At the Rose Playhouse on London’s Bankside, an English translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 18th Century German classic, Iphigenia in Tauris, can be seen (and heard) for the first time in a staged setting. The story is based on an ancient Greek myth but when it comes to gender issues, the piece could not be more current. The play’s dramaturge, Annegret Märten, on the power of the female voice:
“I have only words.” Iphigenia in Tauris, Act V.
A curious thing has been happening over the last year or so. A wave of mostly young women have been very publicly dismissing feminism as old hat, photographing themselves holding up signs in which they proclaim feminism an obsolete idea unfit to argue the case of the modern woman. These proclamations are as confident as they are uninformed – and I would argue that’s partly a good thing. When these women claim they don’t need feminism because they don’t see themselves as victims, feminists should rejoice in the way the oppositional voices take their right to vent personal opinion for granted. Instead of being chastised for their ignorance, these anti-feminists need to be tasked to use this newly found voice to speak up for issues they feel strongly about.
Take Iphigenia, the tragic figure from Greek mythology. All her life, the daughter of Agamemnon of the cursed Tantalid race, is surrounded by the absurdity of human sacrifice. First, her own life is in danger: she is to be sacrificed by her father for the common good and the Greek war effort. The moment she is about to be killed, the gods whisk her away in a protective cloud to Tauris, a remote island. This act, thedeus ex machina par excellence, did not just save her life; it also silenced her and allowed her no agency in her own fate.
But the abhorrent practice of human sacrifice also lurks in her new home. She remains in exile for many years where she serves in the temple of the goddess who saved her from death. She eventually manages to convince the island’s ruler, Thoas, to abandon the practice of killing strangers who are washed ashore. It is only when she has to say “No!” to the men around her that things become complicated forIphigenia. When she refuses to marry the king, he orders her to reinstate the killings and sacrifice the two strangers that have just arrived on Tauris. The two turn out to be her brother Orestes and his friend who have come to steal a holy statue from the shrine. Faced again with her childhood trauma, Iphigenia must not only stand up to the ruler but also examine her own alliances. If she helps her brother escape, does she really want to support the planned theft? Can she betray the king who over the years has become a good friend? In Goethe’s version of Euripides’ play, there is no chorus of women so Iphigenia is alone among four men who hack away at her moral integrity. None of them means any harm to her; they’re simply pursuing their own interests.
A horrendous trend with which women are faced nowadays is the public shaming and discarding of strong female voices. Especially on social media, outspoken women like Laurie Penny are constantly subjected to a torrent of misogynistic abuse and condescending belittlement. There are points inIphigenia too where the men try to ‘woman-shame’ her; they object to or discard any decision she makes because she is a woman, calling her weak and unreasonable. Belittling a woman’s opinion like that serves to keep up a long and well-established power imbalance which uses two different measures for men and women. Because not one of the men has her fate in mind, Iphigenia’s strength of conviction is born out of necessity. She can only pull through by not bowing to their will. She asks: “Have only men a right to heroic deeds?” As a woman in ancient Greece, she is an unlikely feminist because back then, women had barely more rights than slaves. Though as a king’s daughter and later as a priestess, she does have certain privileges she is aware of and which she uses to her advantage in order to regain her previously silenced voice. She navigates the lies and personal interests of the others and then pleas, explains and justifies everything she stands for until the men see reason.
Goethe’s text was ahead of its time in that it clearly positions itself critically towards outdated male virtues such as strength, pride, cunning and honour. Opposite those, he puts Iphigenia’s virtues of diplomacy, humility, truthfulness and loyalty. Reality does not fall as neatly in such binary categories, yet the transformative power of language that Goethe demonstrates here cannot be underestimated. For Iphigenia, as for young women trying to position themselves politically and on a spectrum of feminist engagement, it’s a two-step process: first, finding your own voice and then using it loudly and proudly to make a difference. “Born as free as any man”, Goethe’s Iphigenia speaks up against something she despises. What will you speak up for?
Published first on FemaleArts.