Adapted by Timberlake Wertenbaker
American Conservatory Theater
April 27, 1995 through June 4, 1995
Center for the Arts Theater
Yerba Buena Gardens
San Francisco, CA
Reviewed by Marianne McDonald
Univerity of California at San Diego
What does it feel like to lose a child? How does it feel to lose one's freedom? What permanent change and what response will follow? These are the terrible realities faced by women each day, in Bosnia and among the Tutsis and the Hutus in Rwanda, to mention only two of the world's war zones. It is easier to accept horrors in other places than in our own country. Think of the mother whose child was in that day-care center in Oklahoma, or, of a child who died because of the proliferation of guns and drugs in our own hometowns? Is our freedom in danger? Some feel justified in taking up arms, establishing militias, and seeking terrible vengeance on those they see as a threat to their freedom.
This is the stuff of tragedy, and these are the issues in ACT's Hecuba, starring Olympia Dukakis. Not only does she deliver a heart-chilling performance, she has a face that resembles a tragic mask. It is reassuring to see a passionate performance by a woman of Mediterranean ancestry playing another woman of that same ancestry. This is so far superior to Diana Rigg's bloodless performance in Medea,which drew laughs because she excelled more as a comic than a tragic actress. There has been no such mistake in casting Dukakis. Prepare to weep.
Euripides' Hecuba is a timeless masterpiece. He shows us in a carefully structured play how women who are abused in war will take up arms and fight back. They use the arms of their sex: persuasive seduction, the knives with which they prepare food, and the needles with which they create clothes. Instead of sustaining life, these women will take it away, and this makes the role-reversal doubly monstrous. Their behavior is something we expect from aggressive men, but not from nurturing women. These silenced women act in unison, and carry out the sacrifice of children as if it were a religious rite. Lacking political rights, the Euripidean women have instead power over religious rites, and incorporate what they know by acting together to conduct a ritual of vengeance.
They also tap into the resources of drama, and their staging of the sacrifice before the eyes of the father intensifies his suffering. It is diabolic to force the father to live: he is an audience who is destroyed by suffering, rather than enlightened. Polymestor, like Tiresias and Oedipus in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex can see the future. Only in this sense has he learned something.
The plot is brilliantly worked out. When the ghost of Polydorus disappears, we see the mourning Hecuba. Her city has fallen, and she has lost many of her children already. The 'civilized' Greeks have triumphed over the barbarian Trojans, but what Euripides will show us is that war barbarizes eveyone. No one is immune.
The first terrible news that Hecuba receives is that her daughter must be sacrificed to pacify the ghost of Achilles. We see the anguish of the mother and the daughter taking their farewells, but then Polyxena goes to her death bravely, showing that she has more honor than the Greeks who are demanding this barbaric sacrifice. Hecuba endures. But when she learns that her son, the last hope of her house, has been murdered by Polymestor, a Thracian ally to whose care she had entrusted him, she plots her vengeance. Hecuba pleads with Agamemnon, shameless even to the point of exploiting his lust for her daughter Cassandra, whom he has forced to share his bed.
Hecuba lures Polymestor into a tent, promising him golden treasures hidden there. She and the other women kill his children before him, and then put out his eyes. In a quick trial, Agamemnon rules in Hecuba's favor. The defeated Polymestor delivers a curse: Hecuba will be turned into a bitch, and fall into the water that will be named for her, Cynossema, The Bitch's Grave, and die. In this prophecy Euripides literalizes the fact that Hecuba has been bestialized by war and suffering; she responds to it like an animal gone mad.
Whereas a multicultural cast and a sung chorus add to the power of this drama, the translation by Timberlake Wertenbaker and the direction by Carey Perloff detract from it. The translation and the direction make the story into one of Good vs. Evil. Euripides' drama is not so simple; there is more ambiguity. Wertenbaker and Perloff would have you think that this vengeance is good. This translation and this staging are so biased against Polymestor that we do not realize the evil that is done in this cycle of vengeance where innocent children have to suffer for their parent's misdeeds. At the end of the play we see the corpse of Hecuba's son, but there are only garments to represent Polymestor's children, and cannot take their deaths as seriously (a picture is worth a thousand words).
Euripides wanted us to realize the horrible ambiguity of vengeance: Hecuba like Medea, has become a terrorist, as Euripides witnessed the Greeks become terrorists in their raids during the Peloponnesian War. At Melos they killed all the men and enslaved the women and children because of their refusal to support Athenian imperialism. Again we can see the parallel with McVeigh in Oklahoma: killing children must be the reductio ad absurdum of political protest.
Both Medea and Hecuba kill a man's children in vengeance--worse vengeance that killing the man himself--because men consider their children--at least their male children--as their immortality, that part of themselves which will survive them. (This is explicitly stated in Plato's Symposium.) To see their children die before them then negates an important pretension to life after death.
