Greek Tragedy in Athens, AL: Euripides’ Trojan Women
By Travis Sharp
Everyone knows the stories of the Trojan War: Paris (in many minds seen as Orlando Bloom) and his fateful trip to Sparta; Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand ships; the deaths of Achilles and Hector; the Trojan horse being brought into the impregnable city; the destruction of Troy and those within its walls. A (very) rough interpretation of this ancient Greek lore was presented in the 2004 film Troy. But in all of the retellings, there is something missing—where are the women of Troy, the survivors not killed by the invading Greeks? We know that King Priam was murdered, but what of Queen Hecuba? What of Andromache, Hector’s wife? What fate took Helen of Troy? What destruction fell upon the cursed Cassandra? These are the stories which ancient Greek playwright Euripides explored in Trojan Women, a play which, according to translator Dr. Francis Blessington, “explores, with rare depth, human suffering.”
Greek tragedy is many things, but perhaps most of all it is a point of catharsis, an event of emotional purging. For all of the social and political commentary at work in the play—such things as the morality of war, sexual violence, gender roles, and religion are all explored throughout the plot—Trojan Women is about human suffering, a universal truth. The poet William Matthews wrote it best in “Why We Are Truly a Nation:”
“Because grief unites us,
like the locked antlers of moose
who die on their knees in pairs.”
Just as grief unites the Trojan women, grief unites the audience. It unites the actors, too. During the first read-through of Trojan Women many, many weeks ago, many in the cast were brought to tears simply by reading the words of these tragic women and their tales of hardship and loss. Hecuba is channeling the thoughts of all of the Trojan women and the audience when she says, “What trouble don’t we have? What stops destruction from rushing us over completely?” Perhaps unknown to even herself, Hecuba has provided the answer to this already: “My child, to die is not to the same as living. / It is nothing at all. In life is hope.” In a way, the immense loss is required for Hecuba to recognize that the walls of Troy, here a metaphor for the artificial defenses sparing Hecuba from grief, are artificial. By the end of the play, Hecuba is just as human as the other Trojan women, no longer separated from them by her royal garments.
Dorothy Weems (Hecuba) and I discussed the sometimes overwhelmingly tragic nature of Trojan Women. The outcome of this talk was revelatory: The tragedy explored in Trojan Women has survived for thousands of years because of its unmistakable staying power, power derived from the universal and inevitable nature of its subject matter. The Chorus reveal this power upon hearing Andromache speak of her troubles: “You, too, have come to the same disaster. Lamenting / Yours, you teach me what misery I am in.” We are united by our understandings.