Euripides' The Trojan Women.
A New Version by Brendan Kennelly.
First performed at the Peacock Theatre, the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, on 2 June 1993.
Published by Bloodaxe Books.
Xenophon describes as follows the reaction in Athens to the news of the decisive defeat by Sparta at Aegospotami in 405 B.C.: "No one slept that night. They were grieving for the dead, but much more for themselves, since they thought that they would suffer the kind of things which they had done to the Melians, Spartan colonists whom they had conquered by siege, and Histiaeans and Scionians and Toronaeans and Aeginetans and many others of the Greeks" (Hell. 2.2.3). Thucydides describes what they had done to the Scionians: "About the same time of this summer [421 B.C.] the Athenians reduced Scione by siege. They killed the adult males, enslaved the women and children, and gave the land to the Plataeans to live in" (5.32.1).
Such events lie behind Euripides' Trojan Women , produced in 415 B.C. The play is sometimes thought to be a response specifically to the Melian massacre of the previous winter, but that atrocity may well have been too recent for Euripides to take into account. There were many episodes of a similar nature, as Xenophon's narrative, quoted above, makes clear. Trojan Women is neither an anti-war play, at least not in any straightforward sense, nor a protest against Athenian policy. The Greeks regarded war as a fact of life, and accepted that it could be very bad for the losers. Trojan Women deals more generally with the sufferings of the conquered, sufferings which the Athenians had inflicted on other people but which might also be inflicted on them.
In Greek myth, Troy was the archetype of the conquered city. It provided the events and the imagery by means of which the Greeks could express and contemplate the sack of a city. This had particular significance in the context of Athenian tragedy. Tragedies were performed at the City Dionysia, the principal festival of the greatest city in Greece. The tragedian who dealt with Troy was inviting his fellow citizens to contemplate the ultimate horror for a city-dweller, the sack of a city. This meant not only the death of men, the destruction of buildings, and the enslavement of women, but also the obliteration of all the social, religious, and political structures which make up a city. Such horrors could only be tolerated if mediated through a myth about somewhere sufficiently remote in space and time. In 492 B.C., Phrynichus had produced a play about the capture of Miletus by the Persians two years earlier. The Athenians were so distressed by this (Miletus was an ally of theirs) that Phrynichus was fined and the play was banned (Herodotus 6.21.2).
Trojan Women is set in the period between the defeat of Troy and the return home of the Greeks. Euripides, characteristically, focusses on the effect of war on women, and the main characters are the mothers, widows, and children of the dead Trojan heroes, as they wait to be allotted to their future masters. Brendan Kennelly writes in the preface to his new version of the play that he wanted, after his successful version of Medea (Bloodaxe Books, 1992) to write another play about women. He was attracted particularly by the tremendous powers of endurance and survival of the women in Euripides' play. His working method was presumably similar to that employed for his version of Sophocles' Antigone : "I worked from late nineteenth-century translations, six or seven of them, then put them away and wrote it out of my head". The result is a version which keeps fairly close to the structure and general content of Euripides' original, but which also leaves plenty of scope for the expression of Kennelly's own poetic imagination.
Kennelly treats the fate of the Trojan women as a metaphor for the fate of all women. It is the norm and not, as in Euripides, a complete reversal of normality. He makes this especially clear in the concluding speech, entirely his own composition, which he gives to Hecuba:
"What does it matter if I sleep with a stranger
here or in another country ?"
The women will be no worse off with their new Greek masters than they were with their Trojan husbands. Kennelly's rhetoric is often powerful, even if the claims about the condition of women implied by this use of Euripides are extreme, perhaps absurd. Men are allowed few if any redeeming qualities, and the exploitation and humiliation of women by men is presented as the only kind of relationship between the sexes. Kennelly's play is in this respect even blacker than Euripides', which may portray the degradation of women but does not suggest that it is normal. Normality for Euripides is described, albeit in idealised terms, when Andromache recalls her marriage to Hector. Here is the conclusion of this passage in Richmond Lattimore's more literal translation:"Dear Hector, when I had you I had a husband, great
in understanding, rank, wealth, courage: all my wish.
