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Trojan Women at the Fringe
Review of Euripides' Trojan Women
(Eyewitness Theatre Company; adaptation by Peter McGarry)

by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan
(original date: August 2008)

This is one of a number of informal pieces originally produced for the CMRS Facebook page.
It is intended to provoke discussion and further investigation rather than as a formal scholarly submission.

Notice: This material is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.

Last night, some friends and I attended a performance of the adaptation of Euripides' Trojan Women currently being presented at the Saskatoon Fringe Festival.

The text bears relatively little resemblance to the original, with the cast reduced to three characters: Hector's wife Andromache, the ill-fated prophetess Cassandra, and Helen. The principal character of Euripides' play, Hecuba, is omitted altogether (prompting the inevitable question: "What's Hecuba to them?"), as are the representatives of the Greek forces (the herald Talthybius and Helen's husband Menelaus) and the divine prologue (Poseidon and Athena).

Euripides employs the suffering and plaintive indignation of the elderly Hecuba as his focus: unity and form are achieved via the continual presence of the aged queen, who is battered down by a series of revelations of the further sorrows and injustices that lie in store for her and her family. But Euripides also locates the Trojans' suffering against a backdrop that emphasizes the violent retribution soon to be visited on the Greeks as a result of their wanton violation of established norms.

The Fringe production, by contrast, lacks this broader perspective. Instead, it focuses on the personal dynamic between the three characters and the contrast in their personalities and their fates: Andromache, who is struggling to bear up under her suffering in a way that befits her position as wife of Hector and former princess of Troy; Cassandra, a young maiden who dreads her coming rape at the hands of Agamemnon and the grisly death that she knows will later be visited upon her by Clytemnestra; and Helen, the arrogant and haughty beauty whose icy exterior conceals her doubts regarding the continuing effectiveness of her charms and her terror at what awaits her at the hands of her husband Menelaus.

The most surprising figure, for anyone familiar with the ancient tradition, is Andromache, who is presented as a forbiddingly chilly, unfeeling, and unpleasant woman, who denies ever having felt any true passion for Hector and presents herself as having done what was necessary (in the bedroom and elsewhere) to enjoy marriage to man of noble character and prominent social standing. Having always done her duty, as befits someone of her aristocratic up-bringing, she expects the same of others. Thus, in castigating Cassandra for her anxiety over her coming bedding by Agamemnon, Andromache comes across as a kind of mean-spirited older sister who has never known love in her life ("passion is for slaves!") and therefore expects the younger woman in effect to "lie back and think of Pergamum" and then get on with her life, as she herself evidently has always done. The Greek tradition presents Andromache as a dutiful and subservient wife (most notoriously in Euripides' Andromache, where she boasts of having suckled Hector's bastards in order to please her husband), but also (Iliad 6) as a loving spouse and mother who is capable of heart-breaking tenderness. Eventually, the Fringe production offers a reason for Andromache's demeanor and suggests that what we have been witnessing is a defense mechanism on the part of a woman whose suffering has led her ruthlessly to shut off all human feelings, but this is not made so clear as it have been. It is difficult not to feel that the main motive inspiring this innovation was a desire to generate a useful tension between Andromache and the other two characters, particularly Helen.

Cassandra too has been altered considerably vis à vis the Euripidean original. Euripides presents her in a divinely inspired trance-state, proclaiming her coming union with Agamemnon in a Dionysian frenzy as she celebrates a ghastly perversion of the traditional epithalamium and rejoices in the suffering that her death will impose upon the house of Atreus. The Fringe production cannot easily draw upon the traditions that inform her relatively brief appearance in Euripides' play, and it has, in any case, to find some means of having her engage in the protracted conversation that forms the basis of this adaptation. Her possession by Apollo is here presented as a curious type of bi-polar disorder, drawing upon both ancient and more modern presentations of stage madness. While some critics have complained about the mannered nature in which this was done, I found it quite effective, on the whole, despite one or two bits where it was perhaps a tad overdone. Less effective, I thought, was the focus on her anxiety at her coming rape at the hands of Agamemnon. This provides the connection to the other two characters, of course (the chilly Andromache who regards sex as something to be dealt with and then forgotten, and Helen, who has been all too keen in this area) and yields one of the central themes of this version, but, for reasons I'll get to in a second, I found it all rather inconsequential.

