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Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Arts & Letters

The Children of Heracles, 2003 CE

The Children of Herakles by Euripides, staged by Peter Sellars. English translation by Ralph Gladstone; costume design by Brooke Stanton; lighting design by James F. Ingalls; sound design by Shahrokh Yadegari; American Repertory Theater, Cambridge, Massachusetts; January 4-26.

Euripides’ drama, The Children of Herakles (Herakleidae), is rarely performed and little-admired. So it is a real occasion to find it in production at the American Repertory Theater under the direction of one of America’s most interesting and accomplished directors, Peter Sellars. Perhaps most widely known for his versions of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi Fan Tutte, which he originated at the Pepsico Festival at Purchase, New York, over two decades ago and later brought to national television, Sellars has had a major career in Europe as well as here in the United States. His commission to direct this play celebrates the inaugural year of Robert Woodruff, the American Rep’s new artistic director following Robert Brustein, who stepped down after 22 years.

The play has always seemed problematic to scholars and critics. The legend with which Euripides was working narrates the flight of Heracles’ children from Argos into exile pursued by an insistently hostile Eurystheus, king of Argos, who had hounded their father throughout his life at the command of the goddess Hera, who never forgave her nominal spouse, the god Zeus, for conceiving Heracles in the bed of the mortal Alcmene. The legend of his conception is usually told as comedy, Zeus arriving at night in the disguise of Alcmene’s husband, Amphitryon, a general off on maneuvers, who himself returns the next day, much to the confusion of his wife and his own embarrassment. In any case, Hera conceives an instant hatred for Heracles, never relents, and goads Eurystheus to hound his children as well. The situation of the play finds the children, their father’s old friend, Iolaus, and their mother, Alcmene, desperate for sanctuary in the country east of Athens known as Marathon. As the play opens, the male children and Iolaus cling to an altar, exiles in supplication, while their womenfolk decorously remain in seclusion.

An arrogant herald sent from Eurystheus comes to reclaim them. He is stopped by Demophon, king of Athens, until finally the herald announces that the forces of Argos are at the border and war will be declared. Demophon is at a loss when he learns that his chances of victory turn on the sacrifice of a virgin of high birth. After he delivers an anguished speech declaring that he cannot do or permit this, suddenly Heracles’ daughter, Macaria, appears. After apologizing for the impropriety of an unmarried woman appearing and speaking out in public, she announces that she will offer herself as the sacrificial victim, speaking in the language of a warrior, setting up her death on the sacrificial altar as a woman’s equivalent to death on the battlefield. Needless to say, this produces consternation, remonstrance, and finally universal grief. (Euripides knew how to make tearjerking scenes worthy of Hollywood in the Thirties.)

The play continues with a general mobilization of Athenians amid a constant stream of patriotic observations, much of them about Athenian nobility in protecting refugee suppliants, the power of a democratic army, and everything else one might expect from a playwright making a work for an audience deep into the trials of the long-drawn-out Peloponnesian War. The aged Iolaus somehow gets his youthful vigor back after a succession of unsuccessful attempts to resurrect his martial prowess of years ago. These passages seem puzzling to contemporary readers, and are usually determined to be comical, which is a little unsettling in a play performed for tragic theater. The war ensues, and Eurystheus is captured and brought before the assembled people. This must be a Euripidean invention since it is a marked departure from the legend – which has him killed in battle – but it sets up the subsequent conflict over his treatment.

Alcmene suddenly appears, angry, shrewish, vengeful, the most stereotypically vicious yiayia in any extant Athenian play, crying out for the torture and death of Eurystheus. She has suffered much all these years, but the Athenians reject her request because it is illegal in their country to put a prisoner of war to death. She insists on this exception, and finally gets her way, although the killing of Eurystheus is done out of sight of the Athenian king and populace so that there will be no religious pollution. The Argive king, after all the bad press he has received over the years, is presented by Euripides as a tired, mild-mannered fellow, who sighs under the burden Hera has laid upon him. It was not his fault that he maltreated Heracles and, as he explains, once he got into it, he had to consider killing the children to save himself. Now as a prisoner and with Alcmene threatening him, he claims that he is ready to die, and he declares that his burial in the land of Marathon will be good luck for the Athenians should they ever have to fight against the descendants of these very children of Heracles standing before them. Of course, Euripides’ audience would have known that the Spartans – against whom Athenians were waging their decades-long war – proudly proclaimed themselves to be Dorians and Heracles’ descendants.

