By GAETANA CALDWELL-SMITH
“Hecuba,” a play by Euripides, staged by the American Conservatory Theatre, San Francisco. Directed by Carey Perloff. Starring Olympia Dukakis.
“For Hecuba! / What’s Hecuba to him, or he to her, / that he should weep for her?” -“Hamlet”
Who, indeed is this Hecuba of Euripides’ eponymous play? The fallen Queen of Troy of Greek legend, now a Greek slave; mother of Paris, Cassandra, Polyxena, Polydorus, and many, many more children.
Though written in 424-5 BCE, the play’s themes resonate today. “Hecuba” is about betrayal and revenge, slave versus master, good deaths and bad, sacrifice and slaughter.
We might well view the woman Hecuba as our moral conscience in these days of presidential impeachment and military attacks on innocent people which, when these attacks don’t kill or maim, leave men, women, and children destitute, starving, and ill unto death. The lust for revenge lies partly behind these attacks-as well as serving as the rationale for most penal systems.
Euripides placed the action of his play on the island of Thrace just after the fall of Troy. Ex-queen Hecuba is portrayed from the top as a beaten woman. Her daughter Polyxena, her handmaidens, and other Trojan women are now all slaves of the Greeks. Their captors house them temporarily in tents until the winds pick up and they can sail on to Greece.
We can compare the Trojans to the oppressed people of Bosnia, as does director Carey Perloff in the American Conservatory Theatre’s recent production in San Francisco.
Perloff engaged the women’s choral group KlTKA (bouquet in Bulgarian and Macedonian), to play the part of the chorus in the ACT production. For many years, KlTKA has been creating acapella music in the traditions of Balkan and Slavic women. Perloff had the chorus costumed in loose tunics, and shawls over their heads in the guise of older women of this area.
The chorus sings of how attacks came at night to Troy while people went about doing everyday ordinary things: fixing their hair, finishing an evening meal, enjoying the last dance and song of the night; a husband lies in a bedroom, “never seeing what the sea had brought, mobs of men shouting. … City brought low / no more shall I set foot within you.”
Or the Trojans might remind us of the innocents suffering from the U.S. strikes on a Sudanese medical facility, which our government wanted us to believe was revenge on a factory churning out chemicals for use in terrorist attacks.
Some say Clinton ordered the strikes as a distraction from the foibles of his personal life and impending impeachment hearings, a “Wag the Dog” ploy. And now, once again, Washington bombed Bagdad two days before the impeachment vote.
On the Big Question of impeachment, Hecuba has this to say about the art of persuasion, which our representatives had tried to use on each other to sway votes:
“Why do we spend our short lives straining, / craving after knowledge of all sorts but one-/ Persuasion, who alone is mankind’s queen? / Why no zeal in us to hire a teacher / and learn the art so perfectly / that we persuade and we obtain? / Without that art, how may anyone hope / to come out well?”
That a play written over two millenniums ago retains its relevance in today’s “civilized” world attests to its power. Legal systems cannot begin to deal with the horrors of a society in which soldiers come home after long absences and find themselves strangers in a strange land and in which citizens’ demands for justice are thwarted.
Their ideas of rightness smack up against the “official” legal system, and minorities caught trying to assimilate while continuing to feel alienated. Euripides tirelessly analyzed the chaos created when the rhetoric supporting a democratic legal system no longer mirrored the reality he perceived around him.
Keeping in mind how the Clinton-Lewinsky matter colored everything for the greater part of a year, “Hecuba’s” complex themes of gender conflict and moral responsibility come strongly to the forefront. Written in wartime about war, the play shows the results when men use their advantage over women in displays of physical ingenuity and power to betray those who depend on them for survival and justice.
The play pulls aside the curtain hiding the psychological destruction that follows a morally indefensible conflict occurring among a people, and shows what transpires when sex and politics become bedmates. Unlike the Greeks who dared to reveal basic weaknesses that lay hidden behind the structures of justice, we prefer to ignore them.
A focus on children
A potent aspect of the play is its focus on children. Hecuba’s virgin daughter, Polyxena, reduced to aspiring for a beautiful death as a sacrifice for the slaying of Achilles, has her throat cut on the mound of earth covering his tomb, in the aftermath of unaccountable destruction.
Another child, Polydorus, Hecuba’s son, had been entrusted to Polymestor, King of Thrace, along with a huge stash of gold. As soon as Troy was sacked, Polymestor hacked up the boy and threw his mutilated body into the sea and hoarded the gold for himself.
To avenge his death, Hecuba resorts to trickery herself and invites Polymestor to visit her and bring along his two adolescent sons, whom she consigns to death for their father’s betrayal and treachery. She and her handmaidens slay the boys and, using the pins on their broaches, poke out their father’s eyes, leaving him stumbling, blind.
Years ago, the U.S. government had declared Muammar al Qaddafy the most dangerous man in the world and bombed his headquarters and home in Libya in retaliation for a terrorist bombing of a club in Berlin, which killed a couple of U.S. servicemen. Qaddafy’s youngest daughter, a toddler, died as a result.
What resources did Qaddafy have to exact revenge against the United States for her death? What recourse was left to him? During the recent Baghdad missile strikes, Hussein’s daughter’s home was hit. Fortunately, she was not killed.
In these times of modern technology, killing children is often not as direct as were the slayings of Hecuba’s or Polymestor’s.
How many native children were killed in Vietnam, Cambodia. or Laos as a result of “carpet bombing,” “search and destroy” missions, napalming, and Agent Orange dropped to defoliate the country-the better to seek out the Viet Cong. And now, children are suffering and dying in Iraq due to the continued sanctions imposed by the United States.
Everyone equally a slave
Helen Foley, Olin Professor of Classics at Barnard College, referring to “Hecuba,” suggests that, for the U.S., the equivalent of giving an authoritative voice to a barbarian female former enemy, and raising questions about our own ills, could be the subject of an American play about the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
Here, the characters with the most serious claim to morality were Vietnamese women whose lives were destroyed as a result of the war. “In our modern era,” she says, “when wild justice is also enacted in pervasive acts of ethnic hostility throughout the world, ‘Hecuba’ captures something important about our own realities, as well.”
Euripides understood the corrupting effects war has on its victors. Both Agamemnon and Odysseus refuse seriously to look at the ex-queen’s human rights, although Greek overlords were responsible for pursuing justice for their slaves.
Hecuba tries to go through the proper channels to persuade them to act justly. She argues that if the justice owed to individuals is only sacrificed to political expediency, society will soon disintegrate.
Hecuba becomes personally demoralized by her excessive suffering, yet she is up against a demoralized world in which nothing at all can be trusted. Regarding the Vietnam war, could we trust our government to give us the true body-count, or believe military advisors’ assurances that we were “winning” the war, or that a truce had been signed?
Think of other lies our government has foisted and continues to foist upon us as truth, which some of us, in our innocence and trust, believed and continue to believe.
Enacting her revenge on Polymestor, Hecuba gains new energy and spirit. She becomes a different person from the woman we see at the beginning of the play. This difference springs from her newborn cynicism. She convinces herself by what has happened to her and her people that values are meaningless. All are mere words.
Kenneth J. Rexford, in his introduction to the 1991 Oxford University Press translation of the play, says, “In such a world, there is no privileged space for human dignity, nor even for human freedom. Everyone, as Hecuba says, is equally a slave. That being so, one must grapple like a slave for what one can.”
Rexford could very well be speaking of the state of the world today. Like Hecuba, we need new energy and spirit if we want to change it.