Phaedra through the Ages

The story of Phaedra has captivated audiences throughout history. Plays, ballets, short stories, song cycles, paintings, operas: something in this myth continues to thrill the creative imagination. Just as Marina Carr has found a new perspective on the classic myth in Phaedra Backwards, each version of the myth is a chance to see the story, and the central character of Phaedra, in a different light.  Below are brief synopses of the most influential early versions of the Phaedra story as well as a handful of the many adaptations they inspired.

Euripides’ Hippolytus
(428 B.C.)

This is the first known dramatic representation of the myth, and a source for many subsequent adaptations. While Theseus is away for a year-long exile, Phaedra develops a lustful passion for her stepson Hippolytus. Hippolytus is disgusted and delivers an angry speech about the evils of womanhood. Phaedra, believing that she is ruined by Hippolytus’ knowledge of her desire, kills herself. Theseus returns and finds Phaedra’s dead body and he accuses his son of raping her.  He banishes Hippolytus, who dies in a chariot accident.

Seneca’s Phaedra
(Exact Date Unknown, approximately 20 A.D. – 65 A.D.)

In this version, Phaedra does not try to dismiss or ignore her desire. Instead, Phaedra decides that she will be the first woman to make the chaste Hippolytus feel passion. When she reveals her love, Hippolytus runs away to the forest.  Theseus returns to find Phaedra about to kill herself  and she tells him that Hippolytus raped her. Theseus swears to kill Hippolytus, but a messenger delivers the news that he has already died in a chariot accident. Phaedra confesses that she lied, and kills herself, and Theseus curses her corpse.

Racine, Phedre
(1677)

This is perhaps the most famous and most frequently adapted retelling. In this version, Hippolytus is in love with the Princess Aricia, the only surviving member of the royal family Theseus supplanted. While Hippolytus and Arica plan their elopement, Phedre reveals her lust for Hippolytus. Theseus arrives home, and Phedre’s maid tells him that Hippolytus seduced his wife.  Theseus banishes Hippolytus, and Phedre, jealous of her stepson’s love for the princess, does nothing to stop him. After witnessing Hippolytus and Arica together, Theseus begins to doubt the maid’s word, but cannot interrogate her because she has killed herself.  Hippolytus is killed in a chariot accident; Phedre confesses to Theseus and drinks poison; Theseus adopts Aricia as his daughter.

Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opera  Hippolyte et Aricie  
(1733)

Rameau’s opera is based on Racine’s play, but with a few significant changes. When Hippolytus and Aricia secretly declare their love, the goddess Diana vows to protect them. Meanwhile, news arrives that Theseus has travelled to the Underworld and is likely dead. Phaedra takes this opportunity to declare her love to Hippolytus. He is appalled, and she tries to kill herself in despair. Just then Theseus arrives. He has survived the underworld because he was granted three prayers by his father, the god Neptune, and used two of them to escape. When he discovers Phaedra and Hippolytus together, he uses his last prayer to punish his son. Hippolytus and Aricia try to escape together, but a monster emerges from the sea and Hippolytus disappears in a burst of flames. Phaedra blames herself and commits suicide after telling Theseus the truth. In the forest, Aricia mourns the loss of Hippolytus but the goddess Diana appears and tells her she has found her a husband. Diana reveals Hippolytus, alive and well. The opera ends with rejoicing.

Desire Under the Elms by Eugene O'Neill
(1924)

Set in 1850 in Connecticut, this play is a loose adaptation that combines the myths of Phaedra and Medea. Ephraim Cabot, a crotchety widower farmer with three grown sons decides to take a new wife and finds a woman half his age. The wife, Abbie, falls in love with the youngest son, Eben. Initially furious at her for threatening his inheritance, Eben and Abby begin a tempestuous and consensual relationship. Eventually, she bears him a child who she passes off as her husband’s. Young Eben becomes convinced that she will use the child to steal the farm from him. Worried that the baby will eventually jeopardize their relationship, she kills it. Eben is furious and turns her in to the sheriff, but once he’s done so, he realizes the extent of his love for her and offers to share her fate.

Some Velvet Morning by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood
(1967)

This ‘psychedelic pop song’ was recorded by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood in 1967 and appeared on Sinatra’s album Movin’ with Nancy. In the duet, the male character speaks of being taught the ways of love by a powerful and mysterious woman called Phaedra. The female singer, as Phaedra, sings in nature images and repeats “Learn from us, but do not touch.”

True Love by Charles Mee
(2001)

This contemporary play gives an overt nod to the classic myth when the local radio personality says “But I mean, basically, I guess you'd have to say/that the Greeks, pretty much anticipated everything/ western folks have thought and felt for 25 centuries.” In a stagnating rural town, Polly is frustrated over her absent husband and lusting after her 13 year old stepson. Meanwhile, on the local radio show, outside the abandoned gas station and in backyards, the residents of the town become a kind of Greek chorus debating what it means to love and exploring the consequences of following one’s deepest and darkest desires. The playwright uses the original myth as a jumping off point to explore the thought that it is the denial of our instinctive desires that makes us human.