Most modern critics consider this play to be a relatively uninteresting, spiritless, propaganda piece, not to mention confusing in its inherent switch in sympathies for and against Heracles’ children and their tormentor, Eurystheus. As such, it is a matter of some interest that Peter Sellars has taken it up for his inimitable direction. He is on record as saying that the Herakleidae is a neglected masterpiece, but his production gives one little chance to test that proposition, burdened, as it is, with a freight of extraneous didacticism that almost sinks it from view. He is also on record as saying that ancient Athenian tragic drama was designed as a forum for exchanging ideas in a more neutral venue than the popular city assembly – a highly arguable notion.

The very long evening is divided into four parts. The first one entails a discussion with an advocate for refugees trying to resettle in the United States, a representative of the federal immigration service, a moderator, and, as a kind of realization of what is being discussed, a refugee who narrates his experience of flight, entry, and settlement. The participants in this 45-to-60 minute prelude change each night, but the format does not. First, there is an exchange over whether the United States government does or does not do its utmost to accept refugees coming to its shores that the moderator and participants keep earnest, polite, and well-meaning. The immigration official kept his cool on the might that I was there despite a Cambridge audience that was clearly opposed to the present administration for whom he worked and whose policies he had to defend. The ordeal of the refugee, Ibrahima Bah, from Guinea was horrific – torture, wandering, separation, incarceration – bringing him to tears in the telling, and reminding me that Arlene Croce, The New Yorker’s dance critic, had refused to review a performance by Bill T. Jones with a cast of AIDS sufferers as his dancers. What is there to say?

Actually, this discussion functioned within the drama of the evening as a kind of chorus mouthing the usual platitudes of ancient Greek choruses. On the one hand, there was Michael Posner, advocating completely open borders; on the other, Bo Cooper from the INS, defending the occasionally months-long detention of entrants for the sake of national security. The blandness was achieved by the moderator, whose modulated tones and well-rehearsed obvious questions to which there were no answers came straight from ancient tragic choruses. So, in a funny way, one could say that the evening began with the choral anapaestic parodos. It set the tone: cerebral, academic, smothering the private agony of the suffering refugee with the cotton batting of considered discourse.

This enactment of the Euripidean drama dispensed with the chorus, as is so often the case in contemporary productions of ancient tragedy. That was perhaps a real loss for this play since it seems to have been a celebration of Athenian generosity to suppliants within the city’s borders in which the population as a group appears through the chorus to argue the positions when the suppliants are threatened. In this case, the choral part was taken by two readers lamely delivering their words at a table set up to the side with lights and microphones. Everyone in the production was miked, which was perhaps Sellars’s idea of creating the kind of distance between audience and performers that the ancient mask achieved. There was no functional need for it in so small an auditorium.

  Much has been made over Sellars’s decision to keep the stage bare. There was an altar of sorts in the center against the base of which a group of youths sat inside a large rectangle made of fluorescent lighting tubing, the glowing space evidently protected by the presence of the god. These youths, representing the male children of Heracles, were part of a larger group chosen from the refugee and immigrant children of the local high school to appear on a rotating basis in non-speaking roles. Later, their female counterparts appeared. In two instances, once the male, then the female contingent got to its feet and went into the audience to shake hands and give thanks, evidently in their role as the children of Heracles and enforcing the idea of the audience as the Athenian audience; or maybe as refugee children thanking American citizens; or maybe both. The children were well-meaning (everybody was so well-meaning in this production that it was like being at a church pageant) but entirely amateur in their body posture, walk, and demeanor. Since they have all lived in the United States for some time, they looked like nothing so much as well-fed, well-clothed teenagers such as one sees near any school at the end of the day. They were naturally enough so little in character that instead of imagining the children of Heracles, one worried about these contemporary youngsters neglecting their schoolwork, enduring late hours on a school night, and whether or not they were missing paying jobs or were being paid for sitting by the altar listening to the play’s speeches, as ancient Greek drama is not made up of dialogic give-and-take but speeches. In this sense, the entire evening was one long talk show.

There were several striking departures from the dictates of the ancient text. First, upon the altar to which the suppliants had come, which was in the precinct of a temple to Zeus, sat a woman dressed in the traditional costume of an Asian country, playing a lute common to that region, and breaking the forward movement of the action with singing. Behind her, the English translation of her words was projected on a screen. They were essentially as platitudinous as Greek tragic choral utterance, and in that sense their vaguely optimistic nature-celebrating lines fit well, although her presence on the altar was entirely unsettling. At one point, she sang the story from Adam and Eve to Christ and Muhammad, an even more violent rupture from the texture of the ancient play, which, of course, has its roots entirely in the pagan world, and particularly odd to hear from a person sitting on the altar of Zeus. Perhaps it was meant as some kind of irony since so large a part of the horror of refugees derives from their being caught in the crosscurrents of the competing strains of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions of which the ancient world was blessedly free.

