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The Bad Boy of Athens

Classicists have always thought the play is “political,” but only because there are scenes in which various male characters—the caustic envoy of the Argive king, the sympathetic Athenian monarch Demophon, son of Theseus—debate what the just course for Athens ought to be (to come to the aid of the refugees and thereby risk war, or to incur religious pollution by failing to honor the claims of suppliants at an altar). But it’s only when you understand the political dimensions of the tragedy’s portrayal of women that you can see just how political a play it really is. The contrast between the two female figures—the self-sacrificing Macaria, and the murderous Alcmene; one concerned only for her family and allies, the other intent on the gratification of private vengeance—could not be greater.

In symbolic terms, the terms familiar to Euripides’ audiences, the play is about the politics of civic belonging. Herakles’ children, homeless, stateless, are eager to reestablish their civic identity—to belong somewhere; Maca- ria’s action demonstrates that in order to do so, sacrifices (of the individual, of private “family” concerns) must take place. (In her speech of self-sacrifice, she uses all of the current buzzwords of Athenian civic conformity.) Her bloodthirsty grandmother, on the other hand, eager to avenge a lifetime of humiliations to her family, dramatizes the way in which private concerns—she, like Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra, is the representative of clan interests—never quite disappear beneath the smooth façade of public interest. “I am ‘someone,’ too,” she hotly replies, during the closing minutes of the play, in response to an Athenian’s statement that “there is no way that someone may execute” Eurystheus in violation of Athenian law.

It is a shame, given the trouble Euripides goes to in order to inject vivid female energies into a story that previously had none, that Peter Sellars (who you could say has made a specialty of unpopular or difficult-to-stage Greek dramas: past productions include Sophocles’ Ajax and Aeschylus’ Persians, which has all of the dramatic élan of a Veterans Day parade) has focused on those issues in the play that appear “political” to us, rather than those that the Athenians would have understood to be political. Because there are refugees in the play, Sellars thinks the play is about what we call refugee crises—to us, now, a very political-sounding dilemma indeed. He has, accordingly, with his characteristic thoroughness and imaginative brio, gone to a great deal of trouble to bring out this element, almost to the exclusion of everything else.

Indeed, the American Repertory Theatre’s performance of Children of Herakles is only one third of a three-part evening. It begins with a one-hour panel discussion—the guests change each night of the play’s run—hosted by the Boston radio personality Christopher Lydon, that focuses on refugee crises around the world. The night I saw the play, his three guests were Arthur Helton, the director of Peace and Conflict Studies for the Council on Foreign Relations; a female asylum-seeker from Somalia called Ayisha; and a Serbian woman from the former Yugoslavia who’d emigrated to the US after suffering during the Balkan wars. Then comes the performance of Euripides’ play, which lasts two hours; and then a screening of a film. The latter represents, in the words of the program, “an artistic response to the current crisis—a series of films made in countries that are generating large numbers of refugees.”

This probably sounds more pretentious and gimmicky than it really is. It’s true that a lot went wrong the night I saw the play: the Serbian woman, rather than shedding light on her own experiences as a refugee, lectured the audience rather stridently about the meaning of freedom (she chided us about our lust for large refrigerators); the first part took longer than expected, with the result that the film at the end of the evening began late, and people started disappearing, despite the temptations of a buffet dinner between parts two and three that featured appropriately politicized entrees (“grilled Balkan sausage”); and so on. But a lot about the evening was right. It’s rare to see a production of a Greek drama that so seriously and conscientiously attempts to replicate, in some sense, the deeply political context in which the ancient works were originally performed. Whatever its flaws, Sellars’s Children of Herakles makes you feel that an appropriate staging of this work entails more than a couple hours’ emoting followed by an argument about where to have dinner.

I found myself objecting, at first, to one of the most extreme gestures the director made: that is, having the children of Herakles themselves embodied (they’re not speaking roles) by Boston-area refugee children, who every now and then went up into the audience to shake our hands. But the sense of being somehow implicated in the real lives of the actors, so foreign to contemporary theatrical sensibilities, would not have been that strange to Euripides’ audiences. The choruses in the theater of Dionysos at Athens were chosen from among Athenian citizens, boys and men, who would indeed have been known to the spectators, or at least some of them. Modern drama seeks to create estrangement, and distance, between the artifice on stage and the spectators’ everyday lives; ancient drama relied, in its way, on a sense of communal concern.

