Last night, The Forum hosted actress Lisa Dwan and author Margaret Atwood in a conversation about women, revenge, and awesome Scythian tattoos. Bwoggers Sarah Braner and Isabel Sepulveda were there to come to a verdict.
We’ve spent most of the day struggling with how to write about this event, which seems fitting. Much like the protagonist of Euripides’ play (now being discussed in a LitHum class near you), the conversation between Margaret Atwood and Lisa Dwan defied easy categorization. Hilarious, tense, and thought-provoking at turns, “Medea on Trial” had the potential to be a great conversation about the complexities of the character– a woman, a foreigner, a witch, a murderer–and what she means in our current moment. But that potential was clouded by Dwan’s deference to Atwood’s reading of the text, which stymied any debate over the richness and nuance of the material.
There wasn’t much information released about the event beforehand; despite Googling by your intrepid Bwoggers, we could only find the title and sponsoring organizations. The event was actually part of a class offered by the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality, co-taught by Dwan and English professor Patrica Dailey, which the latter explained to open the event. Students (who were in attendance) explored different interpretations of Medea’s story, and had presented projects to Atwood earlier in the day. The class also served as a jumping off point for a joint project in which Dwan and Atwood will write a reimagined Medea play.
Dwan then took the floor with a powerful performance of Medea’s opening monologue which encapsulated the themes of gender, female rage and sorrow, and Medea’s isolation from her people threaded throughout the take. “There is no justice in the eyes of men,” she said, staring icily over the audience. “They judge based on what they see, not what they know.” Dwan perfectly measured her emotion, movement, and gesture, adding just enough to move the scene forward without overwhelming the audience with emotion too soon, while still building to a chilling climax that hints of the horrors of which Medea is capable.
She then welcomed Atwood to the stage and launched the conversation in earnest. Dwan, who served as ostensible moderator for the conversation, began by asking Atwood “Who benefits” from the story of Medea. Atwood replied it was the Corinthians, because “the badder Medea was,” the more she embodied the stereotypical Scythian they believed to be bloodthirsty and foreign (noting that Scythians were perceived as eating their children), the more they were justified in their mistreatment of her. (Unfortunately, a strategy still used by politicians today.) In this moment, and throughout the night, it became clear that Atwood is intimately familiar with these myths and their cultural contexts, but too often she avoided the deeper philosophical questions Dwan was seemingly trying to explore in favor of more pragmatic or literal answers. Eventually, Dwan was able to push deeper, asking “Who benefits now?” Atwood answered, “We do… she makes us think.”
And she does. Medea is unique because she is not only a woman but a foreign woman, highlighting the intersecting difficulties she faces. She embodied everything a perfect Greek woman wasn’t. Supposedly, she lived close to the Scythian nomads, from which the Greeks got their inspiration for the Amazons. It would not be preposterous to think that some cultural diffusion would have taken place, allowing Medea to adopt some Scythian/Amazonian characteristics. Excavated tombs show that Scythians did actually have warrior women, decorated with elaborate tattoos and buried with their weapons. Atwood was fascinated with the idea of Medea having giant tattoos, physically marking her as an outsider. She is the “antithesis of what a Greek woman should be,” Atwood remarked. “She insists on being a protagonist.”
Part of what helps Medea – the person and the play – endure the test of time is that focus on the intersection of femininity and revenge. Atwood noted that we (modern audiences) root for Medea at the outset because Jason screwed her over and we naturally want her to succeed in the face of the patriarchy. However, that sours as soon as she takes it too far, resorting to murder. As Atwood put it, “hey wait a minute, don’t kill the kids!” Dwan and Atwood also noted that Medea doesn’t actually stand for the complete demolition of the patriarchy – she stands up for her idea of herself. There’s no feminist revolution in sight.
This was an interesting and illustrative reading but other complexities of Medea’s character were glossed over. Dwan commented that she worries about “the appetite for female craziness” in the portrayal of Medea’s mental health. Atwood ignored this route of discussion instead positing that “anyone in a totalitarian system that tries to stand up to it is by definition crazy because you’re going to die.” In this and other moments, Dwan seemingly opted not to stand up for her own readings of the text, cutting off interesting avenues of discussion and debate in her deference to Atwood’s interpretations.
A few of the questions asked in the Q&A that followed didn’t fit neatly into the rest of the themes but were notable nonetheless. One person asked Atwood if she sees Medea in any of the characters she’s written. Atwood responded by noting that no one seems to be able to agree on whether the protagonist of Alias Grace (another one her novels, based on a real-life Canadian trial) was good or bad. She then went on to note how impressive it was to her that Euripides was able to write with such nuance, deftly avoiding black and white judgments on Medea’s character.
In a charged moment, one person asked about how Atwood tends to reach back in time in her stories and doesn’t tend to reach across space. Atwood responded by saying that she’s not the best-equipped person to tell stories about other cultures because she “doesn’t know the rules.” The asker countered by noting that Atwood isn’t Greek, complicating her previous point. Atwood then spoke about how she viewed the stories she adapts as a no-man’s land, and that they were for everyone and no one. While her impulse not to culturally appropriate is admirable, her answer to the second part was odd; why are only some stories bound by culture and others open to everyone?
One Bwogger and resident English major asked about why we rewrite characters and stories from the past, and what we have to gain and lose by working with characters from deeply patriarchal stories. What about writing stories about better futures? Dwan responded by mentioning civil rights activist Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of Just Mercy. She remarked that he confronts and challenges past narratives on slavery and race relations in America. Atwood added that while a utopia is a great place to live, the problem is making it interesting for a reader, as there needs to be conflict within a story. As in many of the questions, Atwood opted for the practical over the philosophical in storytelling.
Walking out of the event, we tried our best to focus on the positives, but we were forced to admit to ourselves that we were unsatisfied. Despite the thought-provoking themes and the thrill of seeing Atwood in the flesh, we were left wanting more depth and clarity in just about everything that was discussed. It will be interesting to see what comes out of their creative process, but it was too early on for any satisfying answers.
second row wow! via Bwog Staff