Penthesilea: The heart’s lonely hunter

Peter Stein has created a thoroughly modern tragedy through a seemingly improbable route: He has radically reworked a play written at fever pitch by one of the great European Romantics, Heinrich von Kleist, in 1808. He has slowed it down, expanded it, cut it, passed it through the filter of what we know of ancient Attic tragedy and given us a beautifully refined allegory for the present. It is fitting that the play’s first performance should have been in Epidaurus, exhilarating the fortunate few who attended it last weekend with the realization that the very limited repertoire of tragedy was expanding and they were witness to this. Penthesilea has followed a long road from her first appearance. In Homer’s «Iliad,» the Amazons fought both against Greeks and Trojans. Then the story was embellished with Achilles, the greatest warrior of the Greeks, killing their queen, Penthesilea, in battle when the Amazons came to the Trojans’ aid after Achilles had killed Hector, Troy’s heroic defender. This was developed further to show Achilles stripping Penthesilea of her armor to throw her body, like Hector’s, to the dogs. Then, in very un-Homeric sentimentality, he falls in love with her when he takes off her helmet and is stricken by her beauty. Moving along to Kleist and then Stein, the story picks up features from the Attic tragedians and Shakespeare. There are references to, for example, «King Lear» and «The Bacchae» in Kleist’s play. Stein adds a chorus of Amazons, who become integral to the action but do not chant odes. He gives us the feeling, the sense of Attic tragedy through the chorus while also giving us the action and movement that the story needs on a huge open Greek stage. At the same time, he leaves out the choral poetry that to modern audiences is a burden, and he trims Kleist’s 200-year-old play accordingly. The play (albeit in an Italian translation) now speaks a language that we have been trained to hear; it presents action that moves within the bounds of what we know. We see an ancient myth pass through the great stages of Western drama. It is reworked the way the ancient Athenian tragedians would adapt a myth to their audience to make their point. The products may not be equal, but their effect is. This reinvention works on both the form and content of the play. The relationship between Penthesilea and Achilles is that of two very dangerous individuals who, because they are at the top of their game as warriors, have not had to learn the art of compromise. In meeting each other, in wanting each other, they cannot understand how the other feels, nor how to reach out to him or her. They are testing their roles, pretty much the way men and women today try to work out how to share the burdens of shared lives, in which careers and families have to balance out, in which both want to be on top, in which the past has been abandoned for a future not reached. Both Achilles and Penthesilea are, to put it in modern terms, fully devoted to their careers. What distinguishes them from most warring couples, though, is that they are both trained killers. They are equally dangerous, equally proud creatures. Both are disoriented and disarmed by the fever of love. Their sparring reminds one of the old joke about how porcupines make love. (Carefully.) We have not seen their like since «The War of the Roses,» the 1989 film in which the characters played by Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas grow increasingly isolated in a fight to the death in their mansion because neither can walk away from what each believes is theirs. Penthesilea and Achilles are very much like those modern duelists (heading for a fatal engagement, as it were, rather than a divorce) but their circumstances are different. Both belong to very rigid social structures. Achilles, the man, is the epitome of the warrior, but his great failing is his pride and petulance. «The Iliad» begins with this greatest warrior of the Greeks pouting inside his tent as his comrades are killed because he feels insulted by the Greek expedition’s leader, Agamemnon. So, in Kleist’s «Penthesilea» it is not difficult for him to abandon the war effort once again when he feels the urge to pursue the Amazon queen. She, on the other hand, being her tribe’s leader, has far greater responsibilities upon her shoulders and much more to lose from walking away from them. For Achilles, pursuing Penthesilea is a whim, something natural for a man; but for her, giving in to her feelings of love means abdicating her position, losing her place in a society based on enmity toward men. So when she is condemned by the high priestess of Artemis, her tribe’s matron goddess, for breaking the Amazon rules and falling in love with a man, Penthesilea’s shame and her pain are enough to