Transformation of Euripides’ Phaedra in British and Georgian Theatres

DOI: 10.55804/jtsuSPEKALI-17-7

“Myth must be kept alive. The people who can keep it alive are

the artists of one kind or another”.

― Joseph Campbell

In one of his essays, Tradition and Individual Talent, T. S Eliot writes that “what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new” [ Internet source 1].

Therefore, when discussing the artistic transformation of Phaedra, especially when it comes to Phaedra in different time periods, it is necessary to start with Euripides’ Hippolytus. This is because, as Ketevan Nadareishvili points out in her article, Phaedra in Euripides’ Hippolytus, Euripides’ Phaedra is considered one of the most perfect literary characters of Greek tragedy.

The tragedy was performed on the stage of the Athenian theatre in 428 BC and won the first place. However, it should be noted that this was Euripides’ second attempt at staging a tragedy based on the myth of Hippolytus, because, as we read in the preface of Nana Tonia’s translation, the first attempt of staging a tragedy, Hippolytus Kalyptomenos, ended with failure: the audience did not like the stepmother’s indecency as she was trying to seduce her own stepson, expressing her love for him on stage. After the play, Euripides was accused of immoral and unseemly behaviour as well as violating their traditions. After that, he reworked the play and called the second version Crowned Hippolytus because the main character entered the stage wearing a crown.

The tragedy revolves around three main characters. They are important characters in Greek mythology.

The origins of Phaedra is of real significance here. She is the daughter of Pasiphae, the son of Helios - the god of the sun (Pasiphae’s sister is Circe, and her brother is Aeëtes, father of Medea). Pasiphae is the wife of King Minos and a mother to Ariadne, Androgenos and the monster Minotaur as well as to Phaedra. It was this Minotaur that Theseus killed with the help of Ariadne, but married his sister Phaedra.

Aphrodite, the goddess of love, enraged by the fact that Hippolytus does not worship her and only worships Phobos’ sister - Artemis, decides to punish him.

Phaedra gets to notice his own stepson, Hippolytus as coming out of the palace of Pytheus in Athens. As soon as she sees her stepson, she falls head over heels in love with him and suffers from an incurable passion. Phaedra, driven by intense eros, cannot help herself and cannot forget Hippolytus, nor does she want to reveal her desires, and she suffers deeply. However, the gods and fate have already intervened in the lives of Phaedra and Hippolytus. This is what Aphrodite says when she declares that Hippolytus will die cursed by his father, and Phaedra, despite her nobility and fame, also cannot escape death.

In Euripides’ tragedy, Phaedra is overwhelmed by grief, is confused and afraid, and does not want to reveal her desires; however, she finally confides to her nurse, which changes everything. When Phaedra reveals her secret, her nurse immediately decides that love and passion can only be cured by Hippolytus, so she goes to him and reveals Phaedra’s secret, which drives Hippolytus mad.  He rejects his stepmother’s love, leaves the palace before Theseus returns, and plans to come back and tell his father everything upon his return.

Phaedra, previously depressed that nothing could help her pain, is now even more distraught and yells at the nanny for causing more ordeals. She enters the palace alone and makes a fatal decision - decides to kill herself in order not to tarnish the name of her descendants and not to act pretentious with Theseus.

She hangs herself, and before her suicide, she writes a note where she informs her husband that Hippolytus insulted her honour. Enraged, Theseus makes one of his three wishes and asks Poseidon to let his innocent son die before sunset. Hippolytus’ horses are frightened by a monster rising from the sea in the form of a bull, which may be the face of the Minotaur’s father. An experienced rider is unable to brace himself, falls from the chariot and is brought to the palace, mortally wounded. It is then that the truth is revealed through Artemis, who tells Theseus the full story. „Phaedra cleverly tried to defeat Cyprus, but she was killed by the nurse’s tricks" [ Internet source 2].

This paper aims to emphasize that Phaedra, who is suffering from unrequited love, does not reflect the image of a cruel woman. In the play, it is clearly seen how she is suffering from the pain and tries to deal with his passion in silence. Shaken by pain and despair, a woman writes a letter to her husband. He is a character with high ideals characteristic of the ancient world, whose inner world is a mixture of honour and shame.

Ketevan Nadareishvili mentions the same in her article, where she examines Phaedra’s personality. She does this according to the so-called “Potiphar motif” and notes that “the processing of the traditional image led to the elevation of Phaedra’s character to the level of tragic knowledge and the psychological depth of this hero, all of which made Phaedra recognized as a successful literary character" [Internet source 2].

