Euripides' The Children of Herakles

Directed by Peter Sellars
Loeb Drama Center, Massachusetts, USA
4 - 25 January, 2003.

Peter Sellars' production of Euripides' Children of Herakles was first put on in Germany in 2002 and toured to Rome and Paris. For this American staging at the Loeb Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the first professional production of this play in the United States (according to the program), Sellars used Ralph Gladstone's translation in The Complete Greek Tragedies, ed. Grene and Lattimore (University of Chicago Pr). Jan Triska plays Iolaus, Elaine Tse the herald of Eurystheus, Brenda Wehle Demophon, Julyana Soelistyo both Macaria and Alcmene, Albert S. the attendant of Hyllus, and Cornel Gabara Eurystheus.

Taking up the theme of refugees, Sellars ambitiously frames the play by casting attention on the plight of contemporary refugees. Photographs of refugee children line the lobby walls, and a booklet of essays on the current refugee crisis accompanies the program. Every performance begins with a 45-minute interview and discussion, moderated by journalist and public radio talk show host Christopher Lydon, between a refugee and one or more people prominently involved in finding solutions to the displacement of populations. Some matinees have a discussion after the performance, and all evening performances are followed by a meal of ethnically relevant cuisine and a showing of one of seven documentary or fictional movies from around the world dealing with refugees. I will say more about this frame and its relationship to the play later.

The production of the play is designed to connect with the modern experience. The large stage is bare except for an altar, placed upstage in the center and draped with a red Bokhara-style rug. On the altar sits a female epic singer from Kazakhstan, dressed in a red garment embroidered with gold thread, with her dombra (two-string lute). She represents the goddess before whose temple the play takes place, but also the embodiment of a long meditative perspective on human history. (The singer, Ulzhan Baibussynova, was ill for the performance I attended, her place taken by an audio tape of her singing in the latter part of the play. Her absence seriously distorted the visual balance on stage and left us deprived of her performing presence — a powerful one, to judge by the tape. To the extent that I can I will write this review as though she had been there, but her absence was very disappointing.)

The singer on her rug is the only vivid colour on stage, which otherwise resembles the most impersonal of government interrogation rooms. A simple frame of gray two-by-fours hangs down close to the floor, surrounding the altar and the sanctuary area; it has florescent lights running along the underside of the wood and is meant to suggest a refugee camp. Stand microphones are placed at various points downstage and moved around as speakers come to make their arguments. A rear-projection screen hangs behind the altar, a blank white background, and only comes to life when a translation of the singer's words is projected on it. The house lights are part-way up for much of the performance and harsh white light evenly lights the stage. At some moments, usually at the initial mention of some act or prediction of violence, the lights all dim and turn an unpleasant orange. Occasionally large shadows are thrown on the screen by low front lighting. The singer, the strong focus of the set but also detached, invisible to the other characters, provides an internal audience that forces the real audience members to be more conscious of their own reactions. The traditional epic songs she sings substitute for the choral odes — appropriately, for she sings of longing for light and wisdom, of messages from God (via messengers from Cain to Mohammed) repeatedly lost in violence.

Heracles' children are played by actual refugee and immigrant children, dressed in their own, typical American-teenager clothing and looking superficially well assimilated. Sitting in a clutch below the feet of the singer, they could be thought to mark out visually the cultural distance they had traveled from their homeland. (I confess that they looked to me too pleasant and at ease to quite capture any tension between past and present.) Iolaus, wearing suit and tie, is rolled in, sitting bent-kneed in a wheelchair, and parked beside the frame. The soldier dressed in army fatigues who pushes him in remains standing alert in the background, an automatic rifle in his hands. The Argive herald and Demophon ("President of Athens") are played by women, both wearing tailored business suits of the same plain design, dull brown and dull blue respectively; one has short plain hair, the other hair tightly pulled up and tucked in. The chorus' dialogue remarks are made in turn by a male and female sitting at a table to one side, with earphones and microphones, a cross between radio announcers and moderators. All these characters, and especially the chorus, speak coolly, deliberately, in low tones without emotion. Only the herald shows a little aggressiveness.

The first part of the play, therefore, proceeds like a bureaucratic hearing, impersonal in its talk of laws and rights and relationships. There are fragments of human contact: while the singer sings, the refugee children come down into the audience to shake hands after Demophon agrees to grant them asylum in Athens and Iolaus tells them to give their hands to the Athenians in thanks (307 in the Greek text). Demophon also kneels beside Iolaus and clasps his hands. This last gesture struck me as a false note, which I could only take as the slightly condescending compassion of the secure for the displaced. Certainly Demophon exhibits no worry about the Argive attack she has provoked. When she returns to announce that a virgin woman must be sacrificed and that she will not offer any Athenian girl, she again kneels to explain to Iolaus that the citizens are already divided over her decision and he must find a solution that will allow her to "save face." Iolaus takes this, of course, as a request that the refugees leave voluntarily. Demophon's compassionate posture cohabits with political calculation, and she appears both distressed and impassive at a eerily frightening moment.

The entrance of the daughter of Heracles—through the audience, like Demophon's entrance—dissolves the impasse. Macaria (the name does not appear in the Greek but is used here) is dressed in jeans and tee-shirt. Her speech offering to die was so harshly spoken as to be barely understandable. She seemed to play up her calculus of glory versus wretchedness, but her idea of the character was not clear to me. She has a sentimental scene with the refugee children, crying and hugging each in turn as she offers her last exhortation to them. She sits briefly in Iolaus' lap, then off she is led. This brings the end of the first trajectory of the play with a long song by the singer to mark the turning point.

