Thucydides, the great historian of the war between Sparta and Athens, gives an account of the fate of the Athenian prisoners captured by Syracuse after the disaster of the Sicilian expedition. They were imprisoned in a stone quarry, now converted into an elegant garden, deprived of food and drink and exposed to the chill of the night and the heat of the sun. Those who survived were later led off to be executed or sold into slavery, but Plutarch adds a curious detail. He writes that the fastidious and plainly refined Syracusans spared the life of those Athenians who were able to recite a passage from one of plays of Euripides.
It is an idle fancy to wonder why the Syracusans chose Euripides as the life or death test, but let us advance the (implausible) hypothesis that it was because they saw the plight of the defeated, enslaved Athenians as similar to that of the Trojans in such works as The Trojan Women, later adapted as an opera by Berlioz, or Hecuba, the work which gives rise to these musings. Hecuba was revived in a deeply moving, magnificent production in October by Dundee Rep in a version prepared by Frank McGuinness from a so-called ‘literal’ translation by Fionnuala Murphy.
In considering the individual contributors, we can only give Ms Murphy our gratitude. McGuinness is a professional playwright in the best sense, that of being an all-round man of the theatre. Born in Ulster but now resident in Dublin, he is author of masterly original works, some of which examine the plight of the divided community in which he grew up, notably Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching to the Somme, which looks at the Protestant-Loyalist-Unionist community, and its twin work, The Carthaginians, which performs the same operation on the Catholic population. His most recent play, The Hanging Gardens, which ran at the Abbey during this autumn’s Dublin Theatre Festival, has a title which recalls classical civilisation, but whose protagonist is an ageing Irish writer whose powers and memory are failing and who calls his family around him for what seems like a final reckoning. While the reminiscences of classical theatre are a frequent undertow to many of McGuinness’s works, there are many more strands, including humour and incisive emotional insight, to his creativity. At the same time, he has executed adaptations or versions of Ibsen, Brecht, Chekhov and many others.
The modern reputation of Euripides has, in academic circles, suffered a dip as compared to that of Aeschylus and Sophocles, but his works, especially The Bacchae which was performed by the National Theatre of Scotland with Alan Cumming as Dionysus, are intriguing, multi-layered probes into dark corners of the human psyche. He was mocked and parodied by Aristophanes in his comedies, which is itself a left-handed compliment. He has a unique talent, unknown to his fellow tragedians, for giving some kind of sense of daily life as it was and of recognisable conversation as it was spoken, while also portraying human beings in the most desperate of circumstances and in the grips of the most ferocious and murderous of passions.
Although this Hecuba is described as a version, it is faithful to the plot of the original, but the language is cast in a contemporary idiom which never jars as many printed translations do. Since the work contains passages of dialogue and argument as well as elegiac lyrics, McGuinness veers between street talk, as when Hecuba scathingly refers to Agamemnon as ‘shacking up with Cassandra,’ to passages of more stately but never cloying verse fitting for the anguished reprimands to the indifferent gods. ‘Have the gods sanctified such suffering,’ asks Hecuba, giving voice to the recurrent refrain in this tragedy. Where are the gods? Why are they passive? Can they intervene and refuse to do so, or are they divine but impotent? Euripides appears at best agnostic about the power of the gods, and disdainful of their supposed benevolence towards humanity.
Since there is nothing so eternal or so human as what, self-deceptively, we like to call ‘inhumanity,’ updating of this work is unnecessary. The motivations of the people in this play are ugly and the subject the capacity of human beings to commit demonic, evil acts. The war in this version, as in the original, is the Siege of Troy and its aftermath, so there is none of the heavy updating attempted by French writers of the 1930s, such as Jean Giraudoux with his clumsy The War of Troy Will not Take Place. However, although the characters carry the names given them when the play was first seen in Athens in the fifth century BC, the director (Armanda Gaughan) and the designer (Leila Kalbassi) issue an invitation to draw parallels with more recent episodes of international conflict and savagery. A background sound track carries crackling messages on an old walkie-talkie, interspersed with the ra-ta-tat of a machine gun and martial words spoken in the accents of one of the Bushes or Winston Churchill about ‘inevitable victory’ or ‘defence of our values and way of life’. The rubble, human and material, of warfare is the same in occupied Berlin or Bagdad as in Troy, or in Thrace, where the Greek fleet is marooned and the action unfolds.
Only one figure, a woman lying asleep or dead, is onstage at the opening, but from the destroyed pathway a hand and then a ghostly figure, covered with blood and dust, emerges. In Euripides he was a ghost. Here he may be a dream apparition, but he is Polydorus (played powerfully by Ncuti Gatwa), son of Hecuba and Priam, who had been smuggled out of Troy to the court of Polymestor, King of Thrace, for his own safety but had been treacherously murdered for the gold he had had in his possession. His speech informs the audience, but not his unconscious mother, not only of the catalogue of past catastrophes but also of those which will follow. Greek theatre was never interested in the build-up of dramatic tension through the carefully calibrated revelation of what was previously known only to the author. Since the source was myth, the audience was already aware of the main lines of the plot. What mattered was the vision of the cosmos offered by the individual writer, the unravelling of character and the clash of ‘man with more than man,’ in the Sophoclean formula.