Euripides created an eternal image of a woman in the form of Phaedra who suffers from one-sided, forbidden love, but fights to the end, tries to preserve her dignity and defend her honour, and has high moral aspirations. Nevertheless, there is also a human nature in her, and that is why she follows the nurse’s advice and ends up badly.

Phaedra’s story was a source of inspiration for such artists as Seneca, Racine, Marina Tsvetaeva, Sarah Kane, Giorgi Aleksidze and others.

The fact that Euripides’ Phaedra is deemed to be the universal and perfect literary figure, which later undergoes certain changes in the work of different artists, led to the initiative to compare this  original model to the play, Phedra’s Love written by the British playwright, Sarah Kane in 1996, which was staged in London’s Gate Theatre that same year. Before that, Kane had acquired a scandalous name in the British theatrical circles due to her first play, Blasted.

In her book, Modern drama: a Very Short Introduction, Kirsten Shepherd-Barr notes that it is characterized by alienation or a kind of hostile attitude between actors and audience, playwright and actors or playwright and audience. As an example, she cites the names of the plays, which reflect this controversy such as Peter Handke’s play, Offending the Audience and the following works on modern dramaturgy: Against Theatre; Performing Opposition Antitheatricality; Unmaking Mimesis; The death of Character and others. Even the phrase like “breaking the fourth wall” already implies the use of force, an aggressive connotation.

Indeed, the theatre and the movement that was formed in Britain in the early 90s and was later called “in-yer-face theatre”, Alex Sierz defines as follows: “theatre that takes the audience in the scruff of the neck and shakes it until it gets the message.”  [Sierz, 2000: 4] The disruption and hostility of modern drama is a kind of part and continuation of the modernist trend, which broke the specific boundaries and frameworks in all fields of art with several powerful theatrical explosions that began in the last decade of the 19th century.

To illustrate this, Kirsten Shepherd-Barr cites the list where Sarah Kane’s name is obviously included, and quite rightly, because Kane's Blasted (1995) was a play that completely changed the tradition of British theatre (drama) and it may have largely determined the fate of the theatre for the next two decades as well.

It was after Blasted that Phaedra’s Love was written, which is a kind of rethinking of the myth of Phaedra with the application of “in-yer-face theatre” features. As Kane herself points out, she used Seneca’s version for her play precisely because, unlike ancient, classical tragedy, here the violent actions take place directly on the stage. Also, the main difficulty in staging Kane’s plays is that it is practically impossible for the directors to stage the actions that take place in the play.

In the postmodern world, where everything is a parody, even myth develops into profanity. The main characters of the play are members of the royal family. Prince Hippolytus, who is a dignified character in Euripides’ tragedy, appears here as a depressed, fat man who has lost the joy of life and does not leave his room. He sits in a darkened room all day, eats hamburgers and watches Hollywood movies on TV. Expensive electronic toys, empty packets of crisps, used underwear and socks are scattered all around. He talks only to his stepmother - Phaedra.

In the second act of the play, the audience learns from the conversation between Phaedra and the doctor that the woman is in love with her own stepson- this feeling is very painful and she does not want to reveal it to anyone.

If in Euripides’ play, Phaedra reveals her feelings in a conversation with the nurse, in this play, it is the doctor who talks to Phaedra about her stepson’s health and at the same time succeeds in encouraging the woman, indirectly though, to open up to him about her feelings.

Doctor: There’s nothing clinically wrong. If he stays in bed till four, he’s bound to feel low. He needs a hobby.

Phaedra: He’s got hobbies.

Doctor: Does he have sex with you?

Phaedra: I’m sorry?

Doctor: Does he have sex with you?

Phaedra: I’m his stepmother. We are royal“

[Kane, 2008:4 ].

Here, as with Euripides, Phaedra is a dignified and tragic character who is far from amorality; on the contrary, she is a very restrained and tragic character and tries to supress her own destructive feelings.

In the third act, the audience learns about her terrible sufferings from the conversation between Phaedra and her daughter, Strophe.

Phaedra: Have you ever thought, thought that your heart would break?

Strophe: No.

Phaedra: Wished you could cut open and tear it out to stop the pain ?

Strophe: That would kill you.

Phaedra: This is killing me.

Strophe: Hippolytus… You are in love with him…

Phaedra: Is it that obvious? “

[Kane, 2008:7 ].

Phaedra’s daughter tries to convince her mother not to reveal her feelings to her selfish and cynical stepson. However, Phaedra is in despair and cannot figure out what to do.