Another singular casting change was the transformation of both the king of Athens, Demophon, and the brutal representative of Eurystheus, Copreus, into female roles. Apart from the sheer inanity of presenting women in short skirts with bare legs, high heels, and pearls as representatives of power in societies so resolutely patriarchal (Athens and Argos), this directorial decision robbed the roles of Macaria and Alcmene of any meaning as projections of women in a masculine world. Macaria, when she comes forth, apologizes for a woman entering a public arena. Quite right, but somewhat undercut by the previous arrival of the two women into the action. Alcmene, when she appears, is covered from head to ankles in a black robe such as Muslim women wear in traditional societies. One has to believe that Sellars wants to deny context to everyone and everywhere, perhaps as a statement that “we are one world.” Much was made in the discussion period about the homogenization that comes with globalization. Perhaps this is meant to be its counterpart; irritating differences in dress, accent, gesture, language must be denied for the common humanity of us all.

Euripides has Macaria’s sacrifice take place out of sight of the audience as is almost always the case in ancient theater, in which the cheap seduction of physical violence and bloodshed is kept out. Here, Sellars has contrived to stop the flow of the messenger speech describing the battle between the Argives and Athenians with a lengthy enactment of Macaria’s sacrificial death, replete with endless blood and a body bag, making a 15-minute scene out of a two-word throwaway mention in the text. There is blood smeared on those who put her to death as though articulating Walter Burkett’s theory of ancient sacrifice as a bonding experience of shared guilt in the victim’s killing. Here again, it is difficult to see how someone who claims that the play is a neglected masterpiece can so alter and denature the text, thereby denying any chance to discover the inherent strength and worth of the original dramatic and narrative movements. When Sellars contrives to put his creative stamp on Mozart operas, he is working with acknowledged masterpieces, known, loved, and well-understood for centuries. It seems that this Euripidean play, as a so-called neglected masterpiece, needs first to be brought out of its obscurity and given light before it is transformed into a more complicated articulated entity. (In the ancient Greek text as it has come down to us, the very reference to sacrifice within the messenger speech has ambiguities of language that suggest textual corruption; perhaps the sacrifice of animals was meant.)

The actors in speaking parts seem to have been directed to restrain their characters. Copreus, the spokesperson for Eurystheus, comes across as a self-consciously anonymous government functionary. Demophon, the leader of Athens, resembles a school principal in her dress, tone, and demeanor, which actually works quite well considering the group of teenagers who populate the stage, however incongruous it may seem for a “president” – whatever that is – of Athens. Jan Triska is excellent in the large role of Iolaus, bringing a facial mannerism, dialect, and gesture that will remind older people in the audience of a generation of European refugees in the United States at the time of the Second World War. The other powerful presence, which animated what was essentially a lifeless series of performances, was that of Albert S., whose role as the Attendant gave him the chance to deliver the messenger speech, one of the important ingredients of ancient tragedy. He did so with such power and vigorous body language that suddenly the play came alive, and one had a wee glimpse of what might have been if Mr. Sellars had not been so obsessed with contemporary issues far outside the drama.

As a drama about refugees, the Herakleidae seems problematic. It features a leader who is willing to save the children of Heracles, because they are clinging to an altar as suppliants, because she knows they are related, and she does not want to seem to fear Argive military power. There is nothing here about the inherent humane value of helping refugees in the abstract. When Macaria offers to die so that the Argive army will be repulsed, she makes the argument that if refugees are not willing to die for a land in which they seek protection, they have no right to that protection. When the war is over, it becomes clear that the refugee children saved will be the ancestors of enemies in a later generation, and that the man who hounded the children of Heracles will become Athens’s future savior. In a sense, we are back to the panel discussion at the very beginning, when the INS representative was arguing for the security concerns that arise from the indiscriminate admission of refugees.

Following the two-hour play, the audience was invited to continue with what was advertised as a half-hour break for food and conversation with cast members and panelists. I cared for neither since I had come to see a play by Euripides, and that want was satisfied as much as it would be. For those who chose, there was also an hour-long film, alternating each night, on refugee issues, following the break. The evening, with its discussion, coffee breaks, play, food and conversation, and, finally, film was more than an evening of theater; it was like a day-long conference so beloved of academics, and Cambridge was the perfect setting. I thought to myself: Euripides has survived 2,400 years, and he will survive this.

Charles Rowan Beye is distinguished professor emeritus of classics at the City University of New York, a contributing editor to, and author, most recently, of Odysseus: A Life.
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