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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The play Medea was written by the Greek playwright Euripides about 2,500 years ago. It’s a fascinating story: the heroine is a descendant of the gods, possessed of magical powers, wiles, and great strength. But she isn’t impervious to love. She falls in love with Jason (of the Argonauts and Golden Fleece) and betrays her family, kills her brother and more, to help him secure his prize.

He takes her to Greece, and they marry and have two sons. But suddenly, Jason decides he has to marry the daughter of the king of Corinth to solidify his status. Medea then becomes a barbarian. However, he tells her, she can still be his mistress, and he’ll keep the boys. It’s all for the greater good. Medea doesn’t take this well. Long story short, she kills Jason’s intended (Glauce) her father (Creon) and her own sons.

In between her discovery of the betrayal and her final horrible act, Medea has a lot to say about her fate, much of it startlingly contemporary. “A man,” she says, “when he is displeased living with those at home, having gone abroad is wont to relieve his heart of uneasiness, having recourse either to some friend or compeer. But we (women) must look to one person. But they are saying of us we have a life of ease at home, (while) they are fighting with the spear; (this is) judging ill, since I would rather thrice stand in arms, than once suffer the pangs of childbirth.”

Here is one of the earliest instances where the realisation that women might see the world differently from men was brought home to the public at large. I don’t think many parallels can be drawn between ancient Greece and Trinidad at any time, but this is one: popular Athenian audiences did not like Medea, and audiences here and now do not like to be too close to the inner workings of their own ugliness. It’s not that (in Trinidad) they’re insulated–reality kicks everyone in the face every day from the front pages of the newspapers. What really seems to bother us is any thinking, feeling, or reasoning outside of the instinctive and immediate.

Unfortunately, whether we get out of the present predicament of omnivorous violence depends upon our ability to learn thinking, reasoning and sensitivity. This was illustrated by the Prime Minister’s recent soundbite about the responsibility of women in choosing a partner, which has attracted much wrath from women and men.

I doubt it was intended maliciously, but was emblematic of a general lack of male and general sensitivity to the subject of women’s issues. (And, incidentally, it’s taken attention away from an even greater, and far more offensive enormity: the Zika baby issue. The CNC3 news ran a story last week which revealed the Health Minister’s promise of help for zika pregnancies has turned out to be empty. The mother interviewed said she’d inquired about a termination of the pregnancy, but was denied and told there were “things in place” for her. Now, is she to ketch. Does this sound familiar? Bad choice of what, is responsible here? Which mosquito to be bitten by?)

Generally, a lack of sensitivity concerning human issues is absent from all Trinidadian institutions, and the people who run them. The reason for this deficiency is a point I’ve argued many times in this space: the society is not trained to think this way, in fact, quite the opposite, and Carnival is the principal medium of this insensitivity.

The national preference seems to be to flood the senses, drown thought and sensitivity and blunt subtlety with obscene doses of carnality, alcohol, depraved noise. The ever-increasing depths of Trinidadian depravity we’re seeing at all levels of the society is a direct result of the blocking of this learning and teaching. Naturally, it wasn’t always like this. But apparently it is now.

We’ve seen the Prime Minister, his AG, and various Cabinet members at fetes and Carnival events, but what about artistic performances? Not so much, I’d bet. Here is the problem. People, and politicians, don’t acquire sensitivity to any issue–child marriage, domestic violence, infidelity–from the atmosphere. They could be flailed with the issue, as is happening now, but sensitivity can be taught and learned, and one of the most effective ways of learning is through art–the theatre, movies, other performances.

Much idiocy has been said about the importance of art. But it’s important that decision makers know that the answers to all the problems that plague them and us are in films decades old, books hundreds of years old and plays and moral texts sometimes thousands of years old. It’s not such an odd proposition–think of the Bible, the Koran, the Gita. We just have to look.

The question is, how to make this knowledge readily available the way, say Carnival ignorance is, from all media? The state gives hundreds of millions to Carnival which causes the sickness. A tenth of that sum to producers of art would be enough to fund an antidote. Of course, as we’ve seen, art is not always going to be friendly to the state. But it doesn’t mean it’s not of enormous use to the state.

One of the best ways to start this programme would be doing right by the people who are already doing it, and have been doing it for decades. This means the Trinidad Theatre Workshop (with which I am proud to be associated), which is in need of a home. As a gesture of faith, the Prime Minister and his Minister of Health, and Cabinet, could commission the TTW to do a staged reading of Medea. I guarantee you’ll get your money’s worth.


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