Hecuba does not rest, as does Oedipus, on some notion of an ineluctable, irresistible, superhuman fate. Human beings make decisions and consequences follow, might is not right but those in power behave callously, those without power endure stoically or react spitefully, justice is not a force among human beings, male or female. One of the attractions of Euripides for modern companies is that he wrote towering parts for women, but these women are as capable of savagery as any man. There is no support for the slack, modern idea that violence is peculiarly male, and that women in power would behave with greater temperance. Hecuba is out for vengeance, and her vengeance is as terrible as the provocation suffered and the offence afflicted on her. Euripides offers nought for our comfort as he surveys and dissects the human animal. Watching his tragedy unfold is the intellectual and moral equivalent of enduring the shock and awe of aerial bombardment.
Instead of existential fate, Euripides’s vision is founded on a notion of the precariousness of the individual hold on happiness, status, wellbeing, stability. ‘Is there nothing but chaos and change?’ asks Talthybius, played by Ali Craig as the no-nonsense soldier. Hecuba had been not only wife and mother but she had been queen in a prosperous city, and in one day all had been taken away from her, leaving her reduced to the most humiliating of all positions in a Greek worldview, that of slave. ‘Troy is ours now,’ jeers Odysseus to the pleading, subjugated Hecuba, while the chorus of Trojan women intone ‘we are the vanquished.’ Maybe the Geneva Convention and the principle of prisoners’ right, now under threat, was the greatest step forward taken by humankind. Here the part of the chorus is taken by one actress, Emily Winter, quite excellent throughout as she recites or chants probing words on the immediate action and on its wider ramifications.
Euripides focuses on the suffering of the defeated Trojans, and allows no ethical superiority to his fellow Greeks. Callum O’Neill plays both Odysseus and Agamemnon, the first as a slippery, devious shyster and the other as the bluff commissar, not capable of the weaker emotions, like genuine pity. Hecuba is the mater dolorosa, the victim of unimaginable pain but, unlike her Christian counterpart, determined to have blood for blood. Her daughter Polyxena is taken off by the Greeks to be ritually sacrificed on the tomb of Achilles to appease his spirit. In the original, she was haughty and defiant, telling her mother not to grieve as she went to die, but that attitude clashes with modern expectations of how that ordeal could be faced, and although the messenger’s account of her death has her cowing her executioners by defiantly ripping her dress to expose her breasts to the sword, Caroline Deyga makes her more fearful and frankly terrified as she is dragged off. That is not the end of Hecuba’s tragedy, for the chorus dispatched to bring sea water to allow her to bathe her daughter’s body before cremation, returns with the body of her son, Polydorus, who, unknown to her, had been already killed by Polymestor.
This act horrifies even the Greeks, but the vacillating Agamemnon will not respond. These closing scenes are among the most chilling but also most engrossing in theatre. McGuinness rises to the challenge of finding the appropriate register first for the political double talk of Agamemnon as he makes excuses for inaction, then for the polite meaningful words by which Hecuba calms the puzzled Polymestor as he arrives after receiving a summons, even explaining why she required his son to be there at his side. Her aim is vengeance, not justice. No court or judge is called, as happens in other tragedies. Hecuba shows no mercy as she kills Polymestor’s son and gouges out the eyes of the murderer himself. The ending is more terrible than in King Lear, for this is absolute tragedy, total blackness, in which there may be a settling of accounts but only as they are settled in a wolf pack, with the Chorus’s intoning words about ‘the pleasure of revenge’. There is no reconciliation, no justice, no final gentleness, and no catharsis. Even the closing prophecies are of dire days ahead – the killing of Agamemnon on his homecoming by the betrayed Clytemnestra, the death of Cassandra and the transformation of Hecuba into a bitch before her own death. I cannot see the uplift which tragedy is said to provide, and yet as we stumble or reel out of the theatre, we are aware of having undergone a strong, disruptive theatrical and moral experience which entails rearranging the litter of our own minds.
However, I had the impression that the sheer blackness was too much for most of the cast most of the time. They were good, but there is one extra dimension they could not quite attain. I remember seeing Eartha Kitt decades ago play Hecuba in The Trojan Women in an Edinburgh Festival production, a performance of uninhibited rage and despair, with screams and cataleptic weeping as each new horror was visited on her. That is not the way of this company, who had plainly decided not to indulge in uncontrolled emotional response, but at times, a more forceful, less restrained reaction would have been in order. But none of this should be taken as a criticism of Irene MacDougall as protagonist. At times, standing observing with indifferent immobility as when the blinded Polymestor crawls on the ground, at others giving evidence of pain beyond endurance, and at others driven to uncomprehending despair, she was immense throughout.