Phaedra’s Love: Nihilism, Religion, and the Universality of Stockholm Syndrome

Sarah Kane, author of Phaedra's Love.

Sarah Kane, author of Phaedra’s Love.

Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love is an updated version of the classic Greek myth of a woman name Phaedra who falls in love with Hippolytus, the son of her husband Theseus.  As is the case with her play Blasted, Kane tells a story that is outwardly shocking and features, not only rape, as Blasted did, but also some incestuous love.  Like other works by Kane, it is difficult to find the moral center of the play as all the characters seem to be inherently and greatly flawed, but Kane’s exploration of nihilism, love, social structure, religion and the universality of Stockholm Syndrome is shocking at others, but remains an interesting and engaging piece.

 

Phaedra, as depicted by painter Alexandre Cabanel.

Phaedra, as depicted by painter Alexandre Cabanel.

The plays most mundane aspect is Hippolytus’s nihilism.  I have a personal bias because whilst I think characters with a nihilist approach can be fascinating, I tend to find them dull and boring unless they have some degree of optimism mixed with some interesting reasoning for their nihilism.  Nihilism for nihilism’s sake is simply boring.  There’s no point to life. I get it.  This, for me, is the extent of Hippolytus’s nihilism for most of the play.  He is simply annoying in that he feigns disinterest in those around him, but still uses them whilst making no effort to find meaning.  His nihilism, as far as I can see, is without solid reasoning, and it is the reason for the nihilist’s pessimism that makes the nihilist interesting.  I may have limits as a reader in this instance, as Kane’s work is not always easy to access, but Hippolytus seems lazy, rather than intelligent or thoughtful.

 

 

A painting of Hippolytus rejecting Phaedra, painted by Jozef Geinaert.

A painting of Hippolytus rejecting Phaedra, painted by Jozef Geinaert.

There is one scene in which Hippolytus has some interesting dialogue though.  Whilst in jail on a false rape accusation which he won’t deny, a priest comes to speak to him.  Hippolytus tells that priest that the  priest has “the worst lover of all.  Not only does he think he’s perfect, he is.”  This speaks not only to the problematic nature of religion, but also to our interpersonal relationships.  We often elevate those with whom we fall in love with, and often times do not think as highly of ourselves.  When we are in such a relationship, and the person we are with believes him/herself superior, there is going to be an unhealthy power imbalance.  This does not apply strictly to romantic relationships, but all relationships, be their professional, familial, romantic of Platonic.  Once a person recognizes that we view them as superior, they can then proceed to exploit that, whether consciously or not.  This notion, I believe, is the crux of the play.

 

Hippolytus, as he is dragged away by his horses, by Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema.

Hippolytus, as he is dragged away by his horses, by Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema.

Linked with this, in the same piece of dialogue, Hippolytus tells the priest that he thinks “life has no meaning unless we have another person in it to torture us.”  This speaks to the idea of the universal Stockholm syndrome that permeates out social structure.  Having somebody above us, an authority of some sort, fills us with a sense of something great and reinforces the idea of ‘purpose’.  Once we become invested in such a hierarchical system, we open ourselves to oppression, and in turn torture.  This comes through in the scene where Phaedra confesses her love to Hippolytus.  He refuses her, warning her that she will only be hurt.  Despite his protestation and refusal, she gets down on her knees and performs fellatio on him, after which he still has no interest in her and she is devastated.  This was not an example of Hippolytus trying to oppress another person, but rather, another person who desired to be oppressed and controlled.  Phaedra is a person who desired to be tortured and would allow nothing short of that.

 

 

A scene from a stating of Phaedra's Love, which I borrowed from here.

A scene from a stating of Phaedra’s Love, which I borrowed from here.

Theseus, Hippolytus’s father, is the inverse of Hippolytus in that he relishes the opportunity to dominate.  He disguises himself and walks among the common people to gauge their response to the events going on (Hippolytus has been sentence to death because of the false rape allegation).  Unbeknownst to him, Strophe, Phaedra’s daughter and lover to both Theseus and Hippolytus, is also disguised among the crowd and is defending Hippolytus, being the only person who is aware of the truth.  The crowd revolts against her and Theseus, unaware of her true identity rapes and kills Strophe.  When he examines the body afterward and realizes what he has done and he says, “I didn’t know it was you…  If I’d known it was you, I’d never have—”.  This is a scene that is reminiscent of the movie A Serbian Film, in which the protagonist, hoping to protect his family from exploitation, ends up victimizing them.  This literal victimization is a metaphor for how we cavalierly victimize others.  These others, though we do not know them, hold in the heart of another, the same place we reserve for somebody dear to us, and so, when we victimize them, we are, in a sense, victimizing our own family.  The barriers and labels we put up to dehumanize those around us, only facilities victimization, and though we may not directly victimize the people we care about (though often times we do), we cultivate a culture where such victimization is acceptable and in turn place those we care about at risk.

 

 

Sarah Kane

Sarah Kane

The play is entertaining, if nothing else.  I haven’t seen it staged, but reading it on the page it is like reading poetry at times.  It is not optimistic in the least, but its use of classic narrative in contemporary setting is effective in showing us how little progress has actually been made.  The incest, though shocking to a timid reader, is merely metaphoric.  Its commentary on love and social structure are not entirely original, but remain relevant, and though the nihilist approach is tiring in some scenes, the scene shared between Hippolytus and the priest makes it worth it.  In that scene the priest, perhaps optimistically, suggest that “Love never dies.  It evolves.”  What it evolves into is another question, but whatever it is, it doesn’t seem to be something worth preserving if Phaedra’s Love is any indication.

 

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Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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