Project Description

Phaedra on Fire

Phaedra On Fire Book Cover

published in Greek and English
Athens Epidaurus Festival / Nefeli Publishing

in June 2021
Translated by
Karen Emmerich

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About the book:

“Phaedra on Fire” is a theatre play, commissioned in 2020 by Athens Epidaurus Festival. Roughly based on Euripides Hippolytus it redefines Phaedra as a woman in search of lost vitality and critically contemplates the role of women in Ancient Greek tragedy, classical literature and the patriarchy. Directed by Yannis Kalavrianos, “Phaedra on Fire” was performed on 30 and 31 of July 2021 in the Little Theatre of Ancient Epidaurus.

More about Phaedra On Fire

[…] From the tragedy of Euripides to Seneca, who implants a little stoicism into the myth of the impassioned stepmother, to Racine, who drenches his Phaedra with a Christian ethic, we follow the guilt of a middle-aged woman who confesses, either in person or through her wet nurse, her love for her young stepson. The shocking thing is that Phaedra speaks, that she confesses her passion. But she’s punished for it, and dies.

I wanted a Phaedra who wouldn’t die, but who would treat her sexuality as an invitation to life. Not acting young, but a girl at heart. Ready to live the rest of her life heeding the call of passion as a promise of vitality. She’ll carry with her the burns of an awful, raging fire: in place of Euripides’ bull that rises out of the waves to tear Hippolytus limb from limb, I substitute another raging bull, this one born of flames, of the conflagration started by Phaedra, out of her mind with love. In this version, the fire – like the ironing of clothes in the first act, the painless burn Hippolytus suffers on the beach, the game with the lighter, or the Peloponnesian heat wave, on which Phaedra comments with increasing intensity (“This heat,” “Really, this heat,” “Lord, this heat”) – is a metaphor for passion.

But passion is also an assumption of responsibility. The men in the play either hesitate or are absent: my Hippolytus is a young trainer who sacrifices the bonds of love in the name of a prolonged post- adolescent freedom; as for Theseus, he’s away on business. The olderwomen negotiate their desire with fear and existential intoxication (Lioni, Phaedra’s childhood friend, is a spectral image of an indecisive femininity). The younger women offer a new paradigm of impassioned life based on either sensuality (Aphrodite) or innocence (Artemis). I reimagined Euripides’ two goddesses who seek Hippolytus’ attention as teenage girls who want to rewrite the high school history textbook; they represent two competing forms of femininity that reconcile only after Hippolytus’ death. Their mother’s name –Lioni– is a combina- tion of Leto (mother of Artemis) and Dione (mother of Aphrodite).

Euripides’ line “I will go to the forest among pine trees” – the Phaedra who dreams of taking to the mountains – gave me the idea of the pine grove. “If you take love away, the forest is but a rustic place,” Ovid’s Phaedra explains, trying to seduce Hippolytus. And it’s true: the forest, with all its winding branch-bodies, should not just seem but be. In the most contemporary and sexually liberated version of this erotic message, Tsvetayeva’s stepmother writes in a poem, “I’m an equestrienne, too.” And she signs her name “insatiable Phaedra.” This passion inspired me. I was also inspired by the vacation homes of the Peloponnese – asphyxiating beehives of familial influence where time is counted in summers, full of nostalgia and a fixation on the “chorus” of neighbors at the beach. A community that takes careful note of anything that diverges from the expected shape of the middle-class vacation […]
From the writer’s introduction

In today’s version of Amanda Michalopoulou (a solid renegotiation of the classical and more modern texts that preceded it, from Euripides to Marina Tsvetayeva), Phaedra does not claim to have been raped by Hippolytus. The fact is that in general, at this very period, the well-known author avoided (possible or one-dimensional or merely topical) conveniences and, in her overtly feminist approach, attempted to see a middle-aged Phaedra from the inside, gave her idea an unexpectedly militant dimension because, in this case, a woman’s desire is asserted liberated from guilt and love is asserted, carnally and spiritually, to the very end, up to that decisive moment when a pine forest goes up in flames.
Extract from Gregory Bekos’ review at To Vima