I looked in vain for the grand themes of this harsh and unsettling drama in a recent production of Herakles at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as adapted by Peter Meineck and performed by his Aquila Theatre company. Meineck and his company have been responsible for a number of thoughtful and effective productions of Greek dramas over the past decade or so; as a translator and adapter, he has shown great alertness to the potential of tragedy for modern audiences, while remaining sensitive to the performance conventions of the genre. He is particularly interested in the use of masks.
In the new production, however, Meineck has one overriding concept that seems meant to promote the relevance of the play to today’s audiences—indeed, to a very specific subset of today’s audiences—and that is best summed up in the synopsis of the work that appeared on the BAM website:
The first production of HERAKLES happened during a time of constant war in ancient Athens and its themes still resonate today: the return of the warrior, the lot of the combat veteran, the family left at home, and the alienation of the veteran.
It is hard not to see in this interpretation of the play’s meaning the influence of the work of Jonathan Shay, an army psychiatrist who has argued in his Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (1994) and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming (2002) that the ancient works—whose audiences, after all, were often men who had firsthand experience of combat—reflect the psychological realities of wartime in ways previously not understood. (So, for instance, Achilles’ nearly murderous resentment of Agamemnon in Book I of the Iliad is an early instance of what Shay has found to be a nearly universal psychological phenomenon among ordinary soldiers: a bitter resentment of their superior officers.)
Adapting this approach, whose appeal at the current historical moment will be easy to fathom, Meineck went to considerable lengths, both on- and offstage, to present Herakles as a play about a returning vet who succumbs to combat trauma. The publicity for the new production emphasized that the work had been presented with great success to audiences of veterans. Some of the actors were, indeed, veterans; performances were followed by a “talk-back” with actors, writers, and veterans. A long program note by Lawrence Tritle, a history professor at Loyola Marymount University, cited the statistic that in one month’s time, four veterans of the Afghanistan conflict murdered their wives upon returning home.
And then there was the striking central element of the staging itself: Meineck has replaced Euripides’ choruses with videos of combat veterans recalling their wartime experiences. These men and women, veterans of wars from Korea to Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, expressed with often poignant eloquence their nostalgia for wartime camaraderie (“I miss the bond with other soldiers”), their dreadful problems with sleeping, with reestablishing relationships with family (“They can’t understand what I’ve been through”); and vividly recalled the dead children, headless bodies, and exploding helicopters, the disorienting “powerlessness” that comes with witnessing violence in war. “You can die here any fucking day,” as one young veteran put it.
But the highlighting of these harrowing real-life narrations—in the service of emphasizing the central interpretative conceit here, which is that Euripides’ play is about ordinary people with problems audiences can identify with—had the curious effect of unbalancing the play itself. As the evening progressed, the space between Euripides’ text and the modern elements seemed to grow rather than shrink. For one thing, the performances, though earnest and energetic, were generic, and in an odd way couldn’t compete with the real people in the videos. Euripides’ Herakles is a superhero (to put it in modern terms) who is transformed, in the course of the drama, into a more recognizably human figure. By casting an ordinary-Joe type as Herakles, nice-looking and beefy but glamourless, the director of the Aquila production made nonsense of that crucial arc—the character had nowhere to go. Megara, too, lost much by being “humanized.” Here, she was a whiny, tearful weakling (“This is unbearable, I can’t stand it!”) who bore no resemblance to the powerhouse in Euripides’ text, the woman who becomes the spokesperson for heroic values.
The emphasis on Herakles as a contemporary-seeming victim of psychological stress forced Meineck to discard or transform beyond recognition certain crucial elements that give the original its strong meanings. In this Herakles there is no altar and hence no supplication, no sanctuary—an erasure that makes nonsense of the entire first half of the play, the suppliant drama, with its crucial emphasis on the inviolable religious space the suppliants have occupied. (Here, when Lykos threatened to burn the family out, you scratched your head and wondered why he didn’t just run them through.) Sometimes, Meineck had to falsify the text in the service of the themes he wanted us to find there. “You brought the war home with you!” Meineck’s Amphitryon cries out during the murders. (Later, as Herakles exits, Meineck has him describe the killings as “one more martial act.”) These lines do not appear in Euripides’ text, for the excellent reason that the playwright has made clear the reasons for the hero’s madness: not “the horrors of war,” but the arbitrary—and, therefore, more horrific—rage of Heaven.
Perhaps worse, the adapter tinkers with Euripides’ pointed chronology. Here, the character Madness (her speech recited by Herakles’ young son as the weary hero sleeps, implying that it’s all in his head, all a dream) appears not after the killing of Lykos and the happy resolution of the suppliant drama, but before Herakles kills the wicked king—as if to suggest that this slaying, too, is somehow part of the violent, trauma-inspired breakdown triggered by “madness.” This makes a hash of Euripides’ careful restructuring of the original myth, muddying the motivation for the revenge, and obscuring the original work’s large themes of divine injustice and cosmic amorality—themes that, here, aren’t really detectable at all.
