The setting is stark—a dining table and three chairs on a floorboard island in a sea of graphite shavings is surrounded on one side by a cave-like, perforated iron wall and on the other three sides by theatre-goers. Over the table hangs a woven fish-trap, traditionally used to catch large fish and let the smaller fish pass through. No such luck in Wesley Enoch’s Black Medea;1 the fish-trap is woven tight at one end—this is a production that lets very little through its net.
To discuss taboo in relation to Enoch’s adaptation, especially considering the domestic/private violence and infanticide of the production, might feel like stating the obvious. However, there is a curious lack of discussion in the critical reaction to the production about the implication of white Australia in the tragedy of Black Medea. Whilst other taboos have been voiced, the silent character of whiteness in Black Medea has not been discussed. Forgotten, overlooked, or ignored, the role of white Australia in Medea and Jason’s downfall has proven to be a taboo topic.
Enoch’s Black Medea is an adaptation of Euripides’ Ancient Greek Classic. The title character of Medea is the sorceress and foreign wife of Jason of the Argonauts.2 Jason, although married to Medea, promises himself to another woman, inviting the wrath of his wife. At Medea’s bidding, her two children deliver a gown and crown to Jason’s new bride-to-be, who dies shortly after wearing them. The spurned wife completes her revenge by murdering her two children and flees, unable to stay or to return to her homeland. Euripides drew on a well-known myth for his drama, and for his contemporaries the differences between the myth and his version was an important point, and the main source of contention for his critics. For example, Euripides was known to give his characters a human element often absent from many other tragedies of the time; this was a potent comment on the relationship between the individual and the divine.
Enoch’s Black Medea diverges from Euripides’ Medea in many ways and, similarly, the differences are telling. Enoch’s characters, whilst occasionally using [End page 1] language evocative of mythology, are far more human than Euripides’. Whilst Euripides’ version has a cast of over a dozen, the action of Enoch’s adaptation feels more claustrophobic, with just four actors. Absent from Enoch’s production are the human catalysts for the tragedy. Jason (Aaron Pederson), in Black Medea, is not betrothed to another woman (although Medea—Margaret Harvey—asks “who is she?”) but is haunted by the Chorus (Justine Saunders), who urges him to abandon his wife so that Medea may return to the land, family and culture she has abandoned in order to marry him. The equation of Enoch’s characters’ homelands with the separate nations of Euripides’ version is a telling commentary that some viewers may overlook: they may not recognise that there are many nations of Aboriginal people within Australia and displacement across just one hundred kilometres may be devastating. Whilst Jason and Medea are both Indigenous Australians, they are from nations as different as Corinth and Colchis, the respective homelands of Jason and Medea in Euripides’ original.
In addition, Jason and Medea are continuously torn between a desire to succeed in a modern and western world (Jason works for a mining company) and returning to Medea’s country (a call constantly reiterated by the Chorus). To add further to the pressure of succeeding in the modern world, Jason, led by Medea, receives “blood-money bonuses and mining royalties” through the exploitation of Indigenous sacred sites and burial grounds. A jingle of coins perforating Jethro Woodward’s powerful and paranoid soundtrack reinforces the capitalist motivation behind Medea’s displacement and cultural betrayal. Jason, driven mad and alcoholic by the pressures of his wife and “the wind” (the voice of the Chorus) fights with Medea in dance-like scenes, but continues to be a devoted father to his only son. Infuriated by Jason’s refusal to leave the city, and seeing her son becoming like Jason, a fate she cannot bear, Medea murders her child3 After Medea’s emotional infanticide, the Chorus, a haunting image of both tradition as well as Medea’s ancestors and future, informs us that Medea dies walking home to her land; the actor is shown clutching the broken trireme that was her son’s favourite toy before it was ‘lost’, when it was removed by the Chorus and replaced with a bulldozer (a telling present from Jason).
Critics have noted the major success (or downfall) of this production as being Enoch’s confrontation with domestic violence in Indigenous communities. For example, a Daily Telegraph reviewer, Krista Wilson, has commented, “Where much theatre has failed, this play successfully illustrates the confusing cycle for the children and the lover involved in a violent relationship”. 4 On the other hand, Colin Rose, writing for the Sun Herald, gives the performance a rating of five out of ten, stating: [End page 2]
Enoch doesn’t need to dress up in Euripides’s toga to point the finger at wife bashing and the loss of identity in [I]ndigenous communities. That story is big enough on its own. In translating Medea to a contemporary context, he’s made a nonsense of the play and blunted his own argument.5
It is arguable that Rose has missed the whole point of Enoch’s appropriation. Not only is it possible to see Medea’s murder of her child as a metaphoric death, Enoch’s call to end the cycle of domestic violence, but the use of Medea to make this call the deliberate use of a universal Classic suggests the story is applicable to all. Enoch justifies his appropriation in the Program Guide when he recites the relationship between the play and the audience: “The Greeks knew the power of catharsis . . . The hero takes us to the depths and we are transported by their heartache and struggle. On our return to the ‘real world’ we—the audience—are transformed”.6 In short, Rose, at best, discusses the implications of Enoch’s story for Indigenous people alone, and Wilson expands the scope of the play by reading the domestic violence as not simply confined to Indigenous communities. We are interested in reading another kind of ‘transformation’ Black Medea evokes for both audiences and critics.
