Martha Graham based some of her dances on the Greek myths. Identify the themes that she abstracted from the myths and discuss her treatment of them in the light of 20th century psychoanalytic thought.
Must I fear my mother’s marriage bed?
This wedlock with Thy mother fear not thou.
How oft it chances that in dreams
A man has wed his mother!
He who least regards such brainsick fantasies
Live most at ease.
This extract from Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, is chosen in order to introduce us to the main subject, the treatment of the Greek myths as it has been realized by an eminent personality of the world of dance, the American choreographer Martha Graham.
Why a reference to this particular myth? Because it is very closely connected to the psychoanalytic conception of the psychosexual development of man. Martha Graham’s viewpoint agrees with the psychoanalytic one, although the verbal way of expressing it is not exactly the same.
She considers the myths images of the human experience, icons where universal human feelings are reflected; feelings like jealousy, fear, anxiety, desire, ambivalence, guilt, anger, love, sorrow. The psychoanalytic jargon, it is true, uses a more specific vocabulary. So, we have an explicit conception according to which the myth is considered capable of expressing inner conflicts in a symbolic form. The Freudian psychoanalysts are interested to discover what kind of unconscious content is hidden behind the symbolic form of myth.
Before we begin the exploration of Martha Graham’s treatment, it would be useful to clarify a few concepts which are useful later. It would be better to begin with the definition of the “Unconscious”. According to the Freudian conception, the mental (psychic is also called) apparatus consists of three elements: the id, the ego and the superego.
The Id, is considered as our “darkest” part. It is unconscious, consisting of primal drives, (drive is an inner energetic impulse and directs the organism to a special aim. Drives should not be confused with instincts which have a biological source) and is submitted to the pleasure principle only. The Id, does not know time or rational relations.
The Ego –which is also unconscious up to a certain point- develops from the contact of the psychic apparatus with reality. Here, reigns the principle of reality. The resolution of the conflicts with reality or between desires that fight against each other, belongs to the Ego.
Superego, finally, is a modification of the Ego, and is created by the internalization of the suppressive forces that have appeared in the life of the individual and, additionally, from the assimulation of the child to the image of the idealized parents.
After these necessary classifications are made, we can proceed to the examination of the choreographic works of Martha Graham that were inspired by the Greek myths.
These works in chronological order, are as following: Cave of the Heart, Night Journey, Clytemnestra, Phaedra, Circe and Cortege of Eagles.
The central figure in the Cave of the Heart is Medea, the “damned” queen, the witch, the tragically abandoned woman. Medea, after her husband Jason deserted her for a younger woman (who could eventually help him to become a king), decides to take revenge upon him, by killing her rival and her children. Martha Graham is not interested in the infanticide; she focuses on Medea’s mad passion for revenge. Her choreography is very strong and dramatic. She focuses on the myth passionately and her dance is emotionally charged. Seeing the piece, it seems that in this particular work, Graham is found under the influence of both “magic” and the psychoanalytic thought. Medea’s dance is full of serpent-like movements. (The first title actually was “Serpent heart”.) Graham associates her with a snake, for two reasons: first, because she wants to remind us of the magic powers that had helped to bewitch the serpent that guarded the golden fleece, so that she and Jason could take it (they actually did), to under;ine Jason’s ingratitude and warn that the serpent has woken up. Second, because Medea has ceased to act in a human way.
Why did she choose the snake? Why not another animal? Because on top of what has just been mentioned, it is a strong memory to humanity (why not to Graham with the strict Presbyterian upbringing), that the serpent is a cunning, sinuous creature. Furthermore it seems plausible that unconsciously she must have found many similarities between Medea’s and Eve’s attitude. Only that in Medea’s case the step towards knowledge has been made quite consciously and Jason was an accomplice. That is why Medea punished him so severely; he left her alone to bear the burden of their common sins. For Graham the centre of her choreographic inspiration is the fury of Medea. As she often used to say, “movement does not lie”, and it is worth taking her own opinion in regard to the interpretation of her work.
In this first approach of hers to a mythic theme, she relies a lot on symbolic representations of “iconic” feelings, and this is probably in accordance to her interest in Carl G. Jung’s psychoanalytic theory of the archetypes. Nonetheless, she shows that Medea has surrendered to the sweeping omnipotence of her unconscious. It seems primary among her intentions to create a primitive, powerful dance than to explore the deeper psychological context of the heroine. She still sees the “ritual” where she should see the “significance”, which in turn would mean that she had not remained within the context of the mythical plot. Obviously Ruth St Denis has a lasting impression on her, despite ideological and stylistic modifications that Graham initiated in her own work and technique.
