Who’s Medea and Why Should I Know Her From Mary Poppins?


My son took me to see “The Addams Family,” the musical not the new movie, at a local theater this past weekend and an interesting thought occurred when I heard this line in the play.

Side note: I’m the geek with an open notebook and pencil during plays, by the way. It helps me remember bits that caught my eye during the performance. The notebook is hilarious. I hold it however it’s easiest in my seat in the dark and I can’t see the words I’m writing, so it looks much like the ravings of a lunatic in a padded cell, allowed a notebook after days if pleading.

“Please” she whispers quietly in the dark, “just a piece of paper and a pencil.” What can she possibly need to write down? Is it a ploy to get materials needed for escape? They can’t figure out why, so they eventually give in to stop the pathetic crying, and when they sneak in and steal it away from her while she sleeps, all they see is random words and symbols written any which way. They can make no sense of the scribblings, so they give it back to her and allow her to continue her ravings on paper.

But I digress.

What was that line? Oh yes, “This stuff turns Mary Poppins into Medea.”

I laughed at the visual the line gave me. But I wondered if my son had the same image. He knows Mary Poppins, but I wasn’t sure if he remembered Medea from our journeys through literature. I jotted down the two names to remember to ask him after the show.

If you don’t know either character, this line means absolutely nothing, doesn’t it? It only works for a specific audience. It’s strange how we use references to other stories to describe things. There was a Star Trek episode that came across a people that communicated in nothing but references to events. They (the humans) couldn’t understand anything the aliens said because they didn’t know the events they referenced. To learn that language, one would need to study the whole history of the planet, not just the grammar and alphabet.

How else could that line be written? “This potion or liquid dose turns a human that is generally loving, kind, and levelheaded into a self-centered, crazy person, determined to get her own way.” Not very poetic or funny is it? Writing it the other way assumes that your audience is familiar with at least one of the characters. It drops flat if they know of neither.

What happens if we lose the common cultural background of stories? What if we are all reading, watching, and experiencing different stories? I suppose we’ll have to stop using those colorful references and use more descriptive adverbs and adjectives instead.
We could lament the loss of common cultural stories or we could embrace the change and learn to communicate in new (or old) ways that cross national, cultural, and species (oh please let there be extraterrestrial aliens out there) lines. Language has always evolved. It’s not new. It’s not the end of the world as we know it. It’s just different and progressing in unexpected ways.

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