Michael Billington’s THE 101 GREATEST PLAYS – #3: Euripides’ HELEN (c. 412 BCE)
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
So asks Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1592), perhaps the most famous poetic statement made about Helen of Troy. The above statue bust from 1806 is Canova’s version of this ‘face’; it is beautiful, as everything is by Canova – but still – there is something elusive about capturing an image of the woman who is at the centre of the classical epic story we know as The Trojan War.
There are so many re-inventions/re-incarnations of Helen. She was a popular figure in painting in the late 18th and early 19th Century, and in particular her ‘abduction by Paris’. She was also popular with many of the Pre-Raphaelites in the late 19th Century, particularly Rossetti and Leighton, as well as with French Symbolist artists Gustav Moreau. In the 20th Century, in numerous visually creative fields Helen was and still is basically presented as a sex-goddess, generally like a sultry ‘Blonde-Venus’, with an emphasis on her doomed romantic love for Paris. This is the focus of the films, Robert Wises’ Helen of Troy (1956) and Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004). There are very few depictions of Helen enjoying a happy married life, or marital reunion with Menelaus – unlike Euripides’ Helen.
An elusive element extends to Euripides (c.480-c.406 BCE), the third after Aeschylus and Sophocles of the ‘big three’ ancient classical Greek playwrights; as evident in the wide and diverse range of interpretations, opinions, and re-inventions in the theatre as well as in the world of academia. Aristotle in his Poetics criticized Euripides for inconsistency in his Iphigenia in Aulis (405 BCE), yet he also called him ‘the most tragic of poets’. In the Cambridge History of Classical Literature: 1. Greek Literature, the late Bernard Knox, one of the acknowledged world-experts on classical Greek drama, cites a ‘bewildering number of labels’ used to either ‘hail or indict’ Euripides. These include, ‘poet of the Greek enlightenment’, ‘Euripides the irrationalist’, ‘misogynist’ and ‘feminist’, ‘realist’ and ‘romantic’, ‘patriotic’ and ‘anti-war’; Knox concluding, that ‘not one of these descriptions is entirely false’.
Euripides’ Helen (412 BCE) is the third play in Michael Billington’s 101 GREATEST PLAYS – and it is an odd choice. Even after reading, and re-reading his excellent short essay on the play I am not completely convinced. I’ve now read a couple of English versions of Helen; including those by John Barton (The Greeks, Tantalus) and Frank McGuinness, and whilst respecting Billington’s (and others) high opinion of the play – I still don’t get it. I’ve tried – but ‘No!’ – this is not a ‘great’ play! It’s a good play; but Euripides’ ‘greatest’ play? No.
Billington begins with a bold and provocative statement in that, in comparison with Aeschylus and Sophocles, Euripides seems like ‘one of us’.
His tone is skeptical and ironic, he’s irreverent about the gods, preoccupied by sex and appalled by the destructive horrors of war. What’s not to like?
This draws attention to Euripides rather subversive nature, talent and perspective. This is strongly influenced by Socrates and the ‘Socratic Method’, which essentially involves questioning everything, and the contention that ‘nothing is at seems’, which is a common theme, as well as narrative and dramatic action in all of Euripides known plays. It adds to the elusive and rather unsettling nature of the plays – nothing is very stable in the respective imagined worlds in the plays of Euripides. Furthermore, as Billington later praises, Euripides will take aspects of ‘classical’ comedy, including mimicry and impersonation, which are interweaved and often under-cut the tragic element in the whirlpool in his respective plays
Billington then cites a range of ‘modern’ productions, directors and actors, who have made made a memorable impression on this UK based theatre critic. Naturally, these productions fall within a specific historical, social and theatrical context that influences Billington’s evolving perspective (the same is true for me). Billington cites the ‘fire-breathing performances from Fiona Shaw, Diana Rigg and Helen McCory‘ in Medea, Katie Mitchell’s productions of Women of Troy and Iphigenia in Aulis, and that he has seen The Bacchae ‘staged everywhere from the National Theatre…to a Northampton print-works’ – and I’d believe it! However, all this is more like a kind of apologia as in next paragraph he delivers the whammy that Helen is Euripides ‘greatest’ play.
