“But don’t you see Kreios? She’s a wronged woman! She has no rights, not only as a wife but also as a foreigner. She has been utterly abandoned by her true love and she seeks revenge. “
“Kleio, that is a completely backward interpretation. Medea is a witch and heartless villain, a woman who murders her own children in order to exact futile retribution against a husband who is only trying to provide her with a life of comfort and stability. She is a criminal character, and that is how I shall play her.”
Kreios gave his sister a look across the table that clearly said “end of discussion” and resumed eating his evening meal. The playbook lay between them as a reminder of their difference in opinion.
With a sign of frustration Kleio stood and began clearing away the dirty dishes. The small house in which she lived with her twin brother glowed warm from the candles she had bought at the market earlier that day. She considered their situation to be a fortunate one; it is not often that children are allowed to retain their family home when both parents die, especially children of the opposite sex. However, Kreios had appealed to the officials on the grounds that the two of them were almost of age, and no other relatives were eligible to receive his parent’s property. As an established actor, Kreios was able to provide for both himself and his twin sister, until she was married.
Kleio shuddered at the thought of marriage. In Greek society, wives were nothing but chattel, bound by law to do their husbands bidding. She considered her own parent’s happy marriage a chance arrangement; most situations, as far as she could see, were far more restrictive. This is why Medea appeals to me so strongly, Kleio thought, continuing her argument with Kreios in her head She doesn’t bow her head and meekly accept the fate being meted out to her. An unfair destiny, not handed down by the gods, but by the covetous hands of an unfaithful husband.
“Sister, let’s not argue about this trivial thing,” said Kreios, breaking into her thoughts with a kind hand on her shoulder. “ Come over to a candle and help me learn my lines. You know I have a memory like a leaky pot, I need your extraordinary powers of recall.”
Laughing, Kleio forgot her annoyance and turned back to the table. They sat together, entranced by the words of Euripides, until the candle burned low.
Stars blanketed the sky and Hera’s Milky Way blazed a path that stretched between the horizons. A cool breeze ruffled Kleio’s hair as she paced her small dark courtyard, but she noticed none of these things. Her full concentration was focused on the words of Medea.
Let no man think
I am a feeble, frail-hearted woman
Who sits with folded hands: no,
Let them know me for the opposite of that
– one who knows how to hurt her enemies
And help her friends.
It is lives like this that are longest remembered!
Kleio now moved rapidly, punctuating the passionate words with movement, imagining the captivated audience in front of her. Tears began to form under her lashes as she imagined the end scene; herself in a chariot with her two dead sons, facing Jason and scorning his grief, mocking his broken heart. She fairly yelled the words,
What god, what heavenly power
Would listen to you?
To a breaker of oaths?
To a betrayer of love?
She spun around to face the doorway, seeing Kreios standing there with a candle throwing light upon his shocked expression. “What on earth are doing, trying to wake the gods? Come inside before a lightening bolt strikes you!” He joked, but remained slightly bewildered as Kleio hurried past him, her face burning with embarrassment.
“I’m sorry,” she began, “ I didn’t mean to wake you up, I just went outside to practice and I didn’t realize I was speaking alou-“
“Stop.” Kreios held his hand up, silencing her. The candle danced and cast wavering shadows over the walls. “How many times must we discuss this Kleio?” His face now held pity. “Women cannot be on the stage. A man writes a tragedy, indeed any stage production, for men actors and for a male audience. Your practice is useless.”
“Yes but Kreios, don’t try to tell me I’m not good. I understand Medea! I relate to her, surely that is apparent when I act her out! If I could just talk to the director, I’m sure I could make him-“
“Kleio, enough! I’m sorry,” Kreios said emphatically, crossing the room and taking his sister’s hand. “ I don’t deny your talent, but it is just not possible. Your talent does not have a place on a Greek stage.”
Kleio’s tears fell upon their clasped hands. Without another word, she turned towards her chamber.
