Playwright, actor and educator Ellen McLaughlin spoke before Muhlenberg students and faculty last Sunday, discussing the brilliance and mysteries within ancient Greek tragedies.
As I approached the Recital Hall, the dark doors and green carpeting ever familiar, I found the seats flooded with people. Managing to find a spot towards the back, I patiently waited for the clock to read 8:00 PM and for the talk to begin. McLaughlin began with a statement of Greek culture and its contributions, specifically detailing how the Greeks gave birth to the foundation of both theatre and democracy. As McLaughlin described, they are “both dependent on speech” and “can only be done in collaboration.”
Her love for Greek tragedy and story was contagious, as I found myself further inspired and influenced to trace the narratives and thought processes written within these literature works. The main focus of McLaughlin’s talk was the placement of Greek women within the scopes of their tragic narratives: how they are viewed, how they are represented and how they are repressed.
A clear dichotomy was established between the feminine and the masculine, with men of war facing women of the hearth. McLaughlin trailed this discourse with the story of Agamemnon’s falling—while he returns victorious from the Trojan war, he is only greeted by the unexpected blade of his enraged wife, who, in her grief for her slaughtered daughter, finds she must take revenge on the man she had once called husband. McLaughlin explained how often Greek tragedies successfully execute “the draw of battle” with that of “its ugliness” and wretchedness. It seems only fitting for a man to face such irony.
“Every war is ironic,” McLaughlin quoted, “because all wars are worse than expected.”
The talk then revolved around three particular female figures that McLaughlin herself found particularly interesting: Penelope, “patience embodied,” Iphigenia, a sacrifice and Helen, a statue. Through her play Iphigenia and Other Daughters, McLaughlin enters the thoughts of these silenced women. What did Iphigenia think as she approached the marriage spot that would ultimately be her tomb? What of Helen, the very icon of the Trojan War, whose thoughts are meaningless compared to the importance of her body? And of Penelope, wife of Odysseus, who waits for her reason of existence? All these women are silenced, made simply as images of muted beauty, yet McLaughlin insisted on drawing attention to their voices, bringing them live and embodied for audiences to do nothing but listen.
“Her talking about the Greeks was a callback to my earliest theatre courses at Muhlenberg,” Ben Dawn-Cross ‘20 described. “As she said, theatre began with the Greeks. Her interpretations of classic Greek plays was quite fascinating – rather than bury herself in already familiar text, she seemed to touch on an insightful approach to the plot, without losing sight of its retained significance.”
Such insights included citing an academic analysis of the Odyssey and how it could have possibly been written by a woman, analyses which included but were not limited to insights into an incorporation of how laundry was done within the text. Then, of course, there is the journey that Odysseus himself goes through. As he returns from a bloody, unrepented battle, each trial he is put under relies on the mercy of women. Women, who find the world-weary man, nurse him, assist him and essentially revive him.
Dawn-Cross continues, “She drove this point home with her mention of Odysseus’ dog; she understood Odysseus’ struggles, and combined them with the natural emotional response to the scene.”
As the Greeks created and established the foundation of theatre and democracy, McLaughlin re-established and re-embodied a feminist narrative within the classic that is Greek tragedy. It is “the personal, the private, the domestic” and “female presence” that she not only writes and focuses on, but in fact revives to a statute of promise – a promise to establish a voice to a long muted beauty.