The soldier re-enters, now serving as Hyllus' attendant, and announces Hyllus' arrival with an army. The sequence of events that follow becomes absurdist or symbolist, the tone hard to judge. Alcmene enters, played by the same actor as played Macaria but now enveloped in a black robe that covers her head and falls to her feet, leaving only her face visible, starkly framed. Though veiled and in mourning, she has a new malicious grin. Iolaus insists in going off to battle and heaves out of his wheelchair in a series of pratfalls. After he stumbles off on the arm of Hyllus' attendant, apostrophizing his right arm, another ode from the singer brings the attendant back on to report the battle. However, he interrupts his battle narrative at the point where he mentions the seers sacrificing before the attack (821-22 in Greek) in order to pantomime the sacrifice of Macaria. Alcmene, standing with her back to the audience on one side of the stage, sheds her black robe and becomes Macaria again. Demophon leads her to the front of the altar onto a spread plastic sheet. In slow formal movements as in a ritual, they tie a white gown around her. As the attendant slices the air before her throat Macaria begins to tremble and sob. Demophon holds her while a silent female figure in fatigues pours "blood" down the front of her gown. The attendant and his female partner kneel at her feet, wet their hands in the spilled blood, and rub their faces and arms with it, as the singer begins to play and sing a pointed song about human violence. Then they rise, lay Macaria down, wrap her up in a shroud then in the plastic. They carry her off to the side — and right back on. They lay her down again in front of the altar, while the refugees line up on either side. The attendant resumes his narrative, and as he does Macaria wiggles out of the plastic as out of a chrysalis and slides back into Alkmene's robe, just in time to respond to the attendant's triumphant close of his narrative. The plastic, like a large empty shell, remains on stage for the rest of the play.

In the final episode Eurystheus is dragged in in an orange prison coverall and chains. He speaks at a voice-distorting microphone behind a (transparent) plexiglass shield. He is now a "protected" witness. The argument over whether to put him to death proceeds, with the chorus-speakers as calm and measured as ever, Alcmene grinning, Eurystheus disdainful. The end of the play is widely believed to be lacunose, with anything from a few lines to a short scene missing. In his commentary (Oxford, 1993), John Wilkins says that a lacuna at the end of Alcmene's last speech before the chorus' two-line response is "certain." All logic would suggest it. But this production makes no attempt to patch up a logical sequence. Eurystheus has prophesied that if he is buried near Athena's temple he will protect Athens from the attack of future descendants of Heracles. In her final speech Alcmene orders (Athenian?) slaves to convey Eurystheus off and then throw his body to the dogs, so he can never drive her from Argos again. The female chorus speaker says, in a measured tone, "That's the solution. Take away the man. I want to make sure that our kings are cleared of all responsibility in this." Then all goes black.

So how does it work as a whole? I thought very well. To put deadly bureaucratic deliberation on stage risks deadening the play, yet the dreariness, played against the goddess and the mythic content, had a fascination. Jan Triska as Iolaus is excellent in veering between pathos and farce. He makes the problem of being a refugee real, for his character is feeble, obsessed with the past, and suspect in his own elitist values—very hard for me to warm up to—but Triska lifts him to eloquence about the helplessness of the old and the very young, the need to dwell on past glories as the only source of respect. The pantomime of the sacrifice answers the problem that Macaria's sacrifice is never referred to after she leaves the stage and pulls together the two parts of the play. It makes visual the increasing turn to violence in the latter part. This is a moment when the singer's enigmatic presence is crucial in making the audience think about how we decide what the gods want from us. That Macaria and Alcmene are two sides of the same character—that Macaria's self-sacrifice "breeds" Alcmene's anger—is a potent idea. The ending, whether it is seen as leaving everything up in the air or as marking the decisive triumph of retaliation and political abdication, is a fitting close to the bloodlust that emerges in the second half.

The play does not sit entirely easily within its frame of concern for modern refugees. In the pre-play discussion I heard, at least, two hard-working and humanitarian city administrators explained their efforts to combat prejudice and integrate refugees into a new environment by building bridges across cultural differences. But Children of Herakles is ultimately about reclaiming ancestral land and re-asserting sovereignty. Indeed, the refugee in the discussion, from Bosnia, spoke mainly of what she had lost. Moreover, the production is true to the play's ambiguous vision of the possibility of compassion and justice and inter-community trust, which means that it works against simple calls to do more. If one emphasizes Athens' heroic generosity in offering asylum, and implicitly the United States' generosity (an easy reading of the first half of the play that was reflected in some of the program notes), then the renewed aggression at the end of the play must be laid at the feet of incorrigible refugees. But on a darker view Athens falters: Demophon participates in the sacrifice of Macaria and is a conspicuous absence during the debate about whether Alcmene should be allowed to kill Eurystheus, while the goddess' songs express dismay at human folly. "Doing more" must confront tangled issues of self-preservation, distrust, and different views of justice on the part of all concerned. Some essays were critical of American failures to face the dimensions of the problem, and some discussions reportedly exposed more disagreements about who is responsible and what to do.

Nevertheless, the play and program put the problem of refugees in a sharp new dramatic light. Its images still resonate with me, reminding me of the partiality of even sympathetic understanding and the inadequacy of kindness to cancel history easily. Peter Sellars has undertaken a bold and noble project, one which has garnered a good deal of media attention for the issues it opens up. It is thrilling to see such a problematic ancient tragedy be made to speak to both the humanitarian and the political dimensions of a contemporary crisis.

Reviewed by Eva Stehle
University of Maryland