For my money, the most intriguing character is Helen, at least as she is presented in the first half/two-thirds of the performance. There is a chilling dignity and mystery about the way she engages with Andromache and Cassandra in the first half of the play. Euripides' Helen is rather two-dimensional: an all-too confident and thoroughly despicable sophist figure who knows full well the effectiveness of her particular brand of peitho (persuasion) and exhibits no remorse for the consequences of her past actions. This is effective in the context of the Euripidean play, where Helen is employed to highlight still further the injustice of the Trojans' fate and the moral weakness of the Greeks, but it does tend to reduce her to a rather flat dramatic device. Carly Tarett's Helen, by contrast, was clearly not a figure to trifle with, and was very much a creature of passion, but also conveyed the impression of a somewhat older woman who was aware that her own charms were fading, and of just how fleeting and unfulfilling sexual passion can be if uninformed by something deeper. In the latter part of the play, her icy reserve falls away to reveal her deep-seated insecurities and outright terror regarding her fate at the hands of Menelaus: this made her all the more human, but once again I couldn't help but feel that I was being manipulated, that this transformation was motivated at least in part by the desire to generate "good theater."

The strategy of focusing on a spiraling series of conversations and confrontations between the three characters allows the play to explore and associate the personalities and perspectives of these three women in a way more congenial to a modern audience than the often rhetorical and otherwise stylized interactions of the Euripidean stage, and it is this motive (as well, no doubt, as limitations in resources) that most likely motivated the dropping of Hecuba as the central unifying character. But, as one of our group astutely noted, the end product lacks a well-defined arc, which leads to a certain degree of repetitiveness at times and (towards the end) one or two false endings.

More important is the question of what the adaptation brings to Euripides' work — what new insights or significance it might suggest. Euripides' play is at heart about the murky morality of war and the difficulty of making sense of enterprises such as those in which Athens was engaged in 415 BC (the year the play was originally produced). He lets us see the human costs entailed, the tawdry nature of many of the driving motives, and the slick way in which political leaders and others can seduce people into believing that a base cause is noble and just. With the omission of the Greeks and of the divine prologue, a good deal of this element of the play is muted or lost in the Fringe production. Instead, it is the plight of the three characters qua women that takes center stage (so to speak). Here the author eschews a heavy-handed and simplistic branding of the women as victims of male patriarchy: the characters, each in her own way, are presented as complex and interesting, as are the implications of their interactions with one another. And there are moments at which the three are united in their suffering and anxiety in ways that are truly moving. But the focus on the psychology of these particular individuals as they negotiate their positions with one another, and the use of their experiences of and attitudes toward sex as a central unifying theme lessened the impact of the play. As one member of our group noted, the ancient tradition offers much more interesting ways in which the adaptation might have dealt with the plight of these women, each of whom is about to enter upon a "marriage" of some sort.

The play cannot be easy going for those unfamiliar with the Euripidean original or lacking a decent familiarity with the Trojan myth in general. No program is provided and no introduction. The action begins with Andromache kicking Cassandra in order to rouse her and scolding her to speak Greek. It is some time, in fact, before the names of these two characters are made all that clear, or (after her entrance) just who Helen is. For this viewer, the initial bit had the feel of two actors workshopping a scene rather than a proper dramatic opening. Euripides knew better: although he drew criticism for it (see Aristophanes' Frogs 945ff.), his use of prologues allowed his audiences to bring a particular context and perspective to the actions they were witnessing.

There were also some factual slips. For example, we're told of Athena attempting to make Achilles invulnerable by dipping him in the river Styx while holding him by the heel — a role traditionally played by his mother Thetis, while the tradition itself does not seem to have been prominent in Euripides' day: the main references to it are much later. And Cassandra's precise age remains somewhat muddy: she is supposed to be a young maiden of 16 at the time of Troy's fall, but to have received her prophetic powers from Apollo prior to Helen's arrival, when she was nine years old. The notion of Apollo wishing to deflower a nine-year-old is repulsive to ancient Greek as well as modern sensibilities, and the chronology leaves no room for the ten years of the Trojan war (although the author might point out that such chronological inconsistencies are frequent in the ancient texts as well!). The most problematic slip: the emphasis on Andromache being of Greek descent and hailing from Thebes. But Andromache is not Greek at all: Homer identifies her home as the town of Thebe, among a people he calls the Cilicians, somewhere south of Troy ("... Andromache, daughter of great-hearted Eëtion, Eëtion that dwelt beneath wooded Placus, in Thebe under Placus, and was lord over the men of Cilicia" [Iliad 6.395-97 — A.T. Murray tr.]).

All three of the actors deserve full marks. Carly Tarett was marvelous as the older and wiser Helen, particularly in the early scenes, while Nell Corrin's Cassandra was eerily realistic in capturing the mannerisms associated with a disturbed mind. (Despite what some might believe, I have relatively little experience with such things, but I have in fact seen precisely those mannerisms in people I have known.) Laura Danielle Sharp in some ways was given the least to work with, as the angry authoritarian, but, in the latter part of the production, had some of the most powerfully emotional moments in the play, which she carried off exceedingly well.

The three of us who saw the production agreed that there was a good deal of interest here and that it was well worth seeing, but were somewhat limited in our enthusiasm. I found myself engaging more with the strategies that informed the process of adaptation than the drama inherent in the play itself.

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