Driven and dangerously lustful, aware that she's evil but unable to help herself, a certain kind of woman has been lodged in the human imagination since literature began, portrayed always by fascinated male authors.
She shows up in the Bible, the great religious plays of ancient Greece, the political dramas of Rome, and many other forms of storytelling. In 1940s film noir, she's the woman of whom someone inevitably says, "This lady spells trouble." The longest-lasting version of her saga can currently be seen in Toronto, where the Soulpepper Theatre Company has mounted Jean Racine's 17th-century French classic, Phedre, in the free-verse English of Ted Hughes.
Her story, involving combinations of incest, suicide, betrayal, and false accusations of rape, has proven endlessly renewable. It emerged, perhaps 3,000 years ago, from the linked but scattered tales that made up ancient Greek religion. Phedre, the wife of King Theseus, falls for Hippolytus, her stepson. With the king away at war, she reveals her love, and Hippolytus, horrified, rejects her. When the king returns, Phedre (or her nurse) claims that Hippolytus violated her. King Theseus believes the worst and causes the death of Hippolytus. Phedre and her nurse commit suicide. Too late, the king learns his mistake.
That's the way Euripides put it on the stage, in 428 BCE, when he wrote the play he called Hippolytus, the first of the masterpieces inspired by that story. It set the pattern for all future versions by making lust, especially in women, a curse and a disease. It's a madness, and when it strikes we can't reasonably hold the victim accountable. Seneca, the great Roman author, told a similar story four centuries later, also under the title Hippolytus.
Meanwhile, a literary relative of Phedre appeared in Genesis, Chapter 39. The wife of Potiphar, an Egyptian officer under Pharaoh, desires Joseph, the slave who serves Potiphar as overseer. She invites him bluntly, "Lie with me."
Joseph declines, and in fury she tells her master that he made improper advances. Just as Phedre shows the sword of Hippolytus as material evidence, Potiphar's wife displays part of Joseph's garment, which she grasped as he fled her advances. So Joseph, on his way to fame as Hebrew seer and leader, spends time in prison.
The story became a fixture of the European mind, and in 1321 Dante put it to work; The Divine Comedy mentions Hippolytus, the victim of "his cruel stepdame's wiles." In the 17th century it attracted the attention of Jean Racine, who turned it into Phedre, one of the great moments in French theatre. Racine knew how to find the energy in a classic drama, and how to make it hurt. He stripped away most of the sub-plots, forgot about comic relief, and focused on heightening the struggle at the centre of the drama. He also altered the characters. While Euripides shows Hippolytus as a puritan and a misogynist, Racine makes him fall in love, but dangerously; his choice is a young woman from a family his father hates. This parallel love plot gives the queen a reason for jealousy, adding hatred to her sense of shame. But Racine has Phedre's nurse, rather than Phedre herself, libel Hippolytus.
Greek drama, modified by 17th-century ideas, stays alive today only with great difficulty. These stories, after all, are the inspired dreams of people who saw themselves in a kind of social relationship with gods. They considered it natural for a god to be jealous of a human, since gods were themselves so human-like. The story of Phedre begins because the love goddess Aphrodite, peevish and wilful, believes that the beautiful young Hippolytus has not been paying enough attention to her. That's why she plants in his stepmother's heart a love that can only lead to disaster. As Phedre realizes this, and understands she's doomed, she naturally blames the sadism of gods who amuse themselves playing with human hearts.
This sounds like pure metaphor to a modern audience, but at some level we have to understand that Phedre has a good reason for considering herself a victim. That means an adapter like Ted Hughes must remind us, with the power of his style, that we ourselves are not immune to feeling lust for the wrong person, and that our explanations for it don't necessarily make more sense than Phedre's. On the one hand, the Phedre of Racine/Hughes has an antique air; but it can also feel entirely modern to anyone who's ever been driven crazy by an inappropriate desire.
Hughes said he wanted his dialogue to resemble "a face-to-face duel with flame throwers." He knew that little would happen before the audience's eyes: In a Greek play reworked in 17th-century France, most of what happens (characters falling in love, characters getting killed) will occur off stage. The language in which we hear about it must embody all the force of the action.
In a powerfully ironic way, Hughes' own doom-haunted life adds an overlay of meaning. Hughes and suicide have been linked since 1963, when his first wife, Sylvia Plath, killed herself; later, the woman for whom he left Plath also committed suicide. The heading on the Washington Post's obituary in 1998 summed up the shadow that hung over him for most of his life: "British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes Dies at 68; Turbulent Marriage to Writer Sylvia Plath Dogged His Reputation after Her Suicide."
For an audience watching Phedre today, the connection to Hughes' life is inescapable. We can only guess at what he thought as he wrote these words, spoken by the nurse: "What right have you to throw away your life? ... remember your children./What will your death mean for their future?"
A modern French critic once called the central figure in Phedre the best character in Racine, "the most sensual and the purest, the most attractive and the most criminal, the most complex." When the play had its first performance in 1677 even Racine's detractors acknowledged that it would be lodged permanently in French literature. Apparently Racine agreed. He settled down to a quiet job in the service of Louis XIV, married, fathered seven children, and though he lived 20 more years he never again wrote an ambitious play. He knew what he had done. With Phedre he had reached both the summit of French drama and the outer limits of his majestic talent.