In contrast to the ancient world, in the postmodern reality, Phaedra herself reveals her feelings to her stepson - Hippolytus rejects her flatly. Desperate, humiliated and rejected, Phaedra, just like Euripides’ character, kills herself and leaves a note blaming Hippolytus for her death. The play ends tragically. Hippolytus is killed brutally: people turn to streets and attack him violently – they first repeatedly stab him, then castrate him, and throw his genitals into the fire. Children, who also witness this brutality, are having fun watching all this. Theseus and Strophe are also present. The latter tries to protect Hippolytus, but she is raped by the enraged Theseus, unaware who his victim is. Only in the end does he realize what he did and identifies his victim. Theseus takes a knife and disembowels his own son, and then kills himself. Dialogues in the play are minimalistic, although Kane still manages to convey Phaedra’s suffering and despair.

The play also emphasizes the strict rules of the British royal family and the brutality of society, which greatly influenced Phaedra. Phaedra, in fact, remains alone in the face of the whole country, rules and society. She is a victim of the diminished values of that century. She tries to convince Hippolytus of the existence of love, which unfortunately does not end well.

Kane’s Phaedra is, at first glance, an inappropriate character for the era. She is not cynical, unlike other characters, and she is acutely aware of the current reality. There is no room for virtuous ideas in Kane’s play, which is quite natural. However, Phaedra cannot adapt to all this and, in fact, environmental conditions play a major role in her tragedy.

No matter how amazing the play is, the same fate befell the author of the play herself - she could not withstand the barrage of criticism from the cruel world around her and, like her own character, ended her life by suicide, hanging herself. Thus, there might be the author's alter ego in this tragedy.

Graham Saunders, one of the first and fundamental scholars of Kane, points out that "although Kane cites Seneca as the motif of her play, her Phaedra and motifs are completely different from Seneca’s version. It accounts from the author" interpretation [Saunders,  72: 2002] - her Phaedra is very similar to Euripides’ Phaedra.

It was Giorgi Aleksidze, who in 1999, dared to make an effort and stage a modern ballet, Diplipito, according to the work of Giya Kancheli, based on the theme of Phaedra. Giorgi Aleksidze’s interest in ancient themes had been revealed through his earlier works such as various ballet miniatures and plays (for example: Medea, Orestes, miniature, Phoenix and others).

Interestingly, pursuing ancient themes runs in the Aleksidzes’ family - Giorgi Aleksidze's brother, Aleksandre Aleksidze, was a professor of the classical philology at Tbilisi State University (TSU), and Dimitri Aleksidze staged a cult play - Oedipus; in 2018, Mariam Aleksidze staged the original play, Metamorphoses based on Ovid.

It can be said that Giorgi Aleksidze was one of the first to stage the one-act ballet, Orestes on the theme of antiquity in Soviet Russia.

In his autobiographical book, Ballet in the Changing World, Giorgi Aleksidze recalls the following: “The performance was emotional and expressive. It was considered too erotic and modernist in the Department of Culture of the Obkom (District Committee of the Communist Party) of Leningrad. The rumours started circulating about the possible cancellation of the play. Perhaps that is why entire theatre was packed with audience at the last performance. The rumours were indeed confirmed - the performance was cancelled.” [ალექსიძე, 2018: 32 ]

In 1999, Aleksidze returned to the ancient theme and based the ballet on plastic representation. As he himself notes, he combined Phaedra’s story with Kancheli’s music without many specifics. “I took the main theme - a woman who is in love with her husband’s son; her insatiable passion ends in disaster. She finally tells on her stepson to his father and kills herself in despair” [ალექსიძე, 2018: 46]. Ketevan Mukhashavria, Davit Khozashvili, Mikheil Menabde and Tea Kopaleishvili performed the main parts in the performance. The main and central figure of the performance is Ketevan Mukhashavria, who plays the role of Phaedra, who, with amazing artistry and choreographic language, manages to bring to life the immortal image of Phaedra, who suffers from incurable love. Through this performance, Aleksidze, in fact, managed to realise Euripides’ original intention.

Aleksidze shows us directly on stage what the Greek audience deemed so amoral and unacceptable. The audience has a pleasure to see a beautiful and passionate Phaedra with her femininity,  who is trying to cope with her desires, but is unable to do so. The play begins with the passage of Phaedra and Hippolytus, both standing with each other back-to-back. From the beginning, it is clear why Phaedra is so troubled – her pain is expressed via her silent dialogue. After Hippolytus leaves, Phaedra’s nurse and Chorus come to the stage, and the nurse dresses the grief-stricken Phaedra all in white. It is clear that nanny and Chorus sympathize with Phaedra, who tries to hide her feelings in every way and to maintain her marital relationship with Theseus; nevertheless, the all-encompassing feeling and destiny are stronger than anything else. Having been told about Phaedra’s feelings, Hippolytus tries to avoid the tragedy and rejects his stepmother’s love, but Hippolytus, charmed by a passionate woman, steps in, and after the liaison, he rejects the woman and intends to leave her.