Contemporary Indigenous theatre often addresses political and historical issues to audiences both within Australia and internationally. Quite rightly, Helen Thomson reminds us that Aboriginal theatre contests “white values, even the benign, liberal humanist ones, which have been informed by well-intentioned but damaging ideologies such as assimilation”.7 Whilst Thomson’s comments can be read as a crude generalisation, that all Indigenous theatre contests white values, we are interested in applying her observation specifically to Black Medea./ref] Seemingly breaking with this convention, Black Medea prefers to tell a dramatic and personal story, rather than explicitly blaming white Australia for catalysing this domestic tragedy. To counteract the alienating effect for white audiences of a direct challenge to “white values,” Enoch’s Black Medea invites the audience to infer this criticism. For example, the Chorus invites this response, telling the audience that they must involve themselves in this play, be “witness, judge and jury” to Medea’s tragedy. It is suggested quite strongly that the story cannot be outed fully without the interaction of an audience. Unfortunately, however, Enoch’s serious challenge to the white audience members remains unidentified in the literature surrounding the play, with most reviewers considering the Indigeneity in the play as a negation of the universality of the story rather than symptomatic of Thomson’s contestation of “white values.” The Chorus goes on to state that Medea’s story is “like that story that gets whispered in the corner ’cause no-one wants to come out with it”. Enoch has come out with it, but still some aspects of his outing remain taboo—unread or overlooked. Much of Enoch’s criticism itself threatens becoming a white taboo in Black Medea. [End page 3] Enoch’s criticism is employed in his use of the Classics; he is an advocate for the universality of such works. In an interview on the Belvoir St Theatre’s website he is quoted as saying “the Classics are Classics because they have Universal stories to tell. These Universal stories are not contained in one culture but inhabit all cultures”.8 This is the impetus behind the Chorus’ revelation that, rather than being Jason and Medea’s exclusively, or Indigenous people’s exclusively, “somehow” this is “a story about all of us”. One way of analysing the universality of Black Medea is to utilise what Mudrooroo has termed the “polysemic nature of Aboriginal drama”.9 Such an analysis allows many diverse yet related meanings to emerge from within the single piece of theatre. Silent and taboo commentaries, for example, can be mounted within a seemingly simple story. The set’s fish-trap can be read as a trap with all its practical connotations, whilst also representing the commoditisation of so-called relics of the past to adorn the dining rooms of the wealthy and museum cabinets. This is a significant commentary, albeit one left to the audience. As Enoch commented in an Introduction to one of his earlier plays, The 7 Stages of Grieving:
The greatest misconception held by White Australia and indeed international audiences is that Aboriginal culture is a museum piece, a remnant of a world long gone. This romantic picture pays little justice to our instinct for survival and ability to interact with the contemporary world. 10
Black Medea, literally destroying romance, challenges the comfort that the deanimation of Indigenous cultures affords white audiences. This romanticisation constructs Indigenous culture as a relic, ensuring a detachment that denies cultural exchange. Romanticisation of Indigenous culture, in turn, effectively prevents productive Indigenous/non-Indigenous interaction. Enoch, however, disrupts the voyeuristic detachment of romanticisation and pushes the boundaries of interaction further than the contemporary world, revamping Ancient drama to great effect. This is a serious challenge to Colin Rose’s narrow reading of the play and is one aspect of Black Medea that calls for a transformation of white theatregoer’s experiences of Indigenous art. Whilst this is a worthy ideal, it is problematic—the call for active spectatorship paradoxically requires an already active engagement by the audience. Transformation on the scale that Enoch demands is complicated by the tendency for white audiences and critics to view this story voyeuristically.11
Jason and Medea’s story is not only a domestic tale entirely about their private life with the audience as voyeur, but a tale of how white Australians have collaborated in the family’s predicament. How Medea, for example, is corrupted by capitalist ambition at her city school and lured away from her family and land [End page 4] by this ambition. Whilst the Chorus gently sails audiences into the life of Medea, the actor’s involvement with the audience is far from gentle. Her entrance involves a direct, challenging stare at the audience “I know you’re out there” Medea cries, haunted by the presence of the audience. She calls for a confrontation with the audience, whether they are willing or not. Whilst avoiding a direct address of the fact, her livid expression and screaming tirades invite the audience—at least the whitefellas in the audience—to feel a part of her story, to feel involved.
The question we would like to conclude this article with is: why do mainstream reviewers, who have often stated that Black Medea is confronting, seldom search for the source of their feelings of confrontation?12 We would like to suggest that this silence, or taboo, is directly related to the reluctance to implicate white Australia in Medea’s tragedy. For the mistress who has stolen Jason, caused Medea’s anger, and begun the cycle of violence, despair and grief is white Australia. Whiteness is a silence in the play, but it is ever-present—even the catalyst for the tragedy. It is the source of Medea’s capitalist ambition, Jason’s gradual and painful assimilation and the family’s dispossession at the hands of the mining company. In finding the play confronting and rendering the reasons for this discomfort taboo, critics and audiences distance themselves from the power of Black Medea and the potency of Enoch’s arguments. Enoch is calling, we believe, for married grief between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people—universal mourning for mistakes of the past and present. One of the most poignant lines in the play comes as Medea explains her recent infanticide to her husband: “Whatever my hell, I will sleep pleased in the knowledge that I have married my grief to your torment”. Is it possible, or probable, that white theatregoers and critics will grieve for a family we helped destroy? Perhaps it is desirable for white audiences to feel a torment that matches Medea’s grief.
About the Authors
Benjamin Miller is a postgraduate in the School of English at UNSW. His current research is on Indigenous artists from the assimilation era, such as Albert Namatjira, Harold Blair, David Unaipon, Robert Tudawali and Rosalie Kunoth-Monks. His contribution to the review of Black Medea is informed by his interest in whiteness theory.
Hallie Donkin is a student in the School of English Literatures at the University of Wollongong. Her current research interests are in notions of sovereignty in settler and Indigenous fiction from Australia and New Zealand. Writing about Black Medea has allowed her to examine notions of sovereignty in Australian Indigenous theatre.