Letter from Epidaurus

Victors can often become dehumanized, as one learns from Euripides’ pacifist «The Trojan Women,» which opened last Friday at this year’s Epidaurus Festival. The opening night proved a challenging and exhausting emotional experience. The drive to Epidaurus was long. And as far as the emotions are concerned, after the Greeks have bullied their way to victory, a young girl is sacrificed to a ghost and an innocent infant dashed to its death.   The tragedy that deals with the culturally imperious Greeks’ brutal treatment of the women of Troy following the Trojan War has been predictably directed by Diagoras Chronopoulos. In an era when directors seem to be the driving force in theater, this is the exception to the rule. Chronopoulos was surely not the driving force here. The Greeks bullying their way to victory in Troy. Much praise must go to Costas Georgousopoulos, whose translation was appropriately majestic without being too impenetrable for a modern audience. Even the two spirited performances by Dimitris Lignadis as a feckless, braggart Menelaus and Tania Trypi as heartbreaking Andromache could not get this otherwise flat production off the ground. As a result, a compelling tragedy has been transformed into a collection of somewhat neo-classical stage cliches. All the same, the weather gods were kind enough; it did not rain as most people feared. It was only the theater gods that were looking the other way. That was on Friday. On Saturday, reading through The Guardian newspaper I came across a most motivating article written by the paper’s drama critic, Michael Billington. Title and subtitle read: «Terror of modern times sets the stage for Greek tragedy – Theatrical revivals seen as a direct response to Iraq war.»   Thus the piece started with the following question and answer: Where does our theater instinctively turn in times of crisis? Not to Shakespeare or Shaw but to the Greeks. Billington names some plays that are being – or will be – performed in Britain this summer, noting that what all these revivals have in common is that they are a direct response to the Iraq war. However, there have recently been some other modernized retellings of Euripides’ «Trojan Women.» Charles Mees is a former historian, and some say the most recent addition to New York’s hipster theater, known mainly for his «love trilogy:» «Big Love at BAM,» «First Love at NYTW» and «True Love at the Zipper.» He also wrote «Trojan Women: A Love Story.» It is a play that traces the tribulations of a group of Trojan women after being defeated by the Greeks, trying to find the analogy to Iraq. After the play was over and we were leaving the Epidaurus theater, I heard someone exclaiming knowingly: «If Euripides was alive now, he would be suffering from deja vu.» His reference to Iraq was, once more, more than obvious. Yet, Euripides in effect experienced deja vu himself, and he was using the mythology of his time to criticize deeds that had happened a short while ago concerning the island of Milos. The real story goes as follows: During the Greek-Greek war between Sparta and Athens, the Melians, having a tradition of friendship with Sparta, refused the Athenian demand for a contribution of men or money for the Peloponnesian war. However, the Athenians promptly rejected this reasonable plea, attacked the island of Milos and captured it. The statement «you are either with me or against me» is a declaration that we have heard once more quite recently. Haven’t we? Ultimately they put to death all the male inhabitants, sold the women and children as slaves, and colonized the place with their own citizens. (Sounds somewhat familiar to the eventual case of a NATO demand to Turkey – to be undoubtedly mouthed next week at the summit in Istanbul – to send troops to a «brother-Islamic» country?) Historians tend to agree here that there can be no doubt that Euripides used his contemporaries’ understanding of mythology to unlock the subtleties of a recent aggression in order to give his fellow citizens a picture of what they had done to Milos. Also, in his «The Trojan Women,» the criticism of a war that was a colonial military effort to expand power is more than evident. The Greeks weren’t being threatened and the stuff with Helen is hardly believable. Tragedy combines high poetical arts with some most profound thought, doesn’t it? One of the timeless morals of this play is that Euripides understood the corrupting effects war has on its victors. As we know from another tragedy named «Hecuba,» both victors Agamemnon and Odysseus refuse seriously to look at the ex-queen’s human rights, although Greek overlords were responsible for pursuing justice for their slaves. On the other hand, Hecuba argues that if the justice owed to individuals is only sacrificed to political expediency, society will soon disintegrate. She was wrong. We have not disintegrated, yet. In ancient times, men worshipped the gods and were ferociously punished for aspiring to be gods. Today one could translate this to world leaders of monocracy – themselves.