A Theatrical Take on the Life of Ancient Greece’s First Female Doctor.
[This essay won the Greece Prize in the 2019 Paideia Institute High School Essay Contest. The author will be attending the Living Greek in Greece High School program this summer.]
Play begins with a curtained stage, then a spotlight turns onto a woman in traditional Greek robes with a crown of olive leaves.
Oracle: Mulan. Charlotte Brontë. Barbara Streisand’s character in Yentl. Joan of Arc. Agnodice of Athens. Wait, who’s that last one? Is that some kind of Chanel perfume? And why have I rattled off a list of seemingly unrelated women from vastly different time periods? (Hint: what did they dress up as to accomplish their goals?) Well, turn off your mobile devices and settle into your togas — or midi dresses and dress shirts, whatever your outfit of choice was tonight — let’s begin the play’s exposition.
First of all, you don’t need to know exactly who I am, but rather what I am and that would be a Greek oracle. Think of me as the Stage Manager from Our Town — your guide through the play’s non-linear timing who will reveal underlying truths and navigate the resemblances shared by 4th century B.C. Greece and 21st century America. You’ll notice in just a moment that our sets are fashioned after modern items and settings despite the actual context of the play being about 25 centuries ago, but do not be misled: this is a dramatic technique inspired by modernism to show parallels between the past and present.
Curtain opens to a New York loft styled room with a steel-framed double-sized bed, a side table, a wooden armoire, and a minimalist makeup vanity. A lamp stands next to various succulents scattered on a nightstand while plants hang from the ceiling, a framed portrait of Socrates’s marble bust with hearts drawn on it watches from the wall, and pillars support the corners of the room. Agnodice is flicking through the rack of clothes in the closet and holding each piece up to her despite all the options being slightly off-white togas. As the Oracle talks, Agnodice tries styling her hair to make her look more masculine, drawing out scissors to cut it.
Oracle: First, we have a cozy bedroom in central Athens that housed our protagonist, Agnodice, and her grand dreams of becoming a doctor in a patriarchal society that disdained the role of women in anything outside the home… and this was the most advanced civilization at the time, folks. It is here that she will study away on the medical knowledge of the age, hindered by the fact that she would never be accepted in the profession and be out on the pillared streets tending to patients openly. One day, she has a breakthrough: if only men could practice legally, then she must become a man… or at least assume the appearance of one. In this room, Agnodice begins to gain a sense of hope…
While the Oracle continues her speech, the curtain is drawn closed and the bedroom set is replaced with the medical examination room. An exam table is surrounded by creamy marble cabinets, baskets filled with various tools (bandages, empty syringes, etc.), a few stiff chairs along the empty wall, and a neighboring fish tank in the corner. An eye examination chart is on the wall, the letters in an ancient Greek styled font. Magazines, such as “Delphi Predictions Daily,” “Good Templekeeping,” and “The New Greeker,” lie on the counter-top.
Oracle: …Hope that her work will not be in vain, hope that she can achieve her aim to provide better healthcare to women, hope that she can make a difference. However, she is in a conflict of identity, caught between the strength of her womanhood and having to hide it for the opportunities her male persona gives her. Often today, women find themselves in this same situation, trapped in the idea that they must change their character and sense of identity in order to obtain success in this much more equitable, yet still struggling world.
Curtain raises to show examination office. A woman sits on the exam table, reading “Delphi Predictions Daily” when Agnodice enters, acting in a brisk, masculine manner at first. She glances behind her at the door, and seeing they are alone, lets down her guard and assumes a friendly, extremely comfortable demeanor of conversation with the patient.
Oracle: Our second backdrop is the modern reimagining of Agnodice’s examination room, the location all the women of Athens would rush to when pregnant, seeking the expertise and comfort that came from this special female physician. Word spread secretly among the women about that last fact, as they appreciated that they could finally be at ease with a doctor who understood their predicaments more intimately. The era’s high maternal mortality rate and painful childbirths are the motivating reasons for Agnodice’s pursuit of medicine…
At this point, the curtain is drawn again and a new set is constructed backstage: the courtroom. Assembled to mirror a typical American courtroom, there are wooden rows of benches leading up to the judges pedestal, which is partially made of marble. A sundial hangs on the wall and a conspicuously labeled cask of wine is placed on a table in the front.
Oracle: And her ability to improve these conditions prompted sentiments of humble triumph and immense fulfillment within her. But since this is a dramatic show, you know that just as the main character has reached a peak of accomplishment and satisfaction in their life, something brings it crashing down. For Agnodice, her near demise came at the hands of men wearing drapes and the ancient equivalent of flip flops.
Curtain raises to reveal courtroom. Agnodice stands on the defense side, outnumbered by an angry, pantomiming group of men. Women rush in after a few minutes, taking control of the situation.
Oracle: Her male counterparts, jealous of her unmatched success, and the husbands of her patients both accused her of seducing her clients. She stood there, battling for her honor, her intellect, her rights, and ultimately her life. Forced to expose her true identity as a woman, her deliverance came from those she herself had saved. The women of Athens praised Agnodice’s effects of female medical care and brought the vilifying antagonists to their senses, leading to the end of the criminalization of women practicing medicine in Athens… a triumph whose effects have rippled into modern day.
Gianna Beck is one of two winners of the 2019 Paideia Institute High School Essay contest. She will be attending the Living Greek in Greece High School program this summer.