“Did your mother ever tell you that the joyful are free?”
—Iggy Pop: “Isolation”—
I was in the process of re-reading John Jay Osborn, Jr.’s “The Paper Chase” when the epiphany arrived:
All Art . . . and that includes Movies and Literature . . . deals with Damaged People.
(As some of you out there go “durrrhhh”.)
But note that I didn’t say “happy” or “unhappy” people . . . I specifically said Damaged. All people in Art are damaged to some extent, else it wouldn’t make any sense to depict them. The people walking down Monet’s sidewalks, or enjoying coffee in Hopper’s diner, all of them carry some sort of flaw. Their happiness (or lack thereof) is irrelevant. Each and every person in a work of art has had to make some sort of adjustment to overcome the spiritual nick, cut or scrape that the person inevitably acquires, is born with or ultimately experiences. Seriously: if Eleanor Porter’s Pollyanna hadn’t been hit by the car, would the brat have been as artistically important as she was? There is always the chance to draw happiness (or at least satisfaction) from damage. Fallen angels are inevitably far more interesting as characters than their Heavenly brethren.
And Damage elicits a deeper and more immediate response from the public than Happiness or Unhappiness. If, like Alan Ruck in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, I find myself falling deeper and deeper into the eyes of the child in Seurat’s painting, my immediate response isn’t: Why are you happy? or Why are you unhappy? but rather: I could help the hurt if I knew where the damage was. Alternatively: the image becomes a mirror which reflects the Damage within the viewer (and Ruck’s character certainly qualified on that account). The immediate overall concern is never Happiness or Unhappiness, but the Damage. Where does it hurt? In Art the priority falls on how can Damage be dealt with. Look at the box office in this country today. The message is clear: being a bloodsucking animated corpse is perfectly acceptable. All we need are the right sort of clothes and a decent hairstyle. End of problem.
So now let’s take the discussion to Greek Tragedy, Euripides and “The Trojan Women”.
I’m certainly not naive enough to try and make it seem as if Greek tragedy is a walk in the park. Anyone who went through “Antigone” in high school (back in the days when Reading was mandatory), or “The Suppliants” in college didn’t do it for grins or giggles. No poster for a performance of “Medea” ever advertised the play as a “raucous laugh riot”. In the hands of the great Greek tragedians the purpose of a particular work was to practically beat the audience senseless with pain and suffering; and, though this, give the audience a chance to work out their own sufferings and, ultimately, feel better. Today we tend to call these “soap operas”, but they are pale shadows of what writers such as Euripides accomplished. Even Shakespeare’s famous tragedies could be counted on for one or two light moments. No such luck with Greek tragedy. The problem many contemporary audiences have with the genre is not necessarily in the language, but in the foreknowledge that the Very Unhappy Ending will be paved with absolutely no bright spots.
To make Greek tragedy work all the characters have to be damaged. Tragedy can certainly be made from taking a whole person (presuming that such a creature exists) and pulling him or her down. But any dramatist will tell you that audiences will be held longer if Bad Things Happen to a damaged person. We turn our heads from the suffering of the innocent . . . and conversely we drool uncontrollably when the Cad or the Harridan manage to catch a bullet. Serves ’em right.
So Greek tragedy is filled with the defeated king, the widow, the disobedient daughter, the bloodstained soldier. Anything that remains . . . the innocent . . . the untouched . . . all are cannon fodder (and dispatched as rapidly as possible).
Anyway . . .
In 415 BC (as the story goes), the Athenians conquered the island of Melos. All the men were executed and the women and children sold into slavery. This event cheesed Euripides off immensely and he decided to get back at the Athenians by writing a fictional account of the fate of the women of Troy immediately after the city fell to the Greeks.
(Yeah, you show ’em, Euripides. That’ll teach ’em.)
“The Trojan Women” didn’t do too badly for its author, although it only came in second in the City Dionysia competition the year it was released (the City Dionysia was sort of the Tony Awards of its time. The fact that the competition was run by the Athenians should, by no means, be construed as a reason for the play coming in second).
