What’s Hecuba To Him?
What elements have helped create fleshed-out roles for women? What elements have hindered, or proved harmful to the progress of parity in our theatrical yarns? This blog series analyzes the sanctified “Great Female Roles” written by men, and the patterns in which male playwrights craft female characters from myth, history, current events, or whole cloth.
In my first semester of grad school, I played Creon a few times as part of our Directing students’ class work. Fragments of Antigone were harried and staged on the Marley floor of a rehearsal studio north of 125th Street on Tuesday or Thursday mornings. In one iteration I was an oil baron, clutching Haemon’s black-goo-clotted shirt. In another, I wore a diaper and scuttled like a crab. Once Ismene appeared in a Pussy-Riot-chic balaclava, once as a clown, and once with Troll Doll hair. Lines started to stick with me.
What stuck most was this: after the heated polemical tussle between Creon, Antigone, and Ismene, the Theban king orders his nieces taken away to judgment. “They must be women now.” Women now? Were they less than women before? More? It reminds me of that irksome phrase, “man up.” As if being a man requires a kind of upgrade. Creon doesn’t want to be bested by a woman, so when Antigone proves a verbal match for him, there’s only one explanation. In that moment, she is no woman. A woman after all is only a fraction of a man, right?
The idea of the female body as a less-than-male body has footprints all over the historiography of gender. Sixteenth-century Brabançon Andreas Vesalius diagrammed female sexual organs as being an exact inverse of their male counterpart. Vesalius was just building on Galen, who, circa 200 AD, was the go-to gent on genitalia. “All the parts, then, that men have, women have too, the difference between them laying in one thing… namely, that in women the parts are within.”
Ancient Greek culture wasn’t easy on its women. Generally (save for some outliers), women fared little better than slaves. Hipponax, of Ephesus’ casual misogyny, reads like a zinger on an MRA message board: “There are two days when a woman is most pleasing: on the day a man marries her and the day he carries out her dead body.”
But no man exerted more dramatic influence than Aristotle, as any college gut course will tell you. The Quintessential Straight White Male, Aristotle’s Poetics defines two millennia of theatrical storytelling. So too do his thoughts on the fairer sex.
Aristotle was “of his time” in the candid belief that women were subordinate, partially due to inherent incapability. He notes in The Generation of Animals that they were half-men, anatomically speaking: “The female is, as it were, a mutilated male.” He even went so far as to claim women had fewer teeth than men, never bothering to count the teeth of either of his two wives. His idea of women is of a striving organism that can never quite be male, and requires maleness to attain completion.
In fact, the Greek stage seems to be much more compassionate towards women than Greek society. Women’s pain is front and center here, and so is their vengeance.
But Aristotle’s chauvinism conceals some intriguing slips. In History of Animals, here’s how he breaks down the difference between male and female:
Women are “more mischievous, less simple, more impulsive...more compassionate...more easily moved to tears...more jealous, more querulous, more apt to scold and to strike...more prone to despondency and less hopeful...more void of shame or self-respect, more false of speech, more deceptive...also more wakeful, more shrinking more difficult to rouse to action.”
The creature Aristotle describes is a bundle of contradictions—Women as Scolders and Strikers or Hopeless and Despondent, Deceptive and Shameless or Shrinking and Weak. But two distinct pillars rise from the morass: Avengers or Victims.
For the most part, the big guns of the classical canon stick to Aristotle.
But the male playwrights of those goat-blood-drenched festivals at least tried to dramatize the struggle women faced. In fact, the Greek stage seems to be much more compassionate towards women than Greek society. Women’s pain is front and center here, and so is their vengeance. Women defy the laws of god and man like Antigone and Electra; abjure passivity for earth-shattering action as Clytemnestra and Medea do; and in some cases are even the vessels of divine knowledge or reprisal similar to Agave and Cassandra. These women are, as Aristotle implies, something different than a Complete Human (i.e. male). They are unnatural.
However, those who do not have that ability to act unnaturally are doomed to eternal victimhood. Women are “mutilated” in Greek drama, and their stories attain nobility because of a patriarchy that controls them. In order to be proper tragic heroes (i.e. Trojan Women, Hecuba, and Andromache), women must be subject to male harm, slavery, and the threat of violence. Male violence completes them.
In Antigone again, Creon suggests that a small bridle can manage an angry horse. Rebellion makes woman a beast. Submission makes her a scab, picked at by every fateful wind. Then, there’s an oft-quoted line of Menander’s: “Woman is a pain that never heals.” The only way to escape the lush torment of being a woman is to become something else, or Medea flying off on her dragon-born sleigh.
This idea of the woman as predator or prey has slid easily through the centuries. It’s a tantalizing trap for a well-meaning male writer—I’ll fess up to my guilt—defining women by their relationship to a phallocentric world. Here your mileage may vary, since the trope holds a degree of truth. Of course women do struggle against overwhelming odds, but it also reduces them. Men are allowed to rail against god, nature, and fate itself. Women are allowed to rail against…men, I guess. The Ones Who Get It Right are those writers who don’t stamp their characters as women first, and human beings second.
And yet, through all of this, the Greeks left us with a parade of great roles, women of will and wisdom, and wrath and wonder. They get their own stories, they aren’t sexually demeaned or objectified by their writers, and they are active and playable and fully of fury. How, in a culture so stacked against them, did the likes of Sophocles and Euripides manage to get so much right?
It might just come back to that weird curvy thing that so perplexed the patriarchs: the Female Body. The simple fact is, onstage, it didn’t exist. Armed with perma-rictus masks and formless gowns, there wasn’t much to objectify. And of course, lest we forget, men played all the parts. (That’s a little something Aristotle called anagnorisis: tragic recognition.)
When writing for men, male writers were crafting roles to be sufficiently complex for a male actor and a male body, thumbing through Aristotle’s Rolodex of female traits to carve human beings. By the most bizarre means, a misogynistic practice might have been unwittingly responsible for the birth of the Great Female Role.
But a little more on that later.
As he lays out the needs of a happy society in Ars Rhetorica, Aristotle admits that culture functions best when both the men and the women are happy. Small victories, right? Maybe things get better as we move into the defining era of Western Theatre, when a woman sat on the throne of Europe’s strongest nation.
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Quintessential Straight White Male?
The Greeks weren't white; they were Greek. More accurately, they were Athenian, Spartan, Theban, etc. The concept of whiteness hadn't been invented yet (when your slaves are the same color as you, you don't need it).
And Greek male society wasn't straight in the modern sense, unless your definition of "straight" includes pervasive homosexual desire and behavior, in which case, why call it straight?
Please don't assume that your own gripes and grievances apply equally to all peoples, times, and places. If there's one error Straight White Males tend to make, it's that.
An interesting starting point to a larger exploration, and a very interesting premise (or discovery) about men getting better written roles of women than they would have had if they were written for actual women. I was thinking about something similar last night while watching the marvelous Deaf West production of "Spring Awakening" last night, in the number about what female desire and orgasm feels like (or must feel like) written by a man, directed by a man, from a play by a man, sung by a man, with women only as a background chorus (as if their desire itself is still more important as perceived by men than in their own experience of it). It continues to be a complex issue, through all the ages, and will be until women's voices and perspectives are as present and varied as men's have been allowed to be. Thank you for this thoughtful piece.