Wednesday, 18 August 2004

The ancient
Greeks are
speaking to us
across the ages

Homer’s wooden horse in a scene from the film Troy. Some feel that the terrors of the modern era and the war in Iraq have set the stage for a return of Greek tragedy and its continuing lessons for us

The Olympic Games and the success of the movie Troy are inspiring fresh debates about the relevance and value of the classics, writes Patrick Comerford

Wolfgang Petersen’s epic treatment of the Trojan war in takes many liberties with Homer's story. However, after a family viewing, both the Iliad and the Odyssey were dusted down, and Homer became popular reading once more for my two teenage sons, testimony to the continuing power of the classics to stir the imagination.

The Olympic Games have returned home to Greece this month for the first time since 1896 and I am reminded that an important component of the original Olympic tradition was a ceasefire in all conflicts throughout the known world, a tradition now more honoured in the breach than in the observance.

Apart from the Olympic hype and the Greek success in Euro 2004, some Greeks were also captivated this summer by the success of The Trojan Women at the Epidaurus Festival, which was marking its 50th anniversary.

If Troy is based on the ultimate war story, then Euripides’s The Trojan Women is one of the greatest anti-war plays, and the critics hailed the Diadromi Theatre production as “majestic yet appropriate for a modern audience”.

The play deals with the imperious Greeks’ brutal treatment of the women of Troy following the Trojan War.

In this compelling tragedy, Euripides shows that in wars the victors often become dehumanised and that the winners in all eras are arrogant. After the Greeks have bullied their way to victory, a young girl is sacrificed to a ghost and an innocent infant is dashed to its death.

The Trojan Women, which finishes its summer tour in Athens next month, was also staged this summer, appropriately, in Troy. There were no fears that the message would be lost on a Turkish audience. “This is an honest play that praises the Trojans’ morals,” said the translator Costas Georgousopoulos, who pointed out that in this tragedy Euripides trivialises the Homeric heroes. To use a Greek play that criticises Homeric values, that points out the immoral politics in Greece during the Trojan wars, and that praises the Trojans is a positive gesture as the political authorities in both Greece and Turkey struggle to find new ways to be good neighbours after generations of mistrust and misunderstanding.

Euripides lived through Athens’ debilitating war against Sparta and eight of his 19 surviving plays deal with the disastrous political and social consequences of the conflict. In The Trojan Women, he presents the tragic fate of the women of Troy who are waiting to be handed over as slaves to their new Greek masters after the sacking of the city.

It challenges the false heroics that were perpetuated in the Homeric tradition – and that are uncritically represented in the film Troy. However, while The Trojan Women appears on the surface to be dealing with Homeric themes, the first audiences must have had a sense of déja vu as they realised that Euripides was demolishing mythology to criticise tragic deeds perpetrated a short while before on the island of Milos during the Peloponnesian War.

Georgousopoulos reminded his audience in Epidaurus that the play was first staged in Athens shortly after the Athenians destroyed Milos. The islanders, who had a tradition of friendship with Sparta, rejected Athens’ demand for a contribution of men or money for the war. But the Athenians were having none of this special pleading – the warning to small states that “you are either with me or against me” is a declaration that has been heard once again with tragic consequences recently.

The Athenians attacked Milos, put to death all male inhabitants, sold the women and children into slavery, and colonised the island, and Euripides’ criticism of a colonial military effort to expand power is clear in The Trojan Women. One of the timeless morals of the play is the corrupting effect that war has on its victors.

Another tragedy by Euripides, Hecuba, is being staged in London next month and in Stratford-on-Avon in January. At one level, Hecuba is a character study of Priam’s widowed queen, driven to murderous vengeance by her suffering. But according to director Jonathan Kent the play is also “one of the most savage indictments of war ever written”.

In Hecuba, both victors, Agamemnon and Odysseus, refuse to consider seriously the ex-queen’s human rights. But Euripides argues that if the justice owed to individuals is sacrificed to political expediency, society will soon disintegrate – a timely reminder to the world in the light of recent revelations about the treatment of captives in Iraqi prisons.

In Iphigenia at Aulis, written 16 years after Hecuba, Euripides took a cynical and satirical look at the actions of public figures.

It was written at a time when he was losing faith in political leaders and realised their inability to extricate themselves from an interminable war.

The Greek critic Spyros Payiatakis reviewed The Trojan Women for the Athens daily, Kathimerini. As he was leaving the theatre at Epidaurus, he overheard someone exclaim: “If Euripides was alive now, he would be suffering from déja vu” – the reference to Iraq was “more than obvious”. At the same time, the drama critic Michael Billington was writing in the Guardian of how the “terror of modern times” has set “the stage for Greek tragedy”.

Billington also saw the current series of revivals on the British stage as “a direct response to the Iraq war” and the tragedy in the Middle East. They include Martin Crimp’s Cruel and Tender, adapted from Trachiniae by Sophocles, and three plays by Euripides – Ion, Iphigenia at Aulis, and the two revivals of Hecuba.

Of course Greek tragedy is timeless, a permanent part of Western culture. As Crimp recently declared: “Every writer writes/rewrites the Greeks in his or her own image.” But directors have also discovered a metaphor for our own times in the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Crimp’s own adaptation of Sophocles is set in a world where cities are pulverised, liberators become aggressors and violence is justified in terms of expedience. “If you want to root out terror there is only one rule: kill,” says a government minister.

“Coming at a time when even an independent US commission has denied the Bush regime’s linkage of Saddam Hussein’s regime to al-Qaeda, the words have an ominous ring,” Billington observes. But in the end, he says, “it is the Greek understanding of the human consequences of war and the gulf between public rhetoric and private feeling that makes these plays seem shockingly relevant to our own divided world”.

Rev Patrick Comerford is Regional Co-ordinator of the Church Mission Society Ireland (CMS Ireland).

This half-page feature was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on 18 August 2004.