Every school child learns how military hardware has changed over the three thousand years since the Greeks besieged Troy – sword, shield, and spear to gun, tank and bomb. We spend relatively little time, though, asking how people’s attitudes toward their wars and enemies have changed – if they have changed. The Stanford Repertory Theater’s Euripides double bill (performed recently in Palo Alto, California and upcoming in Athens, Greece) offers an all too rare historical perspective on war’s human “software.” Has humanity progressed over the three millennia from Troy to Afghanistan? The evening suggests anything but an unqualified “yes.”
Performances of these two plays – Helen and Hecuba – are quite rare, even in comparison to other plays of ancient Athens. Nonetheless, one thing you soon realize upon entering into their world is that some aspects of the Trojan War actually seem more realistic these days than they used to. Back in the twentieth century, that ancient war’s supposed ten-year duration seemed distinctly unreal. In the seventeenth year of our Afghanistan War, however, the Trojan War’s extreme length has lost its mythic aura, so the plays’ characters and action may now seem somewhat less remote. Another factor often distancing modern audiences from Greek tragedies – their stark brevity – is also eased by pairing the two plays. They can go by so fast – the line it is drawn; the curse it is cast; and in under an hour it’s over – that some contemporary theater goers might be still settling into their seats when it’s time to go. The post-intermission reimmersion into antiquity is quite helpful allowing us moderns to take in the time change.
The actual events that inspired Euripides were already 600 years gone when he wrote – so far in the past that in more modern times this war had been generally considered a myth until the actual discovery of Troy’s ruins in the late nineteenth century – but it still loomed large in Greek consciousness. Its widely known characters offered common ground for discussing issues of the current day, perhaps the debate over the intent of the “Founding Fathers” comes closest to an analogy in contemporary American society.
We find little comparable universal human empathy encompassing our enemies in Afghanistan or in the broader “war on terror.”
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Helen is the stranger of the two plays – before we had fake news, it seems they had fake myth. This one tells how the face that launched a thousand ships wasn’t actually that of the real Helen – she had actually been spirited away to Egypt for the war’s duration by the goddesses Athena and Hera – but that of a phantasm put in her place. The deeper story is that of Hecuba, the now enslaved mother of the Trojan hero Hector. Her son was killed by Achilles and now it seems that Achilles’s ghost is demanding human sacrifice – that of her daughter. Here, perhaps, we moderns can breathe easily in the knowledge that, at the least, we don’t quite do that sort of thing these days.
But over the course of the evening we may arrive at a less self-flattering realization. It’s hard to miss the fact that the playwright has written Greek characters who appear to realize that the Trojan enemy, even if now defeated and enslaved, are fundamentally no different than they – they think similarly; they feel similarly. Today, on the other hand, we find little comparable universal human empathy encompassing our enemies in Afghanistan or in the broader “war on terror,” as they used to call it – and it seems fair to assume that the converse is also true.
Perhaps the evening’s juxtaposition that matters most, though, is one in which we moderns seem pretty much unchanged from the ancients. Then and now, the relentless waste of life, health and wealth of war continues for no reason greater than to save face for a nation’s leaders. From Agamemnon to Bush to Obama to Trump – none was willing or able to end a war they couldn’t win. None was big enough to admit that there was no reasonable purpose to continuing the slaughter. The Greeks escaped their quagmire via the famous Trojan Horse. What myth or miracle will it take to extricate us?