Sellars understands, furthermore, that tragedy doesn’t need a lot to achieve its effects, and his staging is rightly stark: a stepped altar in the middle of the stage surrounded by the huddling male offspring of Herakles, who have taken sanctuary there (the top of the altar was supposed to be occupied by a female Kazakh bard—a nice, if misplaced, Homeric touch—but she was ill the night I attended); a microphone, downstage left, into which the Argive envoy and Athenian king speak, which—not inappropriately, I thought—gives the debates at the opening of the play, where the city’s course of action is decided, the air of a press conference; and, for the chorus (their lines were read by Lydon and another person, a woman) a little conference table at the extreme left of the stage, where they sit primly, occasionally making weary bureaucratic noises about how sorry they felt about the refugees’ plight. This is perfect: it gets just right the tone of this work’s chorus, which like the choruses in many tragedies is stranded between good intentions and a healthy self-protectiveness.

What robs the play of the impact it could have had is Sellars’s failure to appreciate the subtle gender dynamics in Euripides’ text. One of the reasons that the actions of Euripides’ Macaria and Alcmene are so striking is that they’re the only actions by females in a play otherwise wholly devoted to masculine concerns: the governance of the free state, extradition issues, war. Part of Sellars’s updating, however, is to give the roles of the nasty Argive herald—the one whom Eurystheus sends to intimidate the Athenians into giving up the refugees—and of the Athenian king Demophon (here recast as “president” of Athens) to women. Although the parts are well-played—the Demophon in particular comes across as a shrewd contemporary elected official, eager to do right but hamstrung by elaborate political obligations—the shift in gender results in a collapse of the playwright’s meanings.

In Euripides’ play, the unexpected and electrifying entrance of Macaria and her offer of self-immolation dramatizes the need to sacrifice the “personal” and “domestic”—things that tragic women were understood to represent—to the larger civic good; the unusual and even revolutionary impact of her appearance and subsequent action is underscored, in the original, by her apology for appearing in public in the first place, something no nice Athenian girl would do. But Sellars’s staging makes nonsense of the lines; it’s absurd for this girl to be apologizing for talking to men outside the confines of the house, asserting that she knows that a woman’s place is in the home, when the most politically powerful characters in the play are, as they are in this staging, women. And so the end of the play—the old woman’s violent explosion, a reminder that the energies that must be sacrificed to establish the collective good always lurk uneasily within the polity, and can erupt—makes no sense, either. The women in this Children of Herakles are very healthy, thank you very much; there is no “repressed” to return.

Worse still, Sellars stages the sacrifice of Macaria—beautifully, it is true, and bloodily. But it’s not in the play. One of the most famously disturbing things about The Children of Herakles is the irony that, after she makes her bid for immortality—the girl begs to be honored in her family’s and Athens’s memory before she goes off to die—we never hear another word about her. There are all sorts of explanations for this cold treatment of a warm-blooded character (not least, that the manuscript of the play is incomplete), but surely one is precisely that everything that Macaria represents must, in fact, disappear in order for the community to persist. Tragedy loves its self-heroizing females, but like the state whose concerns it so subtly enacted, it always found a way to get rid of those unmanageable “others.” By bringing Macaria back in the second half of the play, and allowing us to weep over the spectacle of the tiny young girl having her throat cut, Sellars reasserts the energies that Euripides shows—ironically or not—being silenced.

And so, like an earlier generation of classicists who saw little of value in this play except references to contemporary politicking—the speeches were thought to echo fifth-century-BC Athenian political debates—Sellars fails to see where the play’s political discourse really lies. Which is to say, in the representation of the two characters who look the least like politicians: a young girl and an old woman. Did Euripides care about refugees? Yes, but only because of what refugee crises tell us about the nature of the state. (“The current event” he cared about was Athens’s summary execution, the year before the play was produced, of some Spartan envoys—clearly the referent for Alcmene’s climactic act of violence.) Peter Sellars, on the other hand, cares about refugees the way a twenty-first-century person cares—he feels for these poor kids, the mute, wide-eyed boys, the brutalized girls, and wants to make you feel for them, too. The result, alas, is a play that often sends a message that’s the inverse of the one Euripides was telegraphing to his audience, by means of symbolic structures they knew well. Someone gets sacrificed in this Children of Herakles, but it isn’t just Macaria.

3.

A similar desire to update a Euripidean classic in terms familiar to today’s audience has, apparently, informed Deborah Warner’s vulgar, noisy, and uncomprehending staging of Medea, which went from a limited run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music to its current Broadway run, which has been rapturously received by most critics—mostly because they are rightly impressed by Fiona Shaw’s emotional ferocity. If only it were being put in the service of a reading that did justice to Euripides! For if Sellars’s Euripides ultimately betrays its source because it thinks “our” politics are the play’s politics, Warner’s Euripides fails because it mistakes “our” women for Euripides’ women.

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