Phaedra and Hippolytus: the intertextual journey of the mytheme in 21st century’s drama plays

Dionysos Alexiou

  Alexiou, Dionysos. "Phaedra and Hippolytus: the intertextual journey of the mytheme in 21st century’s drama plays." CHS Research Bulletin 8 (2020). http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:AlexiouD.Phaedra_and_Hippolytu.2020.



In the context of the one-year fellowship offered to me by the collaborative programme between the Center for Hellenic Studies and the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki I have completed the article titled “Phaedra and Hippolytus: the intertextual journey of the mytheme in 21st century’s drama plays”. The article proposes an intertextual approach to the timeless myth of Phaedra and Hippolytus by looking at its various adaptations, particularly in the Greek dramaturgy of the 21st century. In particular, the paper focuses on the remodelling of dramatic characters and their reconsidered ‘dramatic behaviour’ in selected Greek plays of this century. These plays are: (a) Vassilis Papageorgiou, Hippolytus Kalyptomenos (2005), (b) Elena Pegka: Phaedra or Alcestis – Love stories (2007) and (c) Vassilis Alexakis: Don’t call me Fofo (2008).

In the late 20th c. Sarah Kane was the first to present a deconstructed form of the mytheme, applying changes or additions to the episode by way of ‘aggressive’ transformation and textual ‘modernization’. The heroine’s attitude and actions are such as to draw her markedly away from her earlier namesakes, as the episode becomes assimilated into what for the playwright is the disturbing and disgusting daily life of her time, in the England of globalization, insecurity and confusion. Hippolytus and Phaedra accept their destiny without the slightest hint of objection, beyond any rule of moral and religious prohibition, in a closed and dark world, albeit open to potentiality as they waver between tenderness and violence, erotic love and revenge, the pleasure of sexual contact and the pleasure of death. As far as the two central characters are concerned, Kane had wanted to imbue the pious exemplar of the pure young man with cynicism, apathy, depression and saturation thus turning him into a contemporary, shallow and unholy creature, remote from his nominalist burden. Phaedra is still the archetypal persona of the incurably romantic woman who immerses herself in an ambiguous seductive depression after her passion is rejected.

Kane’s play suggests that the idiosyncrasy of the central characters changes according to the moral parameters of the time within which the play is composed, therefore we find ourselves markedly transposed from their mythical portrayal. Nevertheless, as we shall see further down, each version builds on a particularity, either obvious or suggested, delicate or repulsive. The person that is most visibly remote from his Euripidean, Senecan and Racinean depiction is Hippolytus: the pure young man in Stephanêphoros and the man in love in Racine’s Phèdre is reduced to Kane’s cynical and apathetic hero. Both Phaedra and Theseus remain loyal, mutatis mutandis, to the mythological components, with the stepmother confessing her love to Hippolytus and, enraged by his rebuke, falsely accusing him to her lawful husband. At the same time, Theseus, ignorant due to his absence, is called upon to assume the role of the tragic father by punishing his son. The addition of ‘Tutors’ and ‘Nurses’ to the main characters is either intended to represent the popular opinion or to aid (and abet) the characters’ action. They eventually vanish in the contemporary variations where the now liberated heroes act of their own accord and accept the consequences of their actions. Each version contains something unique and at the same time something vague, something ambivalent and closely bound to human idiosyncrasy which runs an off-center course around catastrophe or survival. This is precisely the element which provides the mythic episode with adjustability and may be discerned in 21st c. plays. 

The study of the modern versions opens a fascinating path that demonstrates how their respective writers have subversively intervened with the stereotypical structure of the mytheme, proposing seemingly new treatments; however, every single one of them contains a thread that links back to the earlier tradition. Also demonstrated here is how the literary material that the Greek writers have borrowed becomes remodeled in order to propose an alternative reception of the mytheme.

The three versions of the Hippolytus-Phaedra story bring out a number of particularities in terms of both structure and character selection. For instance, Theseus, incorporated in Papageorgiou’s Kalyptomenos, albeit extensively altered, is omitted from the versions of Pegka and Alexakis. Further, these plays introduce a second dimension, where specific dramatic characters appear to act on the spatiotemporal plane at a distance from their intertextual role, by their own volition and, on occasion, ambiguously. It seems that as we draw away from the archetypal form of the mytheme in time, the play’s central characters come face to face with their reflection, that dissected figure that has survived and has been intertextually recast. It is precisely with this reflection that they compete both dramatically and scenically in order to prevail and prove that the episode’s central characters can function of their own free will, live their passion and assume responsibility for their actions. The characters in the plays explored here act within a contemporary and modern setting where the present converses with the past to set up an alluring framework for the reception of the mytheme. 

In closing this short note, I would like to point out the potential, broader impression but also the “aftertaste” this fellowship has afforded me, mostly at a personal level. First, I would like to indicate the harmonious collaboration I have had with the Centre at Nafplio and with corresponding associates in Washington. Our exchanges were permeated by a spirit of courtesy, promptness and professionalism for the entire duration of this fellowship. I extend my warm thanks to all of them. The fellowship has been a spur to the relaunch of my research endeavours within the thematic field I am particularly interested in, namely reception of ancient Greek drama. It has provided me with a setting of safety, trust, optimism and confidence in order to take my doctoral research a step further but also schedule my next moves vis-à-vis the study of this particular mytheme. I was especially honoured to have been selected as a fellow. I would like to thank the Selection Committee as well as the advisors to this project. My interest in future research programmes offered by the Center remains unwavering. It is immensely gratifying to be able to carry on research and achieve personal development within a supportive, constructive environment characterized by high repute and trust.  


Selected Bibliography

Αναγνώστου, Ουρ. 2016. Το θέατρο της Έλενας Πέγκα, Αθήνα.

Critchley, S. 2008. ‘I Want to Die, I Hate My Life – Phaedra’s Malaise.’ Ιn Rethinking Tragedy, ed. R. Felski, 170-195 Baltimore.

Διαμαντάκου – Αγάθου, Κ. 2007. Περί Τραγωδίας και Τρυγωδίας, οκτώ διαδρομές στο τραγικό και το κωμικό θέατρο, Αθήνα.

Hansen, W. 2002. Ariadne’s Thread, A Guide to International Tales found in Classical Literature. Ithaca.

López Salva, M. 1994. ‘El tema de Putifar en la literatura Arcaica y clasíca griega en su relación con la del Próxomo Oriente.’ CFC 1:77–112.

Mills, S. 2002. Euripides: Hippolytus. London

Watson, P. A. 1995. Ancient Stepmothers, Myth, Misogyny and Reality. Leiden.

Ζώρας, Γ. Γ. 1992. “L’Elemento Divino Nel Ippolyto di Euripide.” Parnassos 34:111-123.

Hans-Jörg, Uther. 2004. The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography, based on the system of Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson. Academia Scientiarum Fennica.




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