JUNE 19, 2021
I WAS WONDERING if I wasn’t too enthusiastic about this unlikely comic book, so I reread Richmond Lattimore’s old translation of The Trojan Women in the University of Chicago Press’s “The Complete Greek Tragedies” series. Lattimore concludes his introduction to the play: “In candor, one can hardly call The Trojan Women a good piece of work, but it seems nevertheless to be a great tragedy.” He should’ve lived to see Anne Carson and Rosanna Bruno’s version, which we can easily call a great tragedy as well as an odd and terrific piece of work.
Instead of actors on a stage, we have Bruno’s dogs and cows (the captive Trojan women), a surging sea (Poseidon), a pair of overalls (Athena), a poplar and sapling (Hektor’s wife Andromache and their son Astyanax), Helen alternately as a silver fox and a hand mirror, and Menelaos as “some sort of gearbox clutch or coupling mechanism.” I wouldn’t have believed these images would work if I hadn’t seen them interacting with Carson’s swift, bold communication of Euripides’s words and spirit:
Gods! O Gods!
But why call out to Gods?
I tried that before, they didn’t listen.
Shall we run into the flames?
Why don’t we run into the flames?
Oh let us run into the flames —
That would be best by far,
To burn to nothing with my city!
Day after the war—
A day as long as the rest of their lives for some …
I loved this place.
Then came the Greeks.
Came the Trojan Horse — you know all that.
It was so much killing.
Even the wind was stained with blood for years.
And when it was done they scooped out the city
Like a handful of honey and left,
Those Greek boys.
The 10-year Trojan War is over, and the Greeks are heading home. They’ve slaughtered all the Trojan men. The Trojan women are the swag. The play’s dominant presence is Hekabe, Hektor’s mother, King Priam’s queen, not to mention the mother of the last of Priam’s 50 sons, Paris/Alexander, who instigated the war by stealing off with Helen from Menelaos’s palace in Sparta. The ground upon which Hekabe’s sons and her husband have been killed is where the play takes place. Hekabe has two surviving daughters — Polyxena, soon to be sacrificed at the grave of Achilles, and Kassandra, the only character in this picture-version who appears in human form, a bright-eyed cheerful doll-like princess. While Kassandra’s mother and everyone else believes she is crazy, she is of course absolutely correct in all of her predictions and analyses, as she was given the gift of foresight by Apollo (remember: when she accepted his gift and then refused to sleep with the god, he cursed her with the fate of no one ever believing her). Though Kassandra as a priestess is supposed to be inviolate, she is being claimed as a concubine by the leader of the Greeks, Agamemnon, who, she exults, will be murdered on his return to Argos (as will she) by his wife:
But what I really want to say is,
Troy won the war.
The Greeks lost.
Shall I list all they lost?
Ten thousand men for the sake of Helen.
Lost to them all their lives at home.
The wife, the child, the hearth, the winding sheet.
The proper grave site and someone to call out their name.
Their tomb is homelessness.
Their name is nothing. Air.
Now the Trojans,
Are not nothing.
Glory, truth and moral beauty is what they are.
For the sake of the homeland they went up against death.
Meanwhile (there are, as Roberto Calasso has shown us in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, countless “meanwhiles” in Greek mythology), Andromache, Hekabe’s daughter-in-law, prepares to leave as Achilles’s son’s prize, but not before devious Odysseus insists that Andromache and Hektor’s toddler son be killed. Despairing Hekabe has nothing left to sustain her, really, but her hatred of Helen and her wish for Helen’s destruction:
And the cause of it all,
The salt in my wound,
The splinter under my nail,
The acid in my eye,
The reason, root, purpose, occasion, foundation, basis, motive,
Hinge, axis, determinant, why and fucking wheretofore of it all,
Is that one woman.
Hekabe sensibly fears that Menelaos will, at just one more good look, let Helen off the hook. (If you don’t remember the Odyssey, be reassured that Helen will survive her husband’s vow to kill her as soon as he gets her home.)
So much drama, so much death! So much cruelty … Yes, Euripides knew and we know, it can happen anywhere. Carson doesn’t seem to like to answer questions or explain, so Lattimore’s account of Euripides’s situation will have to do:
Athens was nominally at peace when Euripides composed this set of tragedies, of which only The Trojan Women is extant; but Athens had only a few years earlier emerged from an indecisive ten years’ war with Sparta and her allies and was in the spring of 415 B.C. weeks away from launching the great Sicilian expedition. […] During the early years of the war Euripides wrote a number of ‘patriotic’ plays and may have believed or tried to force himself to believe in the rightness of the Periclean cause and the wickedness of the enemy. By 415 he had reason to conclude that, at least in the treatment of captives, neither side was better than the other. […] The neutral island city of Melos was invited, in peacetime, to join the Athenian alliance, refused, and was besieged in force, and capitulated. The Athenians put all grown males to death and enslaved the women and children.
The artist Bruno, on the other hand, has provided New Directions with the background to her involvement in this project:
Anne and I met through a mutual friend a few years ago. One day she asked me if I’d like to collaborate with her. I thought maybe she was kidding, but I said yes, even though I wasn’t going to hold her to it. Not long after, she asked if I had read The Trojan Women, by Euripides. I said I hadn’t, nor had I seen the film with Katherine Hepburn. She told me NOT to see that film, but to pick up a translation of the play and let her know if I saw any images. I read what seemed to be an acceptable version (never having read the original in Greek) and I saw nothing. Not a single image popped into my head. I was so disappointed to tell her I couldn’t do it. Then she sent her text. Images hit me instantly. Hekabe and the ‘women’ of Troy were suddenly very real and ironically, more human. Anne allowed me so much freedom to respond to her text. We corresponded occasionally via email and I would send a few images. She sent me a sticker book of dog breeds and suggested mug shots would be a great way to introduce the chorus, which of course it was. And whenever I doubted if I was taking something in the right direction, I just referred back to Anne’s description of Athene as a pair of overalls and knew everything was okay. [Courtesy of Mieke Chew of New Directions, March 22].
For me, Bruno’s strange, crude, and somehow completely evocative images do what acting can’t. Carson’s adaptation of Sophocles’s Antigone, Antigonick (2012), was in its original manifestation an art book illustrated by Bianca Stone; as successful a presentation as that was, this is even more splendid. In any case, if we can have both the words and images, why not? And if we can have almost all of Euripides’s words of Trojan Women and all of its spirit rendered by the premier adaptor-translator of the Greek tragedies (if not our best classically Greek-inspired poet) and see it maskless without having to go to the local amphitheater, why not?