Since then the play has enjoyed numerous spikes in attention and has undergone various translations “in states unborn and accents yet unknown” (thanks, Will baby). It has also been filmed several times and, tonight, we’ll occupy ourselves with the 1971 version directed by Mihalis Kakogiannis (if the name seems a bit unfamiliar he used to be known to domestic audiences as Michael Cacoyannis. Yes . . . the guy who directed “Zorba the Greek”). We not only concentrate on this because of Kakogiannis’ skill as a director (besides “The Trojan Woman” he has brought other classic Greek tragedies to the screen), but because of a cast which includes Katharine Hepburn, Irene Papas, Vanessa Redgrave, Genevieve Bujold, Brian Blessed and Patrick Magee. It can safely be said that the film was sufficiently heavy in regards to star power.
The only thing not skimped on in this production was the dialogue and the tragedy. Otherwise, “The Trojan Woman” is as sparse as a skeleton. Barely removed from its origins as a stage play. Filmed amid smoke-shrouded ruins and caves in Spain, Kakogiannis obviously wanted nothing to subtract from the performances. Not even the Gods were allowed to get in the way. Kakogiannis decided to remove the opening scene involving a dialogue between Poseidon and Athena.
But, then again, when you’ve got Hepburn, Redgrave, Papas and the like on the screen, one can be excused for considering gods to be superfluous. When we first see Hepburn she is a pile of black rags lying on the stony ground. The rags unfold and we see Hecuba who was Queen of a city that no longer exists. Her husband and her sons have been killed and she waits to hear whose slave she’ll become. “I that was Queen in Troy”. The Princess of Hartford here takes on a shroud of deep depression . . . beating her breast wildly and alternatively shrieking and weeping as the fate of her and the other desolate women unfolds. Her and Redgrave (who here plays Andromache, the widow of Hector and mother of Astyanax) are damaged by Circumstance; almost literally torn to shreds by the losses they have endured. Paying the price for being on the losing side in a war, and for being available to victorious men in search of loot. Redgrave manages to meet Hepburn in pulling the core of agony from Euripides’ verse, and the two aptly demonstrate the weight born by nobility when grief goes far beyond personal loss and envelops an entire population. Redgrave’s shriek at receiving the news that her son must die carries with it the black song of every mother who’s received a notice from the Defense Department: We regret to inform you that your son . . .
(Astyanax, by the way, is the innocent I spoke of earlier. The lamb who must be sacrificed on the altar of Tragedy.)
As Cassandra, Genevieve Bujold could be accused of overacting. But the role is of a madwoman who had the power to foresee what was coming, and Bujold has to twist her dialogue and body language out of sync with Sanity. In this she manages rather well, and some might find her performance to be the most interesting in the film. Cassandra has been damaged by Talent. She was able to see the future, and the sheer weight of it has crushed her, sending her into an insanity which she might very well have willingly embraced as a means to anesthesize her fate.
(Some might say: “Well, if Cassandra could see the future, why couldn’t she avoid the fall of Troy?” But the problem with precognition is that one cannot confirm its presence unless one is willing to risk experiencing what has been foreseen.)
As Helen, Irene Papas isn’t exactly the sort whose face would launch a thousand ships. But she can’t escape easily being the most glamorous person in the production. Surrounded by the black crows of the other women (all of them howling for her blood), she is obliged to turn to her husband Menelaus (smoothly played by Patrick Magee) not only for forgiveness, but for survival. No one can deny Papas’ reputation in Greek tragedy and here she drops not a line nor let a false note escape. Rather she provides a character damaged by Sin (or by Divine Possession . . . I leave the call to you).
If there was any overacting then it could’ve come from Brian Blessed: possessing the only voice which should be listed as a Weapon of Mass Destruction. As Talthybius the Good Lord knows he had to be able to deliver his lines in such a way that all the deposed women of Troy could hear him. The way he was shouting most of his lines he could’ve been heard in Greece all the way from the filming location in Spain. But other than being an assault upon the ears, Blessed manages his job well as he portrays one who is damaged by Expediency. His character continually brings the bad (and worse) news that the women must bear, and such a job has never been popular.
In spite of its strengths, “The Trojan Women” is not going to be a film eagerly sought after. Even the most passionate lover of classic literature has to spit on his hands and be prepared to pull hard when faced with the writings of the Greek tragedians. And even the attraction of luminaries such as Hepburn or Papas might not provide a strong enough pull for a public whose eagerness seems to lean more towards sparkly vampires (or who probably think Sophocles is what a person becomes after the freshman year in high school). Greek tragedy has never been the easiest road to travel, but it is definitely memorable when the journey’s finished.