"Sooner would I stand three times to face their battles, shield in hand, than bear one child!" cries Medea, raging to the women of Corinth in her fury at being betrayed by her husband.
Actress Melina Mercouri takes this speech and in her new film, "A Dream of Passion," turns it into a ringing shout for the rights of women everywhere. And for the first time, for many a viewer, Medea's murder of her two children becomes comprehensible.
"Medea is the only Greek heroine to fight against the male establishment," she said in an interview yesterday. "It is comfortable for us to call her mad. It lets us off. We call her a monster, but that is not how the play was written. Euripides is for her. He's on her side."
Turning often to her husband director Jules Dassin, for help with her Eugusn, Mercouri expressed herself with fine clarity:
"I am dependent on men. I felt it very much in exile (when the junta kept her out of Greece for over seven years after it took power in 1967). I relied on Juley for language, for a passport. Everything is men: newspaper publicity, politics, the seat of power.
"For thousands of years we were taught that the enemy was other women. Now I am learning about sisterhood."
Greek men may be more macho in everyday life, she say, and Greek laws don't do nearly as much for women as do American laws. "But American men are more macho in the deep sense. Because they govern the world. Because there is more power at stake."
One look at Mercouri's blazing eyes should tell the most casual observer that film and theater can never hold her. As she told a meeting of the Washington Press Club yesterday, "I work in the political field, and when time allows I also work in the theater and in films."
Elected to Parliament last year as a member from working class Piraeus (55 percent of her vote coming from women), Mercouri has been grappling with the male establishment for power. Once she appeared for an important vote wearing pants, having just rushed over from a Brecht rehearsal. Though she wore a long coat, the pants were spotted and the men made a fuss. She had violated Parliament's dress code.
"We are working on that," she said. "We will make it an issue. There is also the need for women's bathrooms at Parliament, since there now are 11 women members."
As a follower of the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), she stands to the left of Prime Minister Constantine Karamanlis, who, she believes, favors an American protectorate through NATO and who would keep Greece a pawn in the international power game by joining the Common Market.
"When Karamanlis came in, in 1974, he had a chance to be national leader, but he has turned out to be only a party leader," she said. "I want to be friends with American, but I want independence for Greece."
In her press club talk she objected to the lifting of America's arms embargo against Turkey.
"When President Carter was elected there were mass celebrations in Cyprus," she said. "Today there are no celebrations. There is disillusion and sadness. And there is skepticism. The decision . . . carries the proviso that Turkish good intentions be shown. Shown, how? And to whom? Who will Judge? The same administration that yielded to Turkish threats . . ."
Though the 52-year-old star of the popular film "Never on Sunday" reminded her audience that she was not anti-American and in fact had spent much of her exile here, she was not reassured by administration promises.
"It make us nervous, because we hear exactly the same arguments, the same text, the same sad music in U.S. foreign policy statements on Turkey as we heard when previous administrations here supported the Greek dictatorship."
This week she and Dassin fly to Los Angeles to seek a Washington opening for the new picture, which presently is tied up in a contract requiring a New York opening. But by Sept. 1 she plans to be back in Parliament.
"The advance of women will come first from countries like Greece," she said, "because we are more real, more palpable."