Another quick weekend trip to visit Katharine, my actress daughter, at her school. Her acting school. And to see her in her last student play: The Trojan Women.
This is Euripides’ anti-war play. His commentary, perhaps, on a contemporary war being waged by Athens against others (in 415 B.C.) by examining the horror and terror and grief and destruction and evil resulting from a war that was then over for a millennium or so—the Trojan War.
A war that the Greeks prosecuted with extreme prejudice, to use a modern turn of phrase. A war that may be myth or may have actually happened. The scholars and the archeologists continue to debate the issue.
The version of the play that I saw was an adaptation. Oh, you know. People dressed, some of them, in suits and modern military uniforms, mixed in with costumes resembling garb that might conceivably have been worn by women 3000 or more years ago in what is now northwest Turkey. An adaptation in the sense that a bunch of modern ideas are heaved in concerning winning and losing and concerning. Oh. You get the idea that the adaptor/translator has read his Maslow or read people who have read their Maslow.
The idea that each of us has a unique self that wants to flower fully. That each of us has a unique identity. Or some such stuff.
This particular production begins with a recording of Hitler saying something indistinguishable. Klieg lights are used occasionally: lights of high brightness that one associates with movies, theater, and prisoner of war camps and perhaps concentration camps.
The main characters are Hecuba (the former queen of Troy, Priam’s widow), Cassandra (Hecuba’s daughter who is a virgin and a devout worshipper of Pallas Athena), Andromache (widow of the chief Trojan warrior, Hector, son of Hecuba and Priam), and Helen (the wife of the Spartan king, Menelaus, and the lover of Paris, also the son of Priam and Hecuba, who stole Helen from Menelaus).
The action of the play is focused on these four women being hauled off to the Greek ships, following the defeat of Troy. Following the killing of all of the men of Troy. They are all prizes for Greek kings.
During the time covered by the play, Hecuba learns of the death of her daughter, Polyxena—a sacrifice burned on Achilles’ funeral pyre. Andromache’s young son is taken from her and killed. Menelaus chooses not to kill Helen in the present, but will return her to Sparta for an exemplary execution by families of the Spartans killed in the siege of Troy. And Troy itself is burned.
All of this takes place against the backdrop of a ruined Troy. The women stay temporarily in huts by the sea, between the walls of Troy and the sea. Prisoners and slaves of the Greeks, awaiting their disposition.
And so, what is this? This is the destruction of love, the destruction of beauty, of meaning, of the life’s work of these women, of their lives. They are reduced to howling, wailing, grieving, prophesying, remembering the dead past, and dreading their terrible future. Reduced to no hope or to only the hope one might find in revenge. Reduced to an awareness that to stay alive they will have to do things that will make them hate themselves and their lives.
And Helen? The other women demand her death of Menelaus. And she gives a rather brilliant defense of herself. The Trojan women wish to blame her for the evil that has befallen them, but Helen rightly points out that Hecuba gave birth to Paris, who abducted her, that she herself had tried to leave Troy on a number of occasions but was prevented from doing so, and that she was deceived by Aphrodite (who had much earlier promised Paris that he could have Helen for his wife) into being willing to go away with Paris.
And then we learn in the dialog between Poseidon and Athena that they will cooperate in destroying most of the Greeks before they can reach home. Poseidon has it in for them because they have destroyed Troy, which he had helped found and build. And Athena has it in for them now, after helping them throughout the war, because they have raped or intend to rape Cassandra, a devoted worshipper, and because they desecrated her temple when disembarking from the huge wooden horse, which had been placed by the Trojans in her temple as an offering.
So it is quite a. How shall I say this. It’s quite a beautiful play. One in which the love and courage and pure stamina of the main characters—the women of Troy—last. They live. They triumph. These traits outlive all the efforts of the Greeks. Of Pallas Athena. They persevere even to this day. The endurance of these women! The persistence of their love! Their unparalleled courage to meet their present and their future head on and live. Continue to live. Continue to take one step after another.
And because of this, they and the story they inhabit are beautiful. Paradoxically beautiful. Out of this paradox comes an intensity. A vibrancy. An immediacy. An insistent actuality. A vitality. That would not be possible without all the evil and all the suffering.
My daughter played Helen. And she did so admirably. Defiantly. Valiantly. Beautifully. And she did this during a time of significant physical pain because of a problem that had persisted for months. It was finally diagnosed and treated within the last few weeks. There was some concern about cancer, but that was ruled out. And when we visited her, there on the inside of her apartment door was a new piece of paper thumb-tacked to it with these large words written in red marker: “Say YES and fall fearlessly forward.”
When I read this, I turned to her and said it reminded me of something in Conrad. Lord Jim. “In the destructive element immerse.” She asked me to repeat it and then wrote it down.
A fuller context of the Conrad quote is this: “A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavour to do, he drowns—nicht wahr? …No! I tell you! The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hand and feet in the water make the deep deep sea keep you up. So you ask me—how to be? …I will tell you… In the destructive element immerse. That is the way. To follow the dream, and again to follow the dream—and so—even to the very end.”