One of the most important parts of the performance is, of course, the music, which Aleksidze decided to match the story of Phaedra with. Kancheli’s music is as dramatic as Phaedra’s tragedy itself. Based on the name of the work, the audience realizes that they are dealing with something Georgian. Indeed, at the end of the work, in one of the sections, the voice of Diplipito is heard, which has a strong emotional impact on the audience.

Speaking about Kancheli, Giorgi Aleksidze notes in his book: “Giya Kancheli is probably the only Georgian composer who has managed to internalize the folklore so well that it is now perceived as the aftermath of his mindset and creativity. The folk phrase, the melody, has been reworked so much that it has developed into the Kancheli melody. Georgian intonation beats organically in him, which makes his work national and at the same time truly international" [ალექსიძე, 2018:45].

In Aleksidze’s production, the rejected and insulted woman herself reveals the “crime” of Hippolytus to Theseus. Enraged, Theseus gets angry first at Phaedra and then at Hippolytus. It is in this passage that a bull-headed creature, the Minotaur, appears behind them, who is to destroy Hippolytus. There is also another character, different from the original, i.e., invented by Aleksidze, whose face is completely covered, entering the stage. This is a boy called Diplipito, who appears on the stage at the very moment when the peaceful sound of the instrument is heard. He moves his hands in the air as if playing the diplipito (musical instrument) and becomes the focal point of this whole tragedy. After the death of Hippolytus, Phaedra performs a fatal dance in a circle - her white cloak is replaced with a black one. Having played a fatal role in her stepson’s death, she wears a mask made by Theseus on her face, which seems to indicate the eternity and modernity of this theme, and disappears behind the stage in the smoke.

The faces created by Sarah Kane and  Giorgi Aleksidze are the heroes of the modern world. This is indicated by the environment created in Kane’s play and Aleksidze’s bold and modern costumes, making his work ahead of his time not only in Georgia, but also abroad. Indeed, Giorgi Aleksidze was decades ahead of his time, because he presented a woman as a central figure in a masculine, conservative society, who speaks directly and openly about her desires and even achieves a temporary relief. After 17 years, the performance was restored by Marina and Mariam Aleksidze and Ketevan Mukhashavria, who is now a teacher-rehearser of Tbilisi Contemporary Ballet named after Giorgi Aleksidze. Even today, the audience is surprised by the boldness and innovation shown by the author of the ballet back in 1999.

This paper suggests considering the look and development of the character of Phaedra in the works of all three authors in relevance to the motif of Potiphar, which is in compliance with Ketevan Nadareishvili’s perspective, concluding that although Kane notes that her play was more influenced by Seneca, the image of the queen is radically different from the Phaedra described by Seneca and more likely resembles Euripides’ Phaedra – this resemblance can be detected in dignity, humanism, the suffering of her own tragedy deeply. Although, Euripides’ Phaedra is very humane, she gives in to her own desires and feelings, which leads to a fatal outcome, destroying her life. Aleksidze’s Phaedra is a different character from these two women - although she is a tragic character and suffers from her own situation, she manages to reveal her love to her own stepson and dares to have a liaison with him, after which she disappears into the darkness cursed by Theseus.

In the end, this paper suggests that the images of Phaedra created by Sarah Kane and Giorgi Aleksidze in different eras are characterized by their individual features and respond to the challenges of the era, but at the same time resembles Euripides’ Phaedra - the original and perfect literary image of a woman.


ალექსიძე გ.,
ბალეტი ცვალებად სამყაროში, სეზანი, თბილისი.
ტონია ნ.,
ჰიპოლიტოსი, ლოგოსი, თბილისი.
Kane S.,
Phaedra’s Love, Bloomsbury Publishing.
Saunders G.,
“Love me or Kill me” Sarah Kane and the theatre of extremes, Manchester University Press.
Shepherd – Barr K.,
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Sierz A.,
“In-Yer- Face Theatre” British Drama Today, Faber and Faber.
ინტერნეტ რესურსი 1 - ელიოტი ტ.,
ტრადიცია და პიროვნული ნიჭიერება.
ინტერნეტ რესურსი 2 - ნადარეიშვილი ქ.,
„ფედრას სახე ევრიპიდეს ჰიპოლიტოსში“.