Night Journey is one of Graham’s more characteristic works. It is based on the myth of Oedipus, who killed his father and married his mother. When Oedipus learns the truth he blinds himself with his own hands and his mother hangs herself. The myth as adapted by Graham, introduces Jocasta as protagonist and it is her feelings that she explores. Action begins at the point where Jocasta, after she has learned that she had wed her son and given birth to his children, is going to punish herself. Noguchi’s scenery is full of symbols that reveal the double nature of the relationship between Oedipus and Jocasta, and predict the tragic end: the rope that ties them together –umbilical cord and symbol of their matrimonial union and to the incestuous marriage, which will turn eventually to a means of punishment of the queen. The bed; a weird construction made as if to remind to a spectator, of human bones –the feminine pelvis perhaps or death.
In this particular work, Martha Graham becomes “psychoanalytic”. Let us see how: as mentioned before, night Journey starts after the truth is revealed. Jocasta, before hanging herself, will bring back to her memory all the events that took place before. This way, she will make a very painful “night journey”/discovery. In the end of it, she will be able to face the truth and undertake her responsibilities. In talking about psychoanalysis, the word “reality” is possibly more suitable than the word “truth” tha Graham uses to show the qualities of movement or the point in which her heroine arrives at. What else though is the basic concept of the psychoanalytic process than a long journey to the long past in order to come to terms with ourselves and realize our position in the world, after we have dealt with our fears, anxiety or guilt.
Martha Graham places the source of our inner conflicts in the past, like psychoanalysis does. She furthermore suggests through Jocasta’s paradigm –that we return back there- no matter how painful it might be- to gain relief. It is also noticeable that in spite of the tragic end of the myth, she seems quite optimistic, believing that the happy moment of the resolution of the inner conflicts and serenity will eventually come, and moreover, quickly and in the form of a full blown revelation.
It does not seem to be the same when talking from the psychoanalytic point of view. There is always a chance for an individual analysis to remain unfinished and consequently, the conflicts to remain unresolved. However, Night Journey shows that Martha Graham has already moved away from the irresistible “magic” of a simple representation of a myth. It is also worth mentioning that in Night Journey he chorus, which originally in the tragedy consisted of Theban oldmen, here consists of six young girls, the “Daughters of the Noght” as they are named, participants to the never ending dark of the unconscious sign. The term “never-ending” is acutely chosen, though not quite realistic, it shows dramatically the quality and dimension of the “other place” as Freud himself named the unconscious.
The inner journey and the introspection continue with another work, which is entitled Errand into the Maze. It is inspired by the duel between the Athenian hero Thesaeus and Minotaur, a monster. (The myth also says that Minotaur was born after the Cretan princess Pasiphae had mated with a bull.) In this choreographic synthesis it is not Thesaeus, but a female figure that will fight the monster. The Minotaur for Graham, is a symbolic representation of human fears. Minotaur lent his monstrous appearance to help men externalize their search and their archaic fear of their psychic torment. As Martha Graham has always liked to do, she has, here too, created an apparent symbolism for the inner itinerary of the female protagonist. It is symbolized by the entanglement of a rope. The female figure will have to tie and tangle few times the rope of her thoughts and feelings, before she resolves her conflicts. The minotaur’s struggle is ours. He changes faces according to the personality and the structure of the psychic apparatus of each one of us. Consequently, the heroine must undertake the “errand” for her own sake.
The choreography makes her dance with the Minotaur. It is evident, naturally, that we cannot dance with someone without looking at him. So, their dance, no matter how aggressive it is, will make her face the monster, because no matter how fearful it may look, she has to deal with it as it is. At this point, we shall not resist temptation to substitute those inner fears with the resistances of the subject on the analytic couch. These resistances are the major obstacle during the analytic process, since the individual often prefers to remain in his/her inexplicable and “magic” symptomatology.
Clytemnestra is a monumental work of Freudian inspiration, and is part of another “family drama”. While her husband Agamemnon was at the Trojan war, Aegisthus, his cousin became her lover. When he returned together with Cassandra, a prey of the war, she and her lover murdered him. Then, her young son Orestes, undertook the act of revenge and he killed his mother.