Meineck’s version, for all its admirable desire to relate ancient drama to modern experience, ends up miniaturizing the play—making banal its jagged anomalies, its suggestive bizarreness. Just after we get the narration of the murder of the family, Meineck cuts to a video of one of his veterans saying, “in war, any war, children die.” But the point of the infanticide in Euripides’ play is, precisely, how aberrant it is, how grotesque is the application of the hero’s famous prowess to the destruction of small children: a reversal of martial norms, one that points to the play’s larger thematic and structural interest in dreadful katrastrophai and peripeteiai. This mismatch between what the text wants to tell us and what Meineck’s “chorus” says gets you close to the heart of what’s wrong with his vision of the play—indeed any vision that seeks to reduce tragedy’s large themes to the scale of a single constituency’s concerns.
The most forceful articulation of Meineck’s approach comes in the program note by Lawrence Tritle, who is himself a combat veteran, and whose remarks are worth repeating at length because they show the weaknesses of this narrowing approach to reading Greek drama:
In the middle years of the Peloponnesian War…the Athenian dramatist Euripides (whose many references to a soldier’s life make clear his own military service) staged his play of the homecoming of the greatest of Greek heroes, Heracles. As so often with Attic drama, the playwright tinkered with the traditional storyline and blurred the lines between the famous labors of Heracles and real war. Thoughtful members of the audience—veterans in other words—would have picked up at once that Euripides was speaking to them of their own homecoming from far-off campaigns—that the issues being explored before them were real and were as much about their own lives and war-related traumas as with any mythic hero…. The violence pushes Heracles over the edge—he loses control and kills just as quickly those dearest to him, his wife and children.
It would be hard to think of a more egregious misrepresentation of the play. Herakles is no ordinary “combat veteran”: his Labors are fantastical supernatural exploits that bear no resemblance whatever to the kind of fighting familiar to the play’s first audience. This point is, in fact, ferociously made in the play itself. In the course of a substantial exchange with Amphitryon at the beginning of the play, Lykos mocks the absent hero precisely for never having known ordinary combat—for never having “held a shield in his left hand” (a reference to the typical formation of hoplite warfare) or “faced an enemy’s spear.” And while it is true that Euripides “tinkered with the traditional storyline,” as we have seen, that tinkering was expressly for the purposes of highlighting the play’s religious and philosophical themes.
As for Herakles being “pushed over the edge” by the violence he has had to experience during the performance of his Labors, there is no evidence for this interpretation in the text. The Herakles who suddenly appears toward the end of Part I is chipper and matter-of-fact, not at all a mass of nerves. Amphitryon does briefly wonder whether the killing of Lykos might have unbalanced Herakles, but the whole point is that here, as so often, the old man is wrong, doesn’t understand the gods. The text is explicit about the cause of the hero’s sudden-onset madness: not post-traumatic stress disorder, but the ever-wrathful Hera. Herakles doesn’t “lose control,” control is stripped, horribly, from him.
Tellingly, Tritle seeks to disarm objections such as the ones I have made:
There remain critics and scholars who imagine that Euripides has created a sort of psychological thriller, who would not take the time to connect the play to the on-going trauma and terror of the Peloponnesian War. Such interpretations ignore classicist (and World War I combat soldier) Victor Ehrenberg’s reminder that the poet is not only an artist but also a contemporary and eternal voice.
But this attempt to ascribe most critics’ desire to see large moral, intellectual, and philosophical themes in the work of a great dramatic artist to a kind of laziness, a failure to take into account the real-world contemporary context, surely backfires on Tritle himself, and indeed others who want to narrow the concerns of ancient epic or classical tragedy to the realm of experience of a certain portion of their original audiences. You could just as easily say that to see Herakles as being primarily “about” the lives and traumas of its combat veteran audience is a failure to understand virtually everything else that constituted “contemporary” life during the Peloponnesian War: political, intellectual, philosophical, and artistic preoccupations and controversies that were just as contemporary and “real,” and spoke with as much vigor and urgency as did the wounds of citizens who returned from the state’s many wars.
In the end, Meineck’s and Tritle’s vision, and the production that it informs, do great damage not only to the play but to the audience. You have to wonder whether combat veterans are better served by a Herakles that explains the protagonist’s problems as a case of combat trauma or by the play Euripides wrote—a play that forces us to confront the cold abyss of meaningless violence and then suggests that human fellowship, camaraderie, may be all we have. Euripides sought, with unprecedented formal daring, to show the “absolute tragedy” of human existence of which George Steiner speaks—a world that, as the testimonies Meineck has collected make all too plain, many veterans have seen up close, a world of action and suffering detached from coherent moral meanings and unexplainable by ordinary motivations. The ancient playwright’s project is particularly worthy of attention in our own era, characterized as it is by the impulse to provide superficial healing and “closure” and by the desire to explain away and psychologize the irresolvable core of horror that lies behind the genuinely tragic.
In Meineck’s well-meaning new production, the bleak cosmic hell that Euripides’ tragedy visits becomes a place that audiences like to think they’re familiar with (“war is hell”). In seeking to domesticate the foreignness of Euripides’ dramatic world by providing madness with motivation (and thus promising “healing”), in giving a therapeutic account of the meaningless suffering with which the text is replete, this new Herakles ends by sparing us the view of the moral void that Euripides worked so hard to represent.
Changes of Fortune June 20, 2013