all mockery is laughing
all violence is cheap …
When I started writing this retelling of Medea I wasn’t worried about how the alien Xenomorph that would represent the tragic heroine, precisely, come to life on a shoe string budget; rather, I was curious what she would say if given a voice. This age of multimillion dollar Hollywood CGI has made modern storytellers lazy, I feel. I would rather work with Old School break dancing team or a high school drama class with a budget of $50 because that requires thinking outside the box. However, since the entire play succeeds or fails on the strength of its main character a little in-depth examination about the source material and costume is in order.
… Come, you spirits/ That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,/ And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full/ Of direst cruelty …
… Come to my woman’s breasts,/ And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers …
Come, thick night … That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,/ Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark/ To cry “Hold, hold!”
— Lady Macbeth, from Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 5
Like Lady Macbeth, Medea is a complex creature who loses what little humanity she had in order to do what she deemed necessary: commit murder. Perhaps it is easier to see these motivations in Shakespeare than in Euripides. Power, we are told, corrupts, and by the end of the play, Lady Macbeth, driven insane by guilt over the crimes she has committed, takes her own life. “Unsex me here,” she commands, so that she might not be burdened with all the scruples and morals that would normally prevent her from turning into a monster. She enters the play human but leaves it bestial. Medea, in contrast, was never human to begin with. She enters it a beast, temporary becomes human and leaves it a monster.
Before I reread the Greek play I thought I remembered it well enough. Medea is in exile; having fallen in love with a handsome stranger, Jason, and helped him to find the Golden Fleece. She leaves her family and travels, with their children, to a foreign land to live. Once there Jason quickly becomes bored with her, marries the king’s daughter, and casts Medea and his own children aside. It is a story of an innocent woman spurned who takes revenge too far. Except that there is nothing remotely innocent about Medea. In Euripides’ play, at least, one of the reasons that Medea fled into exile with Jason was because she brutally murdered her own younger brother, Apsyrtus, and threw his severed body parts around her father’s palace. Everywhere she goes, we are told by her nurse in the prologue, she brings death and destruction with her. In one kingdom she tricks the daughters of Pelias into boiling their father alive in order that Jason might usurp the throne and become king himself. Yes, Jason does leave her, and yes, this betrayal is what drives her to kill — not only Jason’s new bride and father-in-law, but her own children as well — but she doesn’t need to call upon the darkness in her heart to make her something less than human like Lady Macbeth does, Medea was never human to begin with; a fact that tends to get overlooked in many productions of Medea that I’ve seen.
I’m telling you all this because it is Medea’s inhumanness that I find the most interesting. By making her simply a spurned mortal woman being cast aside for a younger one Medea becomes a powerless victim, one who feels that killing is the only way that she can bring agency and control back to herself. Perhaps on one level that might make sense to some, but it also creates a giant plot-hole: Medea is a sorceress. She might even be a goddess. She leaves the play in a flying chariot driven by her own dark arts. She has necromancy powers Jason doesn’t even know about. Why, then, does she allow things to get so out of hand that total annihilation of her enemies seems the only choice open for her?
“Love for her man, no matter how vile,” some critics have argued, is her motivation and while that reading can certainly be found in the text it also cranks the misogyny factor up to 11 on the dial for me. It’s that old-gristle bone that a woman without a man is nothing. It reminds me a little too much of that one Billie Holiday song:
I’d rather my man would hit me/ Than to jump up and quit me
Ain’t nobody’s business if I do
I swear I won’t call no copper/ If I’m beat up by my papa
Ain’t nobody’s business if I do.
That is, indeed, one way to read Medea and the gender politics of the play. It’s a terrible way, granted, but others in the past have made this claim, so obviously there’s enough people who believe it. It’s not my way, though.
A much more interesting approach is to examine what befell the character of Jack Torrance. Author Stephen King has been highly critical of Stanley Kubrick adaptation of The Shining (1980) over the years, saying that by having the haunting of the Overlook Hotel coming from within Jack himself robs the character of any chance at redemption. Redemption is an interesting idea for Jack’s motivation, since it infuses everything he does with an agonizing desperation as the chance to be human moves further and further away. By simply having Jack get caught in a time-loop that he is forever doomed to repeat, Kubrick, while still making a very scary movie, strips any tension, any risk, any gamble with the Devil from Jack as well. But by making Jack a fallen rebel angel being given one last chance at salvation suddenly everything is at stake.
