So she punishes Medusa by turning her into a monster with snakes for hair and the power to turn men to stone by looking at them. Later, with the help of Athena, a young man shows up to slay the monster, become a hero, and marry the princess. In my rendition of these events, Medusa tells her story to the hero Perseus. He is moved but kills her anyway, because he is as much doomed by circumstances to be a hero as she is to be a monster.
Evidently, young men and women from very many different cultures connect to the themes of this story. But suppose I had given the play a contemporary setting – let’s say a frat house at a large public university or the streets of a racially-segregated American city. Suppose I had written directly about date rape and slut-shaming. Or about police brutality and a racist legal system. Would that play be staged at a university whose most famous graduate is Mike Huckabee? Maybe. Probably not.
I’ve drawn on Greek mythology for the plots of several of my plays. My aim in donning classical clothing is not to sneak wolfish ideas past conservative sheep herders. Not exactly. It’s to avoid easy categorizations and judgments coming from any pre-established perspective. If you come to the theatre to see a play about a subject in the headlines, you will most likely arrive already knowing what you think. But if you come to see a play about Medusa, or the Furies, or Persephone, you may not anticipate your own reactions. You may unexpectedly find yourself in sympathy with the monster. Or maybe, to your even greater surprise, with the hero.