The first four shows went fairly smoothly, Kreios told her. One of the chorus members began singing a song too early during a dramatic pause, and he subsequently fainted from embarrassment mid-scene. The high- heeled shoes were becoming easier to walk in, although Kreios still soaked his feet for an hour every night to soothe the blisters. Kleio eagerly listened as her brother described the actors and the area off-stage where they congregated to drink wine after the show. She pressed him for details about the audience’s reactions to certain scenes, about the young boys who played Medea’s sons, about the strong handsome man giving an incredibly forceful performance as Jason.
She lay awake at night, reciting the play in her mind and imagining the feeling one must get from being on stage, the freedom that must exist as you transform yourself into a different person entirely. She fell asleep with the sound of applause in her ears.
On the morning of the final show, Kleio awoke not to applause, but to the sound of a furious, barking cough. Heart racing, she ran to her brother’s room, finding him doubled over in his bed. He was pale and sweaty, shivering as he coughed uncontrollably. He’s dying, Kleio thought frantically, as she dashed away to get him a jug of water.
When she returned, Kreios had fallen back onto his bed, still shaking and breathing heavily.
“Kleio,” he rasped as she laid a wet cloth on his head. “ Why today? Why couldn’t I get deathly ill tomorrow? Would have been more convenient.” His laughter was interrupted by another fit of coughing.
“Hush, no jokes, “ said Kleio sternly. “ You are not to leave this bed, understood? I’ll send for a physician as soon as I can.”
“Yes, but what about the show?” Despair was heavy in Kreios voice, and his eyes filled with tears as he looked at his sister. “I am necessary! The show must go on!” He struggled to sit upright, tearing and clawing at the blanket.
“Stop!” Kleio shouted, shoving him onto his back. “ I will think of something. Now, do as I say, and stay there! I’ll return shortly.”
A tentative plan was taking shape in Kleio’s mind as she left to find help.
The physician set two bottles on the table in front of Kleio.
“This one he should take with water twice a day, morning and night,” he said, pointing to the liquid. “Only three drops mind, don’t want to overdo it. And this, he should rub onto his chest throughout the day. It will help to draw out the infection.”
“Thank you, doctor,” said Kleio, wrinkling her nose at the smell of the salve he had prescribed. “And you’re sure it’s not serious?”
“No, no,” he replied, opening the door to leave. “ A few day’s of bed rest and medicine should do the trick. I suppose he’s just been pushing his body so hard, doing the tragedy. He has such an important part.” With that, he left the house.
“Yes he certainly does,” Kleio muttered to herself as she walked back to her brother. He was sleeping; the doctor had mentioned that the medicine could make him drowsy. She sat on the edge of the bed and studied her brother’s face. She only knew it resembled her own because people told her so; she’d never owned a mirror. Once again, she imagined the applause, the exhilaration, and the absolute freedom…
Kleio decided. Before her determination deserted her she fled to the kitchen and snatched a pair of shears. She pulled her hair into a ponytail and cut it off until it hung just above her shoulders, exactly the length of Kreios’ hair. Still not stopping to think, she gathered up the abandoned hair and ran to her room. Quickly undressing, she grabbed a length of bandage and began wrapping it in layers over her breasts. I’ve never been particularly thankful for having a small chest before, Kleio thought suddenly with a nervous laugh. Don’t think. Just do.
Finally, she tied her toga into the style of a man, took a breath, and walked out the door. The sun beat down on her as she threaded her way through the town towards the theatre, not daring to look up lest anyone recognize her as herself. Kreios’ words came back to her; “You are a woman…. your talent has no place on a Greek stage.” She lifted her head higher and turned her thoughts to what would happen when she reached the theatre. All I have to do is not talk too much off stage, she thought. If anyone asks, I’ll say I’ve taken a potion to make my voice sound higher. Yes, authenticity. Kleio smiled at her cleverness and hastened her steps. She was already late.
