One of the key elements of Greek plays is their ability to challenge the way the audience thinks. Medea, the tragic Greek woman which Cherrie Moraga’s The Hungry Woman is based off of, is a perfect example of this. For starters, Medea features a female getting revenge for the many wrongs that have been done in her life. Unlike most other Greek plays, it explores the difficulty of being just a regular woman in society. In addition, Medea is a barbarian, which, when the play was created, were the sworn enemies of the Greeks. Obviously, Medea was not exactly supposed to be a relatable character for the audience, but those features are what made her so endearing. In The Hungry Woman, some of these themes (such as being exiled for being different) can be examined, but there are a number of themes and concepts that set it apart from Medea, even though The Hungry Woman is something of a retelling of it. Namely, the concepts of gods and their place in both the play and the world in general will be examined. This paper will compare and contrast Medea and The Hungry Woman, as well as compare The Hungry Woman to some of the concepts introduced in Froma Zeitlan’s “Playing the Other.” This paper makes the argument that Medea was a largely spiritual play, with intervention from divine entities featured prominently, while The Hungry Woman is much more grounded in themes. Zeitlan’s work will be used to help supplement this hypothesis as well as reveal some common thematic elements between the two plays.
There are a great number of similarities between the two plays. Namely, they explore similar themes in regard to females. Much of the attention for The Hungry Woman comes because of its lesbian main characters. For many, this is seen as unnecessary, possibly pandering, and surely a distraction from the more important themes of the play itself. However, this was surely Moraga’s intention all along, because in order to make a character that evoked similar reactions from the audience as with Medea, she would have to come up with a character that challenged audience notions at the time. A direct retelling of Medea would not have worked, because the audience would not be challenged by a barbarian female. The fact that the Medea in The Hungry Woman is a lesbian ruffle many feathers, and that, indeed, is the point. Zeitlan makes a mention of this concept in her study by mentioning that many Greek plays eventually become male vs. female to at least some degree. This same concept can be seen in The Hungry Woman in two ways. First, within the story of the play itself, Medea is exiled because of her lesbianism (in addition to being of different heritage, another homage to the barbarian ancestry of Medea in the Greek play). For the average viewer of the play, this is as far as the metaphor between these two plays would go in that respect, but Moraga takes it a step further by having the audience be another concept that was carried over from the original play, because The Hungry Woman is still very much male vs. female. Medea’s lesbianism is the fulcrum around which much of the controversy in the story pivots. It boils down to Medea loving women, instead of men, as society dictates; a textbook example of male vs. female.
One of the key themes of Moraga’s interpretation of Medea is the role of contrast itself. For example, the play incorporates both English and Spanish languages into the play, as well as cultural values found in both of these cultures. The play also takes a story that is decidedly traditional in tone and transfers it to a futuristic setting. Some scenes are also remade to take advantage of the futuristic setting, such as Medea mourning the death of her son in a mental hospital, while the doctors openly make fun of her. Perhaps the doctors in this scene represent the audience for the original Greek telling of Medea: laughing and marveling at a woman’s suffering because she is different. In that respect, The Hungry Woman is much more of an existentialist piece than the Greek tragedy. Another example of contrast within the play is much more obvious. Quite simply, there is a dichotomy between the myth of Greco-Roman history that permeates much of the play with Aztec and Mexican folklore, creating an interesting clashing of these two very different styles. This supports the argument of this paper that gods are not as prevalent in The Hungry Woman, for very specific reasons.
One aspect of Medea that Zeitlan also discusses in her paper is the concept of the body. This applies to both the body of the character as well as the body of the actors and actresses themselves. Indeed, the physical pain part of this is seen clearly in The Hungry Woman, as Medea is seen covered in scars from the Chicano rebellion. Zeitlan posits that one of the purest pleasures of an audience, especially when it comes to Greek plays, is seeing the body in what she calls “pathos,” or suffering. This concept becomes most noticeable when a character is in a helpless state of some sort, including being in extreme mental or physical pain (Zeitlan, 346). Surely there is plenty of that in The Hungry Woman. Obviously, this is seen within Medea herself, after being exiled and grieving over the loss of her son, but it is also seen in her lover, Luna. Medea becomes an even less likable character because of how much she mistreats Luna, and as a result, Luna retaliates and becomes unfaithful to Medea, creating even more emotional pain for the two of them. Indeed, pain is what Greek tragedies are all about, and The Hungry Woman has that in spades. In fact, much of The Hungry Woman boils down to finding out what it would take for a starving Chicano woman to murder her child. It could even be argued that The Hungry Woman has even more pain than the original Greek play, possibly because the gods are not present to “watch over” the characters.
There are a number of huge differences between Medea and The Hungry Woman, despite the fact that it is a modern-day retelling of the play. Much of the symbolism and thematic elements of The Hungry Woman pertain strictly to modern-day (especially Hispanic and Aztec) culture. For example, Medea first meets Luna as a migrant worker who gives her suggestions about planting corn. Indeed, food and starvation are central themes in The Hungry Woman; themes that are noticeably absent from Medea. Luna and Medea grow food together, and, together, are able to satisfy each other’s hunger. Further contrasts are seen in the use (or lack thereof) of gods and goddesses in The Hungry Woman. Gods and Goddesses frequently appear in Greek tragedies, both directly and indirectly. However, The Hungry Woman, while it does deal with spiritual themes throughout the play, features no direct involvement of gods. This is likely because the Moraga does not want to bog the play down with too many religious elements, as The Hungry Woman is very much a grounded play. Zeitlan argues in her paper that the purpose of drama is to test masculine abilities, which ultimately fail, and must be “saved” in some way by the feminine side (note that this does not necessarily mean women, simply feminine aspects). However, The Hungry Woman features a departure from this mode of thinking by having Medea’s feminine side ultimately be her downfall. Medea’s maternal instincts and her lust for revenge, love, and survival show the viewer that these base instincts are not enough to live by. Perhaps, Moraga seems to say, gods are a necessary part of this world after all.
Zeitlan very much believes in the visible, perceivable concepts and themes in plays, and in that respect, The Hungry Woman excels. It casts away the gods seen so often in Greek tragedies and forges its own path, which is wrought with pain and misery, but it is her own path, nevertheless.
Zeitlin, Froma I. "Playing the other: Theater, theatricality, and the feminine in Greek drama." Representations 11 (1985): 341-375
The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea. By Cherríe Moraga. Directed by Cherríe Moraga and Adelina Anthony (2005)