Euripides' Trojan Women
Translated and Adapted by Gwendolyn MacEwan
Directed by Catherine Marrion
February 21-26, 1994
Inner Stage, University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada.
Reviewed by Michaela Milde,
Department of Languages and Literatures
University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, N1G 2W1, Canada
Tel. (519) 824-4120
Euripides' Trojan Women is a study of the victims of war, of suffering women who have lost their past, whose present is a devastated city and whose future is impending slavery and obliteration of hope. It is also a study of coping and survival in the midst of desolation. A theme of such contemporary relevance has inspired not a few modern adaptations, and among them is Gwendolyn MacEwan's version of The Trojan Women, first produced in Toronto in 1978, and recently presented by the Department of Drama, University of Guelph.
A dark stage littered with remnants of walls, sombre costumes and convincing performances by the actors evoked powerfully the desolate aftermath of war. The play preserves the main episodes of the Euripidean model, with a chorus effectively employed as an integrated character, and in the Guelph production it had an energy and forward momentum that would have surprised those who think of this drama as static and loaded down with emotion. MacEwan's text, however, deviates widely from Euripides', not only in its contemporary character, but in its images and ideas. We contemplate here a world so corrupt and devoid of meaning that any attempt at a response to it becomes absurd.
A glib Poseidon (unaccompanied by Athena) remarks in the prologue that 'Troy was perfect' but 'everything dies'. Hecuba is a compelling figure, but unlike the Euripidean queen who reacts to different aspects of her calamity with a mix of despair and resilience, this one is marked by self-loathing. In the first scene she likens herself to a grotesque insect, observes that history is a spider's web, and contemplates Troy as a place of bats and lizards, meaningless - images that recur throughout the play. Cassandra, like her Euripidean counterpart, eagerly anticipates her 'marriage', and in her visionary madness foresees Agamemnon's death and her own, but Hecuba is not so much mystified by her ravings as appalled. For Cassandra repudiates Troy and the gods, performs an erotic dance in her bridal dress, and tauntingly declares that she has no enemies and is glad to leave. In the Andromache scene, Hecuba assures her daughter-in-law that in life there is always hope, and gives practical advice on how to tolerate sexual submission to a Greek master. But she and the chorus also mock Andromache's pretensions of 'perfection' and accuse her of merely having lived through Hector with no life of her own.
This is a natural response from a modern sensibility to the Euripidean Andromache's speech on wifely virtues, but it is a reduction of a complex question. Euripides is genuinely concerned with the problem of how to define oneself without an external frame of reference, how a virtuous wife can adapt to the impossible situation where she is no longer a wife and can no longer be virtuous. This question cannot seriously arise in the modern play because in its universe no principles have validity.
Menelaus appears as the bufoon familiar from more than one Euripidean play, only more so, as Hecuba answers his boasts by yanking off his helmet and exposing a bald head to the women's ridicule. Touches of comedy in grim situations are not alien to Euripides, but in this modern play their effect is more than ironic; they reinforce the nihilistic theme by showing that a hideous war had to be fought merely because of the antics of a clown and Helen, a 'silly evil child'. The latter, whose beauty is divine, serves only to confirm the uselessnes of the gods. The final obscenity of the war is the death of Astyanax, but while Euripides' Hecuba can affirm natural human values by her lament for him and by the decency of the burial ritual, MacEwan's Hecuba is left feeling that nothing is real and nothing matters, all truth and laws, mind and soul are broken. Troy was meant to be destroyed, she decides, and 'our end is our splendour.' Her line echoes TW 1242-5: 'if god had not uprooted the city, we would have been insignificant and would not have been sung by future generations,' but where Euripides' Hecuba finds meaning in disaster, MacEwan's finds only bitter futility.
Michaela Milde is a sessional lecturer in Classics at the University of Guelph and is completing a dissertation on Anagnorisis in Sophoclean Tragedy.