“Kreios, where have you been?” Augustinios’ loud voice rang out as Kleio entered the theatre. “You are late! The Chorus is already costumed! The audience is about to be seated! By the gods, if I live to direct another tragedy, YOU will have a tough time finding a spot on my stage, I assure you!” Kleio, stunned, stared back at him, frantically trying to think of a response that could avoid even more trouble. Thankfully, Augustinios’ rage proved a saving grace. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING BOY! GO AND GET INTO YOUR COSTUME!” he shouted, his face turning a rich purple. He continued his grumbling, staring malevolently at Kleio’s retreating figure.
Kleio was still shaking from the encounter as she entered the dressing area. People were running every which way, carrying all manner of costumes and props, calling out for makeup and wigs, throwing jokes and clever banter at one another. She stared, reveling in the scents of face powder and tangible excitement that permeated the space.
“Kreios! Over here!” a shout came up through the din. Looking around, Kleio spotted a young man frantically waving at her, smiling like a madman. “I’ve got your costume over here! Had to move it out of the way when the Chorus showed up to dress and you weren’t here yet.” He continued chattering at her as he arranged the garments and high-heels for Kleio, animatedly describing the temper tantrums of the director that day, and how most of the Chorus girls had swooned when Dorian passed through their midst in nothing but a loincloth. I believe Kreios appears a hero to this boy. He can hardly be above twelve! Kleio reflected as she admired the costume. At least I haven’t had to speak yet, thanks to him. And Dorian is playing Jason, Kreios mentioned him before. All of her nervousness had fled now, and she felt only excitement making her stomach flutter.
“Thank you, “ she interrupted the boy’s ceaseless talk, realizing she hadn’t learned his name. He went wide-eyed at the sound of her voice. “Ah, I see the potion I took has worked it’s magic! Do I not sound more like a woman today?” Kleio giggled, enjoying the irony as the young man nodded in astonishment. “Run along now, I can change myself. Thank you for your help,” she called after him as he nodded and scampered away. Pleased with her first success, Kleio quickly changed, doing her best to stay hidden behind a sheet she supposed the boy had hung for privacy. She could hear the rumble of many voices all of a sudden, and knew the audience must be taking their seats. Her heartbeat quickened, and adrenaline coursed through her; I am a woman playing a man who is playing a woman, she thought with a smile. I must be the greatest actor who ever lived!
The rumble died suddenly, and Kleio knew that the play was about to begin. She hurried to the skene, the large tent behind the stage that served as both waiting area and set décor, and stopped as she neared Dorian. He turned, hearing her footsteps, and gave her a quick smile.
“Thought you’d never show up,” he whispered. “Final show, my friend. Make it count.” He turned away again, as the Nurse prepared to enter the stage and begin.
I intend to, thought Kleio. Medea will finally be played the way she was meant to be. As she concentrated on breathing evenly, the first lines of the play resonated through the theatre.
O, how I wish that famous ship
Had never made its way through the blue Sympleglades
To the land of Colchis!
Destiny. That was the only thought in Kleio’s mind as she exited the stage in the chariot, having just hurled the final bitter words of Medea, bearing away the two beloved, murdered children. She had faced Jason, and mocked him, and scorned his grief, the way only a heartbroken woman could do. Kleio knew she had been not just convincing; she had been brilliant.
She also knew she would be questioned, possibly arrested. The secret was no longer hers; Dorian’s face had undergone multiple expressions of apprehension throughout the play, as he realized he was acting opposite a real woman. Kleio was surprised the apoplectic Augustinio hadn’t yet cornered her with a tirade of fury.
However, none of this yet laid heavy on her mind. A thrill like no other had possessed her on stage, and she promised herself she would experience it again, if she had to fight the entire Greek army. Through Medea, Kleio had learned the art of expression, and it was something she would never forget. The Choragos was delivering the final lines, and Kleio felt a divine presence as she listened.
And many things we thought could never be,
Yet the gods contrive.
Such things have happened on this day,
And in this place!
Kleio closed her eyes, and let the applause crash over her like a wave.
Written by Elizabeth Crum