The Unrelenting Grip of Ellen McLaughlin’s THE TROJAN WOMEN
As I entered the basement of The Flea Theater last Saturday night, I spied Hecuba slouching in anguish with her back to the wall. A veil of gauze covered the eyes of this one-time Queen of Troy as the audience trickled in. Her fellow captives, her countrywomen, lay on the ground around her. Bloodstained rags cloaked their bruised, idle bodies. I couldn’t help but wonder how some works of art can be so painfully unpleasant yet still manage to persevere through millennia, surfacing again and again, refusing to die.
Tragedies are often more excruciating to watch than they are to plough through on paper. Just hearing the words “Greek tragedy” is enough to make most high school students want to gouge out their eyeballs, and not in the Oedipal way. Characters talk in long-winded speeches; their lines are full of obsolete references; non-sequiturs abound. Plus, all the juicy stuff happens offstage. The Trojan Women is no exception.
But this tragedy also offers an eternally relevant picture of the harrowing atrocities men commit in wartime, and of the horrendous violence done to women and children in the fray. The plot is primitive, but its message endures. And coupled with its cautionary message is its reputation for being particularly tough to stomach.
With as few spoilers as possible, here’s the gist: Hecuba is about to be dragged onto a boat and brought to Greece to live out her days in captivity—a war prize. Hecuba’s daughter Cassandra enters stark raving and prophesies the death that awaits her (C. has a trauma-induced superpower that allows her to see into the future. More on that later.) Helen shows up (aka The Most Beautiful Woman In The World), and things get ugly. The final tragic blow is delivered to Andromache, mother of the last living Trojan child among them.
And so on the eve of the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11, I sat in my seat and braced myself for what I was about to see. Ellen McLaughlin’s fortuitous adaptation—now playing at The Flea Theater, performed by The Flea’s young resident company, The Bats—is an artistic response to the crimes of the Bosnian War. Her script was first presented as a staged reading at New York’s Classic Stage Company in 1995, and performed by a cast of Bosnian refugees. Twenty-one years later, McLaughlin and director Anne Cecelia Haney have conspired to present an updated version of the story that is, in the true spirit of Euripides, almost as agonizing to get through as it is spectacular to behold.
Holding fast to the structure of the original, this new version unfolds in a monotonous, bloody pageant of heinous injustices. Each moment grows more wretched as the story goes on, and culminates at the end in one of the most hideous crimes imaginable. Whereas many productions of tragedies still manage to weave in at least one measly thread of humor, this one is decidedly not engineered for laughs.
McLaughlin demonstrates her keen understanding of the story by cleverly reworking some problem spots in the original text. For one, it is typically set on a beach (not so easy to pull off in a basement, mind you) where nearby Greek soldiers are loading their ships with spoils, prepping for the long journey home. After losing the war for ten years, they have at long last sacked the citadel of Troy with the help of Odysseus and the legendary Trojan horse.
This version is decidedly not set in the open air of a beach, but in the foreboding confines of a holding cell. The dank, dilapidated, dimly lit basement space instantly evokes the bleak reality of war in the modern day. The Greek names and references stay put (there are no verbal references to the Yugoslov Wars or the crisis in Bosnia.) But Marte Johanne Ekhougen’s comprehensive set and costume design replicates the sort of spaces most Americans only see in film footage of third-world disasters and extremist acts of terror. What we get is an authentic rendering of the original play, packaged in a way that grounds the mythical personas in our contemporary world with striking immediacy.
If at first the play feels like it’s beating you over the head with its anti-war message, that’s because it is. But hey, why resist? Haley’s production fully commits to its fearless examination of the monstrosities of war, and offers an in-your-face look at the suffering women are subjected to on behalf of men. The point of view that the production takes on man’s excessive waste is wholly irrefutable, and warrants only louder and more aggressive hammering.
Paradoxically, the moment-to-moment acting is heavy-handed; more nuanced choices could certainly be found, especially if the script were to leave more room for the actors to play. While it doesn’t quite articulate anything new, this adaptation on whole faithfully preserves most of the original’s structure, and Haley’s direction helps deliver the ancient story in a refreshingly imaginative, seamlessly stylized way that deepened my relationship with certain characters. (If you think you know Helen, you’re in for a big surprise.)
Take Cassandra, Queen Hecuba’s youngest daughter, for example. Legend has it the god Apollo came to Cassandra in a dream when she was just a girl. He appeared to her as a wolf. He raped her. The experience left her with the divine ability to see into the future, and to foresee not only the fall of Troy but also her own death. Of course, no one believed her. Having lived to see it all happen just as she had predicted, this is the moment she tells her mother, “I told you so,” and plunges into the depths of madness.
The production’s rendering of Cassandra’s prophetic power slices this excessively grim world open for a moment and lets some much-needed oxygen into the room. Long after her brief cameo at the beginning, I sensed the doomed daughter of Troy’s uncanny presence lingering in every pocket of the basement’s suffocating air, until the women of Ilium were finally carted off to the Greek ships, and we—the lucky ones—were mercifully released.
I do think McLaughlin could have taken more poetic liberties. Within the claustrophobic confines of these prison walls, Poseidon, god of the sea, no longer seems the most obvious character to set the mood with a prologue. But Tom Muccioli’s divine performance still made me freeze up when he asked in a serpentine voice lilting with a chill, “Another war has ended. When will the next begin?”
I left asking myself the same question I had upon entering, stunned by the unsettling ease with which Trojan Women rises up from antiquity. Euripides first saw it staged in 415 B.C. and it has never really gone away. Scholars marvel at its unrelenting grip on history, at its place in the canon as one of the oldest anti-war stories. Strange, too, that for as long as men have been fighting wars, there has been reason enough to perform this great tragedy, precisely because it is an awful play.