Once in a great while, a piece of art is able to stand the test of time. Sometimes these rare finds are due to fluke or fate, such as in the cases of treasures forgotten in natural disasters or stories left barely intact under layers of monks' ink. Some, however, are passed down, purposefully preserved for future generations because of the wonder they bring or the message they carry. Word of mouth and tradition have protected some art forms so well that they have become integral parts of our culture. For example, although many ancient Greek tragedies have been lost to us, the surviving works have helped to shape western dramatic techniques and some are even still being performed today. Euripides' The Trojan Women is one such play. Translated into English as early as 1891, it has been adapted many times for film and stage. It continues to hold relevance in a changing world, as seen in the award-winning 1971 film directed by Michael Cacoyannis. In exploring the history, form, and survival of this work, the modern viewer experiences the cautionary effects of war that Euripides seemed so keen to express.
The Trojan Women is the final drama of a trilogy dealing with the Trojan War. It was first performed at the Dionysia, an annual theatre festival in honor of the God Dionysus. As was customary, each poet's entry included three tragic plays with a common theme followed by a short satyric play which often retold the stories in simpler, comical terms. Most satyric plays have unfortunately been lost with time. Euripides won second place for the work. Originally intended as an anti-war dialogue, the series of dramas, titled Alexandros, Palamedes and Troades (The Trojan Women) respectively, may have been inspired by the Athenians' brutal capture and ravishment of the city-state Melos during the Peloponnesian War. The plays would have originally been performed one after the other, beginning early in the day. Audiences would have milled in and out of a Parthenon-like theatre, viewing the action from raised seats on three sides. A good drama in this time period contained mimesis, or the imitation of life. Performers would have used masks to portray the emotions of the characters and a backdrop called the skew would have provided the setting. For the most part, entire plays focused on the action and dialogue happening in one location, such as a town square. In later years, Aristotle defined the elements of good theatre in his book Poetics. The three unities of time, place and action were very important to dramatic structure. Since it was difficult to change set pieces and the performance spaces were often thought of as sacred, acts of violence and sexual depravity often 'took place' outside the confines of the performance.
The Trojan Women is a traditional tragedy, defined in Theatre: The Living Art as "a serious drama involving important personages caught in calamitous circumstances." It takes place directly following the events of the Trojan War, and details the fates of the fallen Queen Hecuba, the surviving women and children of the royal family, and Helen. Through a series of monologues and events, "the situation becomes irreversible and irretrievable" and Hecuba is forced to realize the consequences of the downfall of her people. Originally written in lofty Greek verse, Edith Hamilton's 1937 translation provides the text often used today.
The play begins with a discussion between the gods Poseidon and Athena, who attempt to decide how to punish the Greeks for Ajax the Lesser's kidnap of Cassandra from the temple of Apollo. Hecuba wakes in the ruins of Troy and is soon approached by Talthybius, a Greek herald, who brings news of what will happen to the remains of the dethroned royal family. Hecuba herself, the tragic hero, is promised to Odysseus, while her psychic daughter, Cassandra is to be sent to Agamemnon as a concubine. Cursed with foresight that is never believed, Cassandra raves about her impending "marriage" and is carried off. Hecuba's daughter-in-law, Andromache arrives with her son and announces that the youngest princess Polyxena has been killed. Her body lies as a sacrifice at the tomb of Achilles. Andromache is soon informed by Talthybius that she is fated to become Neoptolemus' concubine. Unfortunately, it is revealed that the Greeks fear that her young son, Astyanax, may grow up to avenge his father, Hector. He is therefore condemned, and is later flung off the battlements of Troy to his death. Andromache bemoans the fate of her husband and innocent son, and then proudly heads off to her own fate.
Although she is not truly a woman of Troy, the war and its aftermath have had ill effects on Helen. The other women of the camp hate and condemn her, even calling for her death. Her husband Menelaus plans to take her back to Greece, where she will answer for her crimes of abandoning him and causing the horrific war that has lasted ten years. Hecuba tries to persuade Menelaus of Helen's guilt and treachery, but Helen seduces him, pleading that he spare her life. He appears to stand firm on the matter, and plans to send her to her fate when they return to Greece. The audience, however, having witnessed her legendary beauty and seductive skills, realizes he will eventually concede and allow her to live. After Helen is led off, the Greek herald brings Astyanax's body to Hecuba. Astyanax's death may be considered the peripeteia, or final fall from grace of the drama. The royal bloodline of Troy has been utterly destroyed, and the city lies in ruins. Hecuba lays her grandson upon the shield of his father and performs the rituals of burial as his mother wished. Finally, Hecuba prepares to board the ship that will carry her to her fate with Odysseus. As the fallen queen leaves behind the ruins of the city where her children and grandchildren have lived, and now died, Hecuba remembers the proud people of her land. The audience experiences catharsis, the release of fear and horror, as she realizes that the survivors must live out their lives as slaves, far from the land of their fathers.
