Rhesus: A Greek Tragedy

Modern Actors Staging Classics; Basement Theatre at the Arts and Cultural Centre, Memorial University of Newfoundland; St. John’s, Newfoundland. October 16-19, 2001

Reviewed by Elizabeth Scharffenberger

One of the marvelous things about living in New York City is that I get to see as much theater as I can afford to take in. If I’m in the mood to see something Greek, I can generally find a production of Sophocles or Euripides without leaving the island of Manhattan. But to catch a production of the rarely performed Rhesus, which has since antiquity been controversially attributed to Euripides, I had to go all the way to St. John’s, Newfoundland, where a company called “Modern Actors Staging Classics” (MASC) was putting on the tragedy in fortuitous conjunction with the Atlantic Classical Association’s “Questioning the Canon” conference. It was worth the trip.

Rhesus, I think, is a challenging play to put on for modern audiences. Even as it dramatizes events familiar from the Iliad (especially Book 10), it does not deal with the shocking acts of violence against family members that make Medea, Oedipus, and Agamemnon so riveting even for today’s jaded spectators, nor does it pull at our heartstrings like Trojan Women and Hecuba, forcing us to look with horror at the suffering of non-combatants (women, children, the elderly) in war. Rhesus has nothing that corresponds to the gut-wrenching speech that Medea delivers as she agonizes over killing her boys, or to Clytemnestra’s masterful yet terrifying manipulation of the vainglorious Agamemnon, or to Hecuba’s agonized lamentations. Yes, Rhesus – the Thracian king who has newly arrived on the plains of Troy to help Hector and the Trojans in the tenth year of the Trojan War -- is killed in the course of the tragedy, and we get to hear about his death and the theft of his horses from his mortally wounded charioteer, who expires on stage. Dolon, the wily Trojan sent by Hector to spy of the Greeks, is also killed (so we learn) as he falls prey to the far wilier Odysseus and Diomedes, who are also responsible for the deaths of Rhesus and his men. But so what? There is after all a war going on, and we can reasonably expect combatants like Dolon, Rhesus, and the charioteer to get killed, just as we can expect Rhesus’ divine mother, an unnamed Muse, to grieve over the body of her all too mortal son in the play’s final moments. The point of interest in Rhesus, if the truth be told, is not its representation of death and suffering and grief, but its representation of the decisions and calculations that Hector must make as he struggles to exploit to the Trojans’ advantage the new opportunities presented by Achilles’ quarrel with Agamemnon and the subsequent mishaps of the Greek army. Should Hector order an outright attack on the Greek ships, as his instincts tell him, or should he listen to the cautious counsel of Aeneas, who advises sending a spy to assess the lay of the land? Should he choose the arrogantly self-confident Dolon as his spy? Should he listen to the chorus and accept the services of the recently arrived Rhesus, whom he resents deeply for having waited so long to bring his army to the Troad? And how should he respond to the disastrous massacre of Rhesus and his men and the demoralizing theft of the Thracian’s splendid horses? Hector’s response to this last crisis is in fact to revert to his original plan of action, and, in words that eerily echo his first lines, the play closes with his order to prepare for an attack on the Greek ships which, as anyone familiar with the Iliad knows, will ultimately lead to his own death. I am always wary of applying anachronistic concepts like “existential bleakness” to the events of an ancient tragedy, but here I am sorely tempted. All of the play’s action – and all of Hector’s many changes of mind and strategy – have led exactly nowhere, and I for one was left at its conclusion with a profound feeling of resignation about the insignificance of human choice.

The primary challenge in a contemporary production of Rhesus, as I see it, is to make audiences perceive the enormous responsibility Hector bears. Audiences need, then, to care about Hector and his cause, and also to have a sense of how his decisions ultimately come around in a circle; the production needs as well to supply enough variation in mood and tempo to sustain interest. Under the direction of George Adam Kovacs, MASC did an excellent job of making the tragedy accessible, interesting, and meaningful. Using James Morwood’s recent translation and working with a small stage covered in black-drop (the simple set featured just a tent and a bench), Kovacs borrowed eclectically from ancient theatrical traditions to good effect. In keeping with ancient practices, for example, the cast wore masks and shared roles, so that the actors playing Hector and Dolon (Dave Walsh and Michael Nolan) were able to change facial gear and play Diomedes and Odysseus; Nolan also played the part of Alexandros, better known to most of us as Paris; Toph Marshall (the producer as well as founder and artistic director of MASC) took on the roles of Aeneas, Rhesus, and the doomed charioteer; Jessica Natiuk was a shepherd messenger as well as Athena and the Muse. The use of female actors, of course, constituted a major departure from ancient practice, and the chorus of Trojan soldiers (all masked, like the actors) was interestingly composed entirely of women. Chorals odes were spoken rather than sung, but music – in particular, a Soviet-era military march (so I was told by my bemused Russian-born companion) – constituted a clever prelude to the play. As the audience waited for the action to begin, so did Dolon, who sat on stage silently polishing his spear and looking up at us as we filed in and took our seats. Walsh’s Hector was stolid, exuding an aura of weary authority and quiet determination even when his voice boomed; his understatement stood in contrast to the oily confidence of Dolon, the flamboyance of Rhesus, the histrionic agony of the charioteer, and the spunkiness of shepherd. Kovacs, I’d wager, directed his cast to play up the comic potential of certain moments in the drama. Since I believe that comic touches are by no means alien to tragedy nor destructive of its effect, I thoroughly enjoyed watching Marshall play Rhesus as a miles gloriosus and Natiuk highlight the shepherd’s cheery enthusiasm; these performances just made the appearance of the bloody-minded Athena, who urges on the murderous raiding of Odysseus and Diomedes, and the climactic death-narration by Rhesus’ doomed attendant seem all the more unexpected and terrifying. The masks by Hallie Rebecca Marshall were essential to the effectiveness of the production since they permitted the audience to accept women (especially the chorus members) playing male roles; moreover, the masks were conveniently color-coded (white for the Trojans, reddish brown for the Thracians, and blue for the Greeks), which made the action easy to follow and gave spectators some symbolism to think about. And when Hector announced at the tragedy’s conclusion his intention to raid the Greek ships with the coming dawn, Walsh’s delivery made it plain that this decision is nothing in which we should take much heart.

Kovacs, I learned at the ACA conference, is convinced that Euripides was the author of Rhesus. Having seen the tragedy, I appreciate his arguments but am not entirely convinced by them, since the play has as many differences from as similarities to extant Euripidean works. But even if we do not accept the tragedy as Euripidean, we should not do so on the grounds that it is a “bad” play. Rhesus is not “bad;” rather, I think, it does not conform to our now-cherished notions concerning the development of plot and character in Greek tragedy. Rhesus challenges us to consider that the standards for “good tragedy” held by ancient Athenians may have been different from, and perhaps broader than, our own. If we have a problem enjoying Rhesus and appreciating its tragedy, perhaps the difficulty lies not so much with the play, but with our narrow tastes.

Dr Elizabeth Scharffenberger
Columbia University