The choreographic plot begins soon afterward Clytemnestra has descended to Hades. Hades symbolizes both the dark in her soul and the dark place of the dead. In Hades, she cannot rest in peace, because sha has not accepted the nature of her deeds. Hades, whom she hates very much, because he keeps her within the darkness of death as a jailor, will address the question that will eventually succeed in turning her to introspection: “Why you dishonored among the dead?” To answer this question, she has to start her way backward. She will remember her rage and accusations to Agamemnon for killing their daughter, her rivalry with Cassandra, her hate for Helen, her sister, who was the cause of the war. In other words, she will meet with sibling rivalry and oedipal conflicts, and she will realize her hostility and fury or real pain and sorrow.
Everything exists in this journey as in a psychoanalytic process. Each one might meet with feelings like these in his/her life; the importance seems to be, to dare to admit their existence, face them and try to deal with them. Martha Graham with a very accurate and keen observation, is able to understand very subtle matters. This time, the message in this work, includes self-forgiveness and acceptance. The conflicts are tragic, but human beings need not be tremendously severe; it is very important to know where to accept the idea of self-forgiveness. Psychoanalysis would say the same maybe with slightly different words. It may be added that the relation between Hades and Clytemnestra reminds us of the one between the analyst and the patient; meaning the transference, which is absolutely necessary, to establish, since the whole analytic process is based on it. (Maybe another clarification should be added here: transference is the projection on the analyst, of personalities who were involved with the very early years of the child –now the individual under analysis- usually a mother or a father.)
Introspection ahs become somewhat the basic theme of Graham’s choreographic inspiration. In 1962, se chose one more tragic female figure to present on stage: Phaedra. Phaedra was Aphrodite’s victim, says the myth; a victim of her own libidinous drives we would rather say. She fell in love with Hippolitus, her own stepson. Hippolytus refused her love. In consequence her revenge was terrible: she accused him to her husband Thesaeus, saying that he had made improper advances to her. This way she rose Thesaeus’ fury against his son, condemning the latter to death.
Martha Graham is interested in Phaedra’s sexual frustration and insatiable passion which devours her. She always believed that sexual frustration is a major driving power in all activities of life. To a certain point it is true. But she does not deepen her understanding as to what kind of psychic phenomenon this frustration suggests. She has already understood enough of the psychic processes by intuition and despite the fact that at times her work seems to have remained under a certain influence of a religious background.
It can be argued that impulse is essential for an artist to create. It seems that in spite the weakness of certain parts of her dances, she has worked quite successfully from the psychological point of view. Is it essential to prove or realize that Phaedra is still a child seeking for her childhood’s omnipotence? Is it really necessary to remind the viewer that according to psychoanalysis, in our relations to the present we sometimes use criteria to judge or we attribute to people qualities directly projected from our past relations with them?
Phaedra would not have been able to take any frustration in her adult life (no human being could) if she had not overcome her frustration of her early oral stage. It seems that Graham did not really care for so many details, she actually managed to give a strong kinetic experience and succeeded in making us relive our past watching Phaedra’s reactions on the stage. As for the horrible consequences, the lie to Thesaeus and the tragic end of Hippolytus, we know that psychic conflicts are not one dimensional: they include elements, traces, from every stage a man is due to pass through; incestuous fantasies, oedipal conflicts, regression to previous stages of development and from psychoanalytic point of view it would take long to explain the situation, while Graham instinctively selected what was needed to show it vividly.
Circe is inspired by the well known adventure of Ulysses and his companions who arrive at her island while on their way back to their homeland, Ithaca. We could suppose that his companions represent, in a symbolic form, the different and sometimes contradictory elements of human nature. Circe would bewitch all of his companions, while Ulysses forced her to free them all from her spells. Once more the viewer comes across the eternal theme of the catastrophic consequences an unresolved inner conflict might have on an individual’s life. Circe may be anything that corresponds to a test of our maturity as we pass through different developmental stages: test of greediness, of the capacity to overcome incestuous fantasies and invest in other love objects et.c.
In this myth with no tragic end, the temptation is food. The weak part of the human nature will be swept away by the pleasure principle. The Id, will endeavour the weak ego and human being will show its regression at an early developmental stage. Human beings are easily carried away by their bestial part. This is an aspect very susceptible to severe and regressive messages for all human kind. Not for Martha Graham who seems to be able to understand with “psychological intuition” human nature’s faults and shows Ulysses as an individual who will fight to understand himself and who finally chooses to be human, chooses civilization and reason.
