01 September 2008

what's Hecuba to him?

Remember back in the disastrous last years of the Vietnam War, when theater companies around the country dusted off The Trojan Women? Sadly, the Greeks are still relevant to our latest ill-advised imperial adventure: first there was Lysistrata across the country during the build-up to war, then after a few years we had many productions of The Persians, and now here comes The Trojan Women once again. It was Aurora Theater’s superb production a few years back of The Persians as adapted by Ellen McLaughlin that made me so look forward last spring to their Trojan Women, also adapted by Ellen McLaughlin.

Actually, this version was billed as “by Ellen McLaughlin, inspired by Euripides” and it is a much looser version of the original than was her version of the Aeschylus. It was also, surprisingly and hugely, a disappointment. The changes start immediately: the divine prologue is retained, but Athena is dropped and we had only Neptune, dressed with inexplicable jauntiness in spanking nautical garb, as if he had a sideline as captain of the Love Boat; he strolls through and makes a few appropriate remarks and disappears. The problem with dropping Athena is you miss her sudden, vindictive switch in feelings so that she now opposes the Greeks who violated her temple (or angered her in similar fashion): when you miss that, you miss a sense of the arbitrariness of the gods’ favor (that is, the arbitrariness of destiny), you miss the overriding irony that the Greek victory so lamented by the Trojan survivors will end tragically for the momentary winners, and you miss a complicating factor in the play’s examination of women, status, and power. I know Athena is everyone's favorite goddess, and it's difficult to accept her as destructive and petty, but that's part of the original's complexity.

The role of Talthybius, the Greek messenger, is also cut back significantly, so you miss the entire arc of his character, as he gradually moves from the indifference of a victorious professional soldier towards a compassionate understanding of the price the losing women have paid and will pay, in present suffering and future hardship. Needless to say, all the men on the losing side have been slaughtered, though there is some debate (at least in Euripides) over whether that’s truly a worse fate than continuing to live. What these women really face is loss of status – they once had servants who provided the services they will now have to provide to the victors, though this point too was blunted in this production, this time not so much by the adaptation as by the sets and costumes. Hecuba looked like a respectable middle-class matron who had just had her hair done, and the chorus of women was dressed in a strange assortment of contemporary costumes – skater, plaid-skirted schoolgirl, semi-punk – which, combined with the set’s startling resemblance to the Vaillancourt Fountain, made me think we were viewing The Women of Justin Herman Plaza. (The women of the chorus were mostly played by theater students, which would have been completely obvious even if they hadn’t made a point of saying it.)

Helen does show up, as she does in the original, though here there is no debate between Hecuba and Menelaus over whether she should be killed. Helen is basically an impossible role to cast, and though the woman who played her was indeed very attractive, she also looked a little too much like Bebe Neuwirth and Julia Louis-Dreyfus for me to avoid distracting memories of NBC sitcoms (great throaty voice, though). So Helen talks a lot to the women about her mythic role, but of course she doesn’t mention any actual myths that might confuse the audience; her point seems to be that The Prettiest Girl in the Room has a certain destined role, which is true. The other women don’t like this, and haul her offstage to rough her up. And that’s the point where I wondered what exactly McLaughlin and company thought this material was about: the essence of the Trojan women’s plight is that they, formerly powerful and respected, are now powerless and policed. Is it likely that they would have been allowed to damage the prized victory trophy of the Greeks? If they can do that and get away with it, what exactly are they all bitching about? I don't object to changes in the original material, but to the way those changes dilute and obscure the drama.

The play was over in about an hour, and in a rare example of BART mitzvah, the right train had pulled onto the platform about the time I did, so even with the 8:00 start time I was home by 9:40, making a cup of tea. I had really been looking forward to this performance. I had considered subscribing to the Aurora’s season, mostly because I wanted to see The Trojan Women. I had read or re-read three different translations of the play beforehand (Lattimore, Morwood, and Roche, in case you’re interested). And yet a couple of days after the performance, I had forgotten I had seen it until I looked at my calendar and saw it written there.

Anticipation is a strange thing. I buy so many books, DVDs, and CDs that I now feel I’ve somehow missed a key and satisfactory part of the experience if I read, watch, or listen to them right away; they need to ripen on the shelf first, like fruit. But you can also wait too long, and end up with a less satisfying experience as a result. Decades ago as a student at Berkeley I went to a sale at the library and bought, for $2.50, a copy of One of Our Conquerors, because who can resist an obscure novel by George Meredith? It sat there unread for many years, traveling to Boston and then eventually back to California, still unread, and eventually it became sort of A Thing.

I finally read it last year. It’s an interesting novel, though sometimes overly obscure in the Meredith way. It’s also stained with a weird anti-Semitism. (I’m not referring to standard Victorian references to “Jewish moneylenders” or “Moses the old-clothes peddler”, but to occasional discussions of “Anglo-Saxon culture” versus the rising Jewish members of the wealthy professional class all the characters belong to). And the story is based on an anguished dilemma that seems bizarrely exotic to a contemporary reader – Victor (“one of our conquerors”) Radnor has had a long and satisfying relationship, and a child, with a woman he lives with but to whom he is not legally married – his elderly first wife won’t give him a divorce. He is now very wealthy and socially prominent, a social powerhouse in fact, and his daughter is of an age to enter society, so she must find out The Truth –it sounds overly melodramatic described that way; there’s much subtlety of thought and elaboration of expression to convey the refined suffering of all involved.

If I had read the novel before it became A Thing, I probably wouldn’t have felt as let down by it. Anyone looking for a Meredith novel to read – can I see a show of hands, here? you in the back, maybe? – should probably stick with The Egoist, which is hilarious once you get past a certain preciosity in the beginning (get past it, or just get used to it perhaps). There’s also the Ordeal of Richard Feverel, which I read when I was seventeen, and all I really remember is a passage when Richard Feverel looks across the river and sees the girl he loves. I don’t know quite what that passage did to my seventeen-year-old hormones, but it struck me as one of the most strangely erotic passages I have ever read. I would prefer not to re-read that particular book; there’s a good chance I wouldn’t even notice the passage anymore.

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