Page duBois, who was on a panel that discussed this play, shares my view that the translation was bad and the direction misleading. She did not share with me admiration for Dukakis' acting, pointing out the difference between stage and screen; she claims that Dukakis simply does not show great stage experience, that she starts with a climax and ends with a climax. I am more sympathetic, and see this as Mediterranean passion. Dukakis also said that she wanted the role of Hecuba because she did not want the role of a woman as victim. Euripides, however, showed Hecuba transformed into a bitch, a dog, which was regarded as shameless in antiquity: the cynics (with the root kuon, 'dog') were so named because of their 'shameless' acts. By including this prophecy, Euripides, through Polymestor, indicts Hecuba's daring. Polyxena's heroism is also meant to contrast with Hecuba's audacity. The Greeks were meant to recoil in horror. But in this production we end up applauding not the insight, but the deed itself. America's love for violence now is satisfied by unambiguous affirmation of destruction. I think this is a loss.
Wertenbaker's translation stresses the virtue of the women while trashing the villainy of the men. Much of this is in Euripides, but the new sharp simplifications create a melodramatic quality rather than a tragic one. Unintentional humor is added: as Hecuba recites her woes to Polymestor, justifying what she has done, he says, 'But you're enjoying it!' The whole house burst out in laughter. This is not to say that Euripides did not have humor, but this is a dark play. There is humor, for instance, in the wit of Odysseus' evasion of Hecuba, saying he will spare her life, but not her daughter's, since he owes his salvation to her personally. This makes him into the sophistic weaseler well-known from Sophocles' Philoctetes and Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis.
There are good program notes by Helene Foley. She traces the history of the revenge tragedy, beginning with the Greeks and progressing through Seneca, Elizabethan and Jacobean England, to the seventeenth century, and finally to modern times, citing the Macedonian film Before the Rain. She might have cited Cyril Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy (c. 1606) which in its grotesqueries becomes a satire of the genre. She does well to refer to Homer, quoting Achilles' words: '[cholos, 'anger'] swarms like smoke in a man's heart, sweeter by far than the dripping of honey' (Iliad XVIII.108-110). Homer's Hecuba resembles the Hecuba of Euripides' play, because she 'wishes she could set her teeth in the middle of Achilles' liver and eat it because he killed her son Hector.' Hecuba acts like a bitch even there.
The set stresses the opposition of male and female. It shows a jutting cliff, with stakes through the end, and in the middle of the stage we see a sharp stake stuck in the sand. We are on the shore at Troy. Tents are in the background. Women are the rulers of the interior, men the exterior. The tents are the women's territory, and the spikes are the phallic reminder that these women are the prey of men: the booty from the war. At points in the drama Dukakis and others smear sand over themselves: it is as if the earth provided the make-up for their mourning. The earth is here an ally of the women, the way the sea is that of the men: the stable nurturer vs. the opportunistic imperialist. One creates life, and the other exploits it.
Dukakis/Hecuba also gashes herself, running her nails over her cheeks and breasts and creating bloody reminders of her sorrow. There is a good use of space: the whole stage is used, as one character after another finds himself or herself at the cliff's edge, retreating again to the safety of the flat beach.
This is a play about women's power. Hecuba is freer than Agamemnon, because she is not a slave of the mob: as Hecuba says, 'Oh, there is no mortal who is free; either a person is a slave to wealth, or to luck; the city's mob or the laws force one into doing things against one's judgement' (864-7). But she shows herself free (although she has to have Agamemnon's tacit consent). The women show themselves stronger than the Thracian Polymestor, whose race the ancient world equated with brutal strength.
We are on the side of the women, and on the side of vengeance: only when terrorism sets in and innocent children are killed to gratify brutality do we have second thoughts. Hooray for second thoughts, and three cheers for Euripides and Olympia Dukakis! In spite of the translation and the direction, through their brilliant art, they show us human passion leading to horrors in this world. We understand how we are all part of the tragedy that we view around us every day. Greek tragedy is better than the daily news for showing us what is really going on.
Christopher Collard. The Plays of Euripides: Hecuba*, with Introduction, Translation and Commentary. Warminster, England: Aris and Phillips, 1991.
D. J. Conacher. Euripidean Drama: Myth, Theme and Structure, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967.
Page duBois. Sowing the Body: Psychoanalysis and Ancient Representations of Women. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
Helene P. Foley. Ritual Irony: Poetry and Sacrifice in Euripides. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1985.
Marianne McDonald. Terms for Happiness in Euripides. Hypomnemata: Untersuchungen zur Antike und zu ihrem Nachleben, vol. 54. Goettingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1978.
Charles Segal. Euripides and the Poetics of Sorrow: Art, Gender, and Commemoration in Alcestis,Hippolytus and Hecuba*. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993.