In her last work with the Greek myths, Graham was quite aged. Critics say that she interpreted more than she danced, and is quite logical for a person at the age of 74. Her work is titled Cortege of Eagles. The major character is a woman, Hecuba, the queen of the once rich and happy troy that is now ruined and deserted.
Hecuba is deserted too. The war took everything she had: people, city, family. Nothing has been left to her except for her youngest son, whom she gave to the king of Thrace, Polymestor, to keep him safe. However, the king killed the boy and she took vengeance upon him, by blinding Polymestor with her own hands. One could say that there is no evident psychoanalytic material here. Hecuba blinds the king, but in her total disaster few would bother to blame her. She is to be pitied. Graham sees Hecuba as a victim of the violence of war. War desolates everything, she is desolate of her feelings too. A perfectly humanitarian message from Graham in accordance to Euripides’ play. One might also see a certain identification here, between the choreographer and Hecuba. Graham at the time she created this work, was about to quit dancing and rather elderly. Like Hecuba, she has already been deprived herself of her strength, of her dancing ability. She has already lost her youth. This role is like a bitter cry…Which Graham may or may not fully realize. One can only speculate why she chose to depict at that age, this particular character. She might had been aware of the fact that her choice might have other connotations than to solely present the hardships of a female queen fallen from “grace”. It is also worth noting that war may have represented death or time for Graham. And she curses him.
If the hypothesis that the choreographer identified with the character she depicted in more than one ways, it could be added that Hecuba, the tragic queen of Troy recounts her sorrows and also remembers that Helen, the cause of the war was still alive. It is true that for many people to see the younger generation thrive and enjoy its youth causes melancholy if not pain, especially if one ages and sees friends and relatives die, thus becoming lonelier while young people enjoy their lives; while young dancers can still perform miracles on stage, as is the case with different generations of artists. Suffice to recall one film that may corroborate this hypothesis, the black-and-white “All about Eve” with Bette Davis and a sparkling ultra young Marylin Monroe, a budding actress at the time the film was made. Therefore, probably Cortege of Eagles is one of the most genuine creations of Martha Graham…
Before closing this brief study of only a few works of one of the most influential and perceptive innovators of dance, it should be noted that due to the nature of the study it has not been possible to explore aspects of her works like the role of female characters or analyse any possible signification of symbols like the rope or try to explain the meaning of the “inevitable” as it is sometimes presented in her works.
What is obvious, is that Martha Graham’s choreographic work, though in some of its parts might now look old-fashioned include a very sensitive look into human nature, and a rare comprehension of complicated psychic phenomena. It also shows a string and positive aspect as far as it concerns the resolution of inner conflicts.
Quite optimistic or simplistic as it may sometimes be, it still is a very sharp view-point and it might be said that few artists –especially in dance- have been able to overcome their one-dimensional “lyrical” attitude towards the elements of the psychic processes, and deepen their observation to that point, as to be able to give them a visual representation.
1893 Birth of M.G., in Allegheny, USA
1908 Move to California. (A decisive point for M.G.)
1911 Sees Ruth St Denis for the first time
1913 Enters the Gumnock School
1916 Enters the Denishawn School
Summer 1916 first public appearance with “A Dance Pageant of Egypt, greece, Italy”
1923 Leaves Denishawn to find her own kinetic vocabulary
1926 Gives her first independent dance recital “Tanagra Solo”
1929 “Heretic” (first important group work)
1931 “Primitive mysteries” (It refers to one her favourite themes, the American and Amerindian traditions).
1935 “Frontier” (solo)
1938 “American Document”
1939 “Every soul is a circus” (a funny piece)
1940 “Letter to the world” (inspired by Emily Dickinson)
1941 Marriage to Erick Hawkins
1943 “Salem Shove”, “Deaths and Entrances”
1944 “Appalachian Spring”, “Herodiade”
1946 “Dark Meadow” (is a bridge between earlier works and her movement towards themes taken from Greek mythology, history and the Old Testament)
1946 “Cave of the Heart”
1946 (revised 1947) “Night Journey”
1947 “Errand into the Maze”
1948 “Diversion of Angels” (lyrical piece with no plot)
1955 “Seraphic Dialogues”
1960 “Acrobats of Gods”
1967 “Cortege of Eagles” , “Dancing ground”
1968 “The plain of prayer”
1975 “Lucifer” (choreographed for Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn)
1977 “The Scarlet Letter”
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© Hassiotis, 1990