We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Euripides via Harrison: _Hecuba_ & Vanessa Redgrave · 1 June 05

For Hecuba!
What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her?—-Hamlet, II:ii:568-70

Dearest Fanny,

Last night Isabel, Laura, and I went to the Kennedy Center to see Euripides’ Hecuba.

It was a commanding performance: each player seemed to stand on the stage and enact the part in such an intense absorbed slow-moving quiet fashion which radiated passion enough to hold the audience in a spell. Matthew Douglas (as the ghost of (Polydorus in this haunting light), Vanessa Redgrave (Hecuba in the most extraordinarily magnificent and dignified yet intensely grieving and inwardly violent of performances I’ve ever seen), Darrell D’Silva (for his Polymester; he was also Odysseus, a thankless role which he enacted thanklessly), and Lydia Leonard (Polyxena, the Iphigenia of the play, sacrificed to the ghost of Achilles who demands her death on his tomb, her eloquence had grace)—all these were the finest of the group, but the troupe itself had been directed to respect the text and deliver it with alert attention to each word. There seem to be several directors: Bruce O’Neil for music; John Cannon for casting, Chantal Hausser, "Assistant." The Stage Manager (whom Laura said she knew and whose name she pointed out) Elaine M. Randolph.

Tony Harrison was the wordsmith. I’ve done his Yorkshire Mystery Plays with students three times, and played my videocassette of the Cottesloe players twice. Anyone who has read and then seen this cycle of plays will know how effective is his combination of simple and incantatory language, street-wise yet elegant-educated. And passionate, involved. Of course the analogy was the US and UK in Iraq, only since there was only one specific use of the word "terrorist," the audience could find analogies with UK and US behavior since World War Two—and before as well.

I think I have read Hecuba once only. When I used to teach the First Half of All Literature (now in effect abolished since so few students at GMU have to take a genuine literature course, even on the general education level, to graduate), I would do a volume of Euripides in Paul Roche’s translation. Like most, it contained Trojan Women rather than Hecuba. Trojan Woman has more action; more famous types cross the stage (including Helen and Andromache); it ends spectacularly with Hecuba grieving over the death of her grandchild, viciously thrown over a cliff. She dies. Hecuba ends more quietly. We see in this production Vanessa Redgrave just standing there, falling slowly down in grief and loss over the corpse of Polydorus with whom the play began.

Euripides likes to pick lesser known stories. As Laura, Izzy, and I were sitting there I began to tell them that Polyxena had been killed on Achilles’ tomb. What was wanted was her blood should soak this tomb. The "God" was hungry, filled with "bloodlust" (I allude to Barbara Ehrenreich’s book on war). I said this because we noticed the character was in the cast. I wasn’t sure I said. The famous archetypal daughter sacrifice is Iphigenia. The first series of scenes in this play, Hecuba, show us Odysseus coming to demand Hecuba’s daughter, Polyxena. Polyxena is to be murdered: her throat to be cut, and her body and blood thrown on the tomb. If you recognize the same actor plays the man whom Hecuba (Redgrave) kneels and prays to and supplicates as the man she murders at the end (D’Silva), the play-acting doubling becomes charged with meaning.

Similarly, the famous blinding is of Oedipus; the archetypal murderess of children, Medea. In this tale Hecuba blinds Polymester and kills his sons. Euripides present Polymester as a liar who killed Polydorus instead of protecting him, but this is rationale. Hecuba kills because she needs to kill back. It doesn’t matter who. Laura remarked Redgrave looked calmer after the blinding and killing.

The chorus of slaves were women. Women are slaves by definition the production seemed to say.

Is it a coincidence that I seem to be seeing great productions whose central focus is an old anguished woman who holds on? Redgrave is a physical type like Maggie Smith and Catherine Flyte (who played the aging comic sister nontheless supportive of her proud ambitious vain niece in The Clandestine Marriage, which I wrote on this blog a couple of weeks ago). They all belong to a genetic pool which produces women who are large, usually fair in coloring, and with a face whose expressive features an intuitively clever (emotionally intelligent) woman can make say much.

The production is not being offered at half-price tickets as yet. Nonetheless, there was an arch of empty seats at the back of the orchestra. The audience gave the cast a standing ovation—though I get the feeling this has become more commonplace as a gesture. Still I do recommend coming to see this to anyone who reads this blog if you live anywhere near DC. I read in the Times Literary Supplement that there were no less than 3 different productions of Hecuba done in London this past year. They are also doing a self-evidently relevant Julius Caesar and a brilliant Henry IV, Parts 1 &2 (Michael Gambon as Falstaff). The person who lives in the US can at least see this one.

I’ll end on how the women, Polymester (a servant not hero type) and two children were the embodiments of suffering humanity. On C18-l today I talked of how the US is now an openly fascistic power; the veil was thin but it has been ripped off. In this play by Euripides there is no veil either. Of course money, property, and much else that is specific and important is omitted from these mythic renditions. And since the advent of Christianity with its doctrines of repression of sexuality and insistence on God as in charge, there’s a new instrument in the minds of many to which they are attached for those in power to manipulate to provoke hatred and fear.

The burning core of human nature is before us though—however unexplained and left mysterious.

What is it? What could it be?

That makes calamity of so long life …
Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’unworthy takes …—- Hamlet, III:i:69-74.

What is it in human nature Shakespeare asks in Lear? In Hecuba Euripides is not self-conscious and examining in this way. He rather confronts us with violence and grief and cruelty.

Perhaps I should mention that there are comic moments, wry, sarcasms too.

An association: Jim just read aloud to me a satire on the Dutch referendum today which used the image of an old crone. The Dutch could have voted "Ja" or "Nee." They voted "Nee" and someone wrote a blog where an "old crone" shows no interest in a Dutch shrubbery maker’s disappointment. Funny. The French were against it too: I wonder if there’s a story somewhere about an elegant aging Frenchwoman who does not want to know about any other wine than French, much less buy some.

Jim says it’s probable there will be no British election now.


Posted by: Ellen

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