I was a virgin when you took me from the house
of my father; I gave you all my maiden love, my first,
and now you are dead."
Kennelly has no time for ideal marriages, and his version implies that Andromache must be a feather-brained heroine out of Mills and Boon to see a man in such a light:
"O my dead Hector, most loved of men
who, all alive, was mine and only mine,
my love, my prince, my man, my perfect majesty,
no man had ever touched me
when you strode masterfully into my life
and masterfully took me for your wife.
And you are dead, Hector, dead
as yesterday's love."
Euripides' play is too often regarded as a mere catalogue of misery, in which the women are no more than passive victims. Kennelly writes in his preface : "within that apparent passivity of victims, I increasingly found a strong, active, resolute and shrewd note". This is a perceptive response to Euripides, and it is above all this resilience which Kennelly brings out in his portrayal of Hecuba, Andromache, and Cassandra. He reworks in his own terms Euripides' confrontation of their seemingly intolerable suffering and despair with their capacity for endurance and hope. Here, for example, is Andromache consoling Hecuba:"I have no hope; I know I have no hope.
Nor will I lie to myself in my private hell
pretending that my plight is well,
or fairly well.
And yet, I dream. Some dreams are sweet,
even a slave will dream. Somewhere, a special light
burns for me, for you, for all lost women..."Cassandra's response is more aggressive, and she baffles the herald Talthybius with behaviour which typifies for him the madness, or elusiveness, of women. He can make nothing of her menacing and enigmatic prophecies, or of her demonstration that "men who win wars win nothing".
Poseidon, portrayed as "a tired old god in an old, tired world", has the sentimental hope that "Love will come to rule the world,
that is, women will rule the world".Kennelly, like any good dramatist, is not afraid of contradictions, and he later does full justice to the hatred which Hecuba and the other Trojan women express for Helen. Helen herself is given an eloquent voice. Her speech in the debate with Hecuba, with its rhetorical formality and mythological allusions, is given an admirably subtle and persuasive rendering. Kennelly wisely preserves the ambiguity in which Euripides cloaks her ultimate fate.
This is, then, a powerful, if at times provocative, version of Euripides' Trojan Women . Unfortunately, both Euripides and Kennelly have been poorly served by Lynne Parker's self-indulgent production at the Peacock. Frank Conway's set shows a fin de siècle drawing-room, with dusty crimson drapes and cobweb-covered dried flowers. A grand piano dominates the stage. The women, no hair out of place, wear opulent evening gowns. Euripides' play shows the destruction of a city, Kennelly's the everyday life of contemporary women. Parker's nostalgic fantasy evokes the dissolution of an eccentric aristocratic family, with Hecuba (Catherine White) covering the furniture in dust-sheets before leaving the house. Poseidon (Birdy Sweeney) reappears from time to time to potter around the stage like a shambling and decrepit butler. This concept, stylishly executed for the most part, sacrifices both universality and topicality. Menelaus (Seán Kearns), however, is from another production altogether. This representative of coarse and bemused male power appears as a blue-suited businessman, puffing (needless to say) on a cigar.
The production aims at an ensemble style, in which most of the eleven performers are continuously involved. Fionnuala Murphy has to deliver most of her part as Cassandra from on top of the piano, and her flat delivery suggested understandable anxiety about either falling off or setting fire to her bridal veil with her candelabra. Pauline McLynn's Andromache says farewell to Astyanax as if he were going away to boarding-school rather than to be thrown to his death from the walls of Troy. Ali White is an appropriately sexy and self-possessed Helen, Martin Murphy (who studied Greek at Trinity College) a stolid Talthybius. Tina Kellegher as the Chorus does most of the singing, helped out by the other women. Instrumental accompaniment is provided by Helene Montague's regal Pallas Athena, who remains on-stage to play the piano, and Carole Nelson, who wanders around in black tail-coat and dark glasses playing the saxophone.