Phèdre, D’Euripide à Racine, de Sénèque à Sarah Kane

By Octavian Saiu
Parike, Belgium: Lansman Editeur, 120 pp.

Reviewed by Alba Simina Stanciu*

What makes Phaedra – a dramatic character born in the theatre of ancient Greece, endowed with archaic pathos and eroticism beyond control, doomed and consumed by demonic, self-destructive and shameful desires – feel our contemporary? What helps her retain her unaltered fascination? What are the qualities that continue to make her a symbol of incongruence between desire and social normativity?

Such key questions, and many others, are answered by Romanian scholar Octavian Saiu in his latest book, Phèdre, D’Euripide à Racine, de Sénèque à Sarah Kane (Phaedra from Euripides to Racine, from Seneca to Sarah Kane). Written in French, Phaedra’s uniqueness, deriving from her ties with ritual theatre, cruelty, introspection, and self-sacrifice, constitutes the subject of Saiu’s multi-layered analysis. His study is based on a complex reference system that incorporates valuable titles and authors into dense textual consistency. The essay exudes both sensitivity and intellectual accuracy, as it offers the powerful impact of cultural images that affirm Phaedra’s theatrical and human substance.

Saiu’s text is an argument for Phaedra’s redemption while simultaneously exploring her dramatic existence and stage avatars through an erudite and meticulous scrutiny. He begins by revealing a substantial and surprising connection between Phaedra and Hamlet, two characters brought together by their desire to risk everything in order to follow obsessive thoughts. However dark her theatrical and mental universe is, Phaedra’s shadowy existence exists at the border between eroticism and death. This Freudian dimension is rendered by Saiu through analytical explorations that combine scholarly argumentation, sensitivity and a sense of cathartic density. All these qualities – focused here on the effervescent and impulsive essence of one single female character — give this long essay a specific intellectual elegance, which fluctuates between the coloratura of subtle metaphors and the rather sanguine tone of critical discourse. The author’s strategy is to find the motives behind the impulse of uncontrolled passion, to uncover the reasons behind the incestual erotic dementia with which Phaedra is generally associated. All this followed by unbearable guilt – the underlying thread of Phaedra’s literary manifestations — pain caused by uncontrollable instincts counterpoised by the nobleness of her dignity.

Following Phaedra through plays created by Euripides, Seneca, Racine and Sarah Kane – Saiu underlines this leitmotif of irreconcilable guilt, a feeling expressed in resonance with different historical stages, starting from the “raw” architecture of social rules in ancient Greece, continuing with the excessive theatrical cruelty of Seneca, going through the emotional exacerbation of Racine’s classicism and ending with the carnal degradation of Sarah Kane’s In-Yer-Face theatre.

Saiu regards Euripides’ Hippolytus as a courageous text due to Euripides’ willingness to confront Athenian audiences with a subject considered “indecent” – incest. His process evokes Nietzsche’s contrasting concepts of the Apollonian and the Dionysian, as well as the Freudian antagonism between the conscious and the unconscious, the divide between physical lust and mental justice. In this context, Phaedra endures the curse of her own family, being as doomed as her mother who gave birth to the Minotaur: a combination of bestiality and femininity. Phaedra fluctuates between grief, delirium and silence, an inner torment that exceeds the explanatory power of her words, a form of Dionysian pulsation that defies any possibility of appeasement.

The increasing emphasis on Phaedra’s feelings in Seneca’s Roman version leads to an unleashing of the brutal forces of the unconscious mind. Seneca insisted on the character’s need to express the inexpressible, generating what Saiu calls an “almost masochistic voluptuousness” when she expresses her pain and unchains her rage through words. Her inner nature becomes chaotic because of what he refers to as a “vocation of suffering,” a dimension not found in Euripides. The play’s conclusion is determined by the differences between two rites of death – while Phaedra is destined for burial (putrefaction of the flesh), Hippolytus is incinerated, thus purified by fire.

Saiu follows Phaedra into the religious milieu of the seventeenth century with Racine, reading his text through a lens dominated by strict Catholic morality. He correlates Racine’s tragedy with the leitmotif of free will as well as with the obsessive fear of eternal damnation. Her choice to commit suicide leads to her damnation as much as it provides her with an implausible redemption. Here, Saiu employs a framework connected to New Criticism, the most important one being Lucian Goldman’s essay, Le Dieu caché. From this perspective, the character’s passion is explained as a form of admiration, a pattern of masculinity created by her own desires and aspirations. Through her rebellious attitude, Phaedra opposes all societal laws which oppress and seek to control womanhood, laws dictated by the patriarchal hierarchy around her. The play’s soliloquies, inspired by rationalist philosophy, lead to Phaedra’s contemplation of her own emotional impulses and eventually to a form of pure introspection.

The 1990’s play Phaedra’s Love, written by Sarah Kane, depicts a Phaedra overwhelmed by what can be called Artaudian delirium, “a woman, suicided by society” – an original parallel drawn by Saiu to highlight the presence of madness as the imprint of a new era. Kane’s text is irreversibly oriented towards Phaedra’s individual “apocalypse”. Vulgarity is mixed with cruelty in Kane’s approach, carnal self-destruction with hopelessness, everything being distilled through the cultural codes of In-Yer-Face theatre (the colourful term coined by critic Aleks Sierz). Saiu creates a necessary link between this approach and Martin Esslin’s notion of the Theatre of the Absurd. Both terms prove essential for interpreting this new theatrical universe that completely redefines the character.

Kane’s text also reaches to extreme levels of the grotesque, of both “worldly ugliness” and galloping brutalisation, appropriating qualities of an “infernal poetry”. In this context, Phaedra’s evolution becomes the “apocalypse of being”. Her love, “violated, mutilated, compromised, but impossible to obliterate”. Phaedra’s theatricality is here an architecture captured by a triangulation between Beckett, Ionesco, and Genet. Her damnation culminates with absolute chaos, an echo of the disorientation and the violence of the nineties. Once royal and elegant, her context has become suffocated by waste and disease, the landscape of a post-human world. Spiritually bankrupt, this state of existence leads to her self-annihilation, a logos devoid of purpose. Even her love is meaningless.

One striking point in Saiu’s analysis is the idea that Kane herself felt close to this Phaedra, to a point of almost self-identification. Kane’s suicide, he claims, was inspired by the character, a most improbable personal tribute.

Saiu’s conclusions underline the main theme of his analysis: the question of guilt. Phaedra seems doomed because of her excessive passion, which can be regarded as a rejection of domesticated love and emotional routine. For this she has been stigmatised, considered irredeemably culpable, treated as contemptible for her unnatural and demonic temper.

Saiu ends his study not by rephrasing the old questions but by asking new, incisive ones, creating new arguments to counter the solidity of the accusation of incest. Is Phaedra truly guilty as charged? This ancient character — modern through her defiance and authenticity — could not have hoped to have a better or more convincing lawyer, one who manages to balance fine scholarship with genuine thoughtfulness. Her innocence may still not be proved but her guilt has been at least partially erased in a study that should be read by not only scholars but also by actors and directors approaching the realization of any of these Phaedras on a stage. 

*Alba Simina Stanciu is an Associate Professor in tthe Department of Theatre at Lucian Blaga University in Sibiu, Romania, where she teaches theoretical courses on contemporary performing arts, dance history and aesthetics.

Copyright © 2022 Alba Simina Stanciu
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