Modern Adaptations: The Film
Released in 1971, Cacoyannis' version of the tragedy stars Katherine Hepburn, who won a Kansas City Film Critics Circle award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Hecuba, the Queen of Troy. The script is a slight adaptation of Edith Hamilton's translation. Much of the chorus dialogue and the presence of deities, who spoke and appeared to the audience in ancient productions, were removed by the Oscar-winning director, who felt they were hard to film and make realistic. Georgakas, in a review encompassing the women-centered films of Cacoyannis, says this of the Euripides tragedies he directed: "Rather than cinematically opening up the tragedies with elaborate sets and special effects, Cacoyannis set the films in bleak country landscapes with a few stone walls.
Movement through this terrain is often stylized, as are speeches delivered directly to the camera. The musical scores by Mikis Theodorakis for all three films are minimalist and distancing, quite different from Theodorakis's vibrant score for Zorba the Greek (1964)." Additional emotional space is created by long intervals of silence. Although many elements of traditional tragedy are not present, Cacoyannis was passionate about the lasting relevance of the play. He used his actor's training and his special talent for directing actresses to create a beautiful film version of a classic Greek tragedy.
Versions of the play are still being produced all over the world today. In Sri Lanka in the year 2000, director Dharmasiri Bandaranayaka used the "capacity of The Trojan Women to suggest powerfully and vividly the destruction wrought on women in general as a result of war [which] rests to a great extent on the fact that the characters differ from each other in their social situations as well as in their personalities." Anoja Weerasinghe, a Sri Lankan actress whose home was destroyed by political violence after a local election, plays an extremely believable Hecabe (Hecuba). Through her personal influence over the role, together with the talent of the cast and director, the piece presents a powerful message: "that man caught in the midst of the contradictions of war, whether it be archaic tribal war or wars created by the ruling classes in modern society, becomes the perpetrator of the most ruthless violence against his opponents, especially on defenseless women and children."
A further example of the play's continued relevance is the Charles Mee adaptation, The Trojan Women: A Love Story. Based on both the original tragedy and the work of Berlioz, the piece also incorporates modern scenes, essentially transposing the work into more casual poetic language and recent circumstances. While keeping the story essentially intact and using a Greek chorus, Mee "references bombs, former presidents, TV, country club etiquette, dildos, and dance numbers...The characters--one of whom is named Ray Bob--often speak directly to the audience using a microphone."
Playwright Christine Evans' Trojan Barbie is another current adaptation. It "explores the similarities of modern warfare in the Middle East with Euripides' Greek tragedy," to produce a combination of "contemporary scenes with those in ancient and mythic Troy." The drama is the winner of the 2007 Jane Chambers Award, the Playwrights First "Plays for the 2lst Century" Award and the 2009 Rhode Island State Council on the Arts Playwriting Fellowship. The play is a vigorous anti-war dialogue which presents the violence of war as a non-stop tragedy and begs the question: is there no end in sight?
The lasting relevance of Euripides' piece cannot be denied. This glimpse into the aftermath of violent conflict is a bitter reminder of how many lives are destroyed in warfare. War goes beyond recorded deaths and casualties, murdering the very spirits of the so-called survivors. Is the significance of anti-war dramas like this one merely a sad truth about human nature: that we never learn from the terrors of warfare and violence, and are destined to cause the same heartaches again and again? Is The Trojan Women just a desperate prophecy of unavoidable peril? Unfortunately, despite revivals and adaptations crossing boundaries of culture worldwide, humanity continues to destroy itself with little remorse. Somehow it is hard to imagine that this is the catharsis Euripides hoped for, or the reaction he desired. Yet, if even one audience member leaves a performance with empathy for the innocent left scarred by the petty, violent actions of men at war the tragedy has accomplished its goal. Perhaps that is why The Trojan Women remains important today. It must continue to grow and change as we do, always hoping to enlighten another heart, to inspire acceptance and empathy that can one day stop war in its tracks.
Helen of Troy