That is how I see Medea. She committed atrocities, ran away with Jason, put up with his betrayals for ten years not because she is a doormat but because this is her only chance to try and become the one thing she longs for but will never truly have. “Imagine, the darkness in love with the light,” the demon-girl Yazuha cries despairingly at the end of the Tenchi Muyo movie, Daughter of Darkness (1998). Jason’s crime wasn’t just cheating on her, it was casting her back into the dark; it was damning her and sealing her fate forever. At the end she destroys the world not because she’s a psychopath but because, from her point of view, everything within the human world around her is. She is the ultimate Other, desperately trying to pass for something she is not and failing. Jason didn’t just break her heart; he literally turned her back into the creature that she was before the play started.
This is why retelling this ancient story as set against an alien world, literally turning Medea into a Xenomorph (Xeno simply being a prefix for foreign or alien), seemed interesting. In the Horror genre the most famous alien, for me, is the bug-like monster of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) that destroys the crew of the Nostromo. This nightmare was created by Swiss surrealist, H.R. Giger, who pioneered the whole concept of biomechanical, nightmarish life forms in art. As Charlie Jane Anders wrote:
”Biomechanics fused the impossible into a savage logic: metal and flesh, sex and death, hypnotic beauty and violation; its cool, corpse-silver colors pre-empting [Ridley] Scott’s industrial-tech aesthetic.” (2011)
As cool as all this might sound, the Xenomorph from the Alien franchise is a copyrighted image and, rightly so, Giger feels entitled to the artist’s royalties whenever one of his creations is used (going so far as to sue 20th Century Fox over failing to credit him in Alien: Resurrection). Other artists and film makers have taken the concept of biomechanics and expanded it over the years, from the New Flesh of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) to the metal fetishist of Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man. (1989) In later Alien movies, once Giger no longer had creative control over his creation, certain changes occurred: the aliens became a lot more muscular, some had skull ridges, they could spit their own acid-blood, many developed horrendous drool problems. Why producers thought an over active drool gland was scary I do not know, it is hard to feel terror when you keep wanting to wipe a monster’s chin with a handkerchief and put a baby bib around its neck. However the Xenomorph-Medea, Lyssk, gets developed, please, no drool.
Lyssk’s species, the Lingualandicis (“clitoris-tongues”), need to look simultaneously like human females and grotesque lizards without drifting into the silly; something as familiar as a mother’s naked breast in an exoskeleton, as common child-bearing hips and ass with a segmented, scorpion-like tail. This is what confused Jason, he thought he was dealing with a female of his species, someone who’d behave accordingly. Seven foot tall Xenomorph-Medea needs to look like she could twist Jason’s head completely off if she felt like it.
Finding a seven-foot tall Amazonian actress might be difficult, which is why making a seven-foot tall Lyssk puppet might be an interesting alternative.
The idea came from a sketch on Jim Henson’s television show, The Muppet Show, with a creation called a Clodhopper. While only one performer was required for each full-figured puppet, the Clodhopper’s feet were attached to the performers’ feet while their heads and hands were the performer’s hands. Invisible wires allowed for wings to flap or tails to twitch. The puppeteer was dressed in black to hide their body against the black background. Considering that the play’s action takes place outdoors, in the dark, an eerie, ghost-like Lingualandici might add a certain amount of strangeness that an actress in body paint and a mask might not.
Anders, Charlie Jane. How H.R. Giger’s Brilliant Madness Helped Make Alien “Erotic” (10/11/2011)
Retrieved from http: //io9.com/5851618/how-hr-gigers-brilliant-madness-helped-make-alien-so-erotic
King, Stephen. Danse Macabre. Berkley, CA.: Berkley Press. (1981)
Parish, James Robert. Jim Henson: Puppeteer And Filmmaker. New York: Ferguson Pub. (2006)
Prucher, Jeff (ed.) Brave New Worlds: the Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction. Oxford: Oxford Press. (2007)