unbalance her. It is this feeling of despair and anger that will drive her to react with such anger when she feels that Achilles has betrayed her trust and wants to fight her a second time so that he can drag her away as his slave. Achilles, used to flaunting the demands of his society, finds himself at sea in emotions of which he knows nothing. He does not know that his good intentions, his desire to let Penthesilea beat him in single combat and therefore allow herself to fall into his arms, might not easily be understood. He is taking himself out of the safety of his social group. She is fighting to avenge her pain and to win back the respect of her tribe. The depth of her passion for Achilles as a lover drives her desire to run him down and devour him once he has become her enemy once again. Great love, as the romantic classicist Kleist wanted to show, feeds off the same fire as murderous rage. Does Homer not have Achilles spring into action only when his great friend, the noble Patroclus, is killed? Driven by rage, he then kills Hector and drags him around Troy. But in the end, touched by the pleas of the aged King Priam, he allows his rival’s body be taken off to be cleansed and the honor of a decent funeral. The same heart and clouded mind drives the hand to caress, to kill and to caress again, the mouth to kiss, to eviscerate, to speak dark poetry. Kleist’s tragic vision is central to the play and it is this which ties it to the Greeks. At its heart is the way in which its protagonists break their social bonds and are destroyed. Achilles is acting normally when he abandons his comrades in order to pursue Penthesilea, but even in this he is not violating his society’s rules: It is natural for a man to pursue a woman he wants. But when he disarms himself because he believes that, by stooping he will conquer Penthesilea, he is acting out of character and she cannot be expected to know that the tiger she is running down will act as a lamb for her. Not once does the thought cross his mind that Penthesilea is under no obligation to understand his intentions. Penthesilea, on the other hand, breaks her bond with her group when she decides to pursue Achilles. In doing so – in her horrible murder and then cannibalism of the mightiest of men – she destroys both herself and the Amazon tribe that she loved and served so well. This is tragedy. But what drives the two to choose a path that leads to catastrophe? Why does one not only fall in love, as is so often the case in life, and as is the case with the original myth in which Achilles kills Penthesilea, before either gets into worse trouble? The answer is that they are both exceptional beings who stand head and shoulders above their peers and then, as if evolution demands this, become infatuated with the only enemies who can match their power. Even in pedigree they are alike: Each is born of a match between a mortal and a god. Wanting the other, neither quite knows what to do. Achilles initially defeats Penthesilea in single combat and, while the Amazon queen is knocked out, he follows the advice of her aide, Prothoe, and pretends that it is he who has been captured by her. This lie allows Penthesilea to believe that her love for Achilles can be consummated within the bounds of her tribe’s regulations which foresee sexual contact only with men who have been defeated and captured in battle and only for the duration of the Amazons’ Festival of the Roses. Having lowered her emotional defenses, Penthesilea is doubly unbalanced when Achilles reverts to his real self and tells her that it is she who will have to follow him home – as his captive. When she is rescued by her Amazons, shamed by their high priestess and then challenged by Achilles to another duel, she goes out not only to win but to destroy – and she uses everything she has, from bow and arrow to dogs and elephants and her own teeth: all the tools of her trade. But before this, the two have frolicked, literally, on a bed of roses strewn on the black slope of the battle field by Amazon virgins (prematurely) for the sexual celebrations. The red of the roses haunts the stage when Penthesilea, in a trance, not knowing what she has done, drags the torn body of Achilles before us. The rose, symbol of love, is the red of a heart torn out. With a backdrop of 500 lights forming alternately the dark walls of Troy or blinding flashes that punctuate action, with the guttural throb of helicopters creating the play’s musical backbone, our cinema-saturated sensibilities are kept alert, on edge. The minimalistic black field turning into a steep slope seems as if it has been the floor for every tragedy (Matthew Arnold’s «darkling plain»). With this work, Peter Stein has brought tragedy to us by mining both the present and the past. Theater gets no better than this.