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The Other Minotaur

By Gemma Angel, on 25 February 2013

Tzu-i Liaoby Tzu-i Liao






The much celebrated production of The Minotaur at the Royal Opera House [1] by Harrison Birtwistle and David Garsent drew the curtains in applause in January this year. The reworking of the ancient myth of the Minotaur – half-bull, half-man – presents new dimensions not only of theatre but also of the concept of “foreign bodies“. In classical Greek representations the Minotaur is a creature with the head of a bull and the body of a man [2], or as Ovid writes, “part man and part bull.”[3] Since his father Minos, King of Crete, provoked Poseidon the sea god, his mother Pasiphae is cursed to fall in love with a foreign white bull, and made Daedalus produce a cow costume in order to seduce the beautiful bull. The Minotaur is thus born of this species barrier-crossing union, and kept deep inside the labyrinth so that his strange shape and conduct would not “harm” others. Later Theseus, a foreign hero from Athens, came to Crete and won the heart of the princess Ariadne, with whose help he manages to kill the abominable monster and find his way out of the labyrinth.

minotaur theseus

While traditional depictions of the myth usually focus on the triumph of Theseus, the Birtwistle production invites the audience to reflect upon the boundary between the human and non-human animal. John Tomlinson, who plays the Minotaur, wears a bull-shaped mask which is semi-transparent and allows the audience not just to hear the Minotaur’s heartbreaking lows, but also to see the facial expressions of the human within the bull. The Minotaur is not presented as “half-bull, half-man,” but rather as a human being trapped within the terrifyingly foreign body of a beast. He feels the endless walls and the hostility around him; he sees and understands that people fear his strange looks; he desires the young and healthy bodies of virgins; he dreams of the being able to speak up for himself in human language – like all humans do. To what extent he comprehends the duality of his physical nature is not clear. Yet it is evident that when he dreams he is capable of and eager to express himself like all others, and what he talks about, again and again, is how his body stands like the walls of labyrinth between him and the others and thus keeps him from a normal human life. In many ways the mythic figure is presented as a person victimized due to his monstrous appearance and incapacity to of behave and communicate like everyone else. Of course, the myth gives no clue whether the Minotaur could have been a “normal” human being had he been treated like a normal child instead of being imprisoned in the maze. Birtwistle’s production urges us to look through the Minotaur’s intimidating physicality and feel his very human sorrow and hatred.

Gehörnter_Gott,_EnkomiAnother interesting interpretation of Birtwistle’s production is the  pronounced parallel between the Minotaur and Theseus. While both are foreigners and extraordinary in their different ways, one is hidden away and feared, and the other is loved and praised. Minotaur the monster is born from the union of the lustful Cretan Queen and a sacred bull from abroad [4]; Theseus the hero obtains the tool he needs to escape from the labyrinth after seducing the Cretan princess Ariadne, and is himself the son of Poseidon. The most obvious parallel occurs in the solos of Pasiphae and Ariadne, performed before and during their seduction of the sacred bull and Theseus respectively. The score was similar and the same motif is used in both scenes: Both of the Cretan women dance and sing near the cow costume Pasiphae wore when the Minotaur was conceived, caressing the body of the cow and yearning for the touch of the foreigner. The costume becomes a symbol not only of the (strange yet exotic) physical nature of the foreign male, but also the instrument which shapes the fate of the two foreign male bodies. Birtwistle’s production thus plays with conceptions of the foreign, not only dressing both men in almost an OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAidentical way (both wear loose trousers only, with the exception of the Minotaur’s mask), but also amplifying the duality of their bodies and their fates.

The theme of foreign bodies runs through many ancient myths, as well as being a significant force in the socio-political environment from which these stories emerge (our upcoming exhibition demonstrates just how complex this realisation can be!). Birtwistle’s production elaborates on this concept, repeatedly asking his audience how one should face and understand a foreign body in the community. Keeping the Minotaur hidden away in the labyrinth is perhaps not the best  solution anymore. Perhaps the question we should be asking is this: is the Minotaur inherently “Minotaur the monster”? Or can we find a Theseus hidden within the Minotaur?

[2] As seen in the Minotaur myron in National Archaeological Museum in Athens; the Attic red-figure kylix from Etruscan Vulci; or the bronze Horned God from Enkomi, Cyprus.

[3] Ars Amatoria 2.24.

[4] Ovid seems to hint that the bull is actually a god in disguise: “[T]he bull’s form disguised the god, Pasiphae, my mother, a victim of the deluded bull, brought forth in travail her reproach and burden” (Heroides 4.53) – which extends the parallel further.


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