Billington rates Helen as Euripides ‘greatest play’ because with it he ‘invents a wholly new form: tragic-comedy. This is not entirely true.
The tragic-comic form, in which what seems like heading towards a tragic ending actually concludes like a ‘classical’ comedy; relatively fortuitous and happy, and often with a wedding or marital reunion – as in Helen. However, Euripides was not neccessarily inventing something ‘wholly new’ with Helen in 412 BCE, as he had previously used a ‘tragic-comic’ form and dramatic narrative, evident as early as his first play, Alcestis (438 BCE) with Heracles re-uniting Admetus with his beloved wife, Alcestis, who he has brought back from the dead after defeating and forcing Death to release her.
Euripides generally uses a theatrical device known as ‘deus ex machina’, in which a God, or demigod, suddenly appears at the end of the play and resolves everything peacefully. Sometimes it can be a theatrical re-birthing spectacular; such as in Medea (431 BCE) and Orestes (408 BCE). These two plays, one at the beginning of Euripides canon of work, and one at the end, are not tragedies in the conventional sense, but ‘tragic-comedies’ due to the respective deus ex machina.
The last we see of Medea is arising in the sun-god Helios’ fiery dragon chariot, escaping Jason’s wrath; whilst in Orestes the god Apollo appears and relates how Helen has become one with the stars.
These endings, however, are vastly different in regard to intention and purpose. The deus ex machina in Orestes is deliberately ironic. The logical conclusion would be that Orestes, Electra and Pylades kill Helen as well as her daughter, Hermione. Apollo’s intervention at the end, resolving all current problems and promising a better future, is absurd. Euripides often delights in immediate and massive dramatic reversals, even in the middle of a long speech; exemplified by the Agave at the end of The Bacchae triumphantly holding the bloodied head of what she thinks is a lion, when it is actually the head of her son, Pentheus, who with her companions, the Maenads, she has she has just killed and torn apart. just – deliberately ironic and absurd.During the course of her speech she is gradually coaxed from her madness to actually see what she is holding, and then she does – it is one of the most heart-in-mouth and stomach-in-mouth moments in the theatre.
It is a bold and audacious action, but is also another example of what Billington praises about Euripides and Helen– his ability and theatrical daring in being able to reconcile opposites and ‘apparent contradictions’. In regard to Helen Billington states,
On one level, the play is pure comedy and about a long-postponed marital reunion. On another, it is a fierce critique of the war.
This certainly true, and this ability to reconcile ‘apparent contradictions’ is an aspect of Euripides’ ‘greatness’, but it doesn’t necessarily make Helen his ‘greatest’ play.
Nor does it being both a marital reunion as well as critique on war. Alcestis also climaxes with a marital reunion. Billington is right, however, to point out that a number of ‘classical’ comedies conclude with a marital reunion, exemplified by Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors and The Winter’s Tale; and I would add Shakespeare’s Pericles, as well as Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro, Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, Coward’s Private Lives, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate, and to a certain extent Edward Albee’s Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
Billington’s use of the word ‘reconciliation’ in regard to Euripides unique talent in interweaving seemingly binary opposites, is high praise, but a little misleading. ‘Reconciliation’ implies something uniting in a relatively smooth, peaceful and harmonious manner; fair enough, but the binary opposites in dramatic conflict in Euripides’ plays also provides the heightened almost hysterical tension; not so much a ‘reconciliation’ but a whirlpool. In contrast, with Aeschylus and Sophocles it feels like one is steadily sinking in a mud-pit; with Euripides you’re in quicksand!
This hints at something that makes Euripides unique to me – he knew how to pace up the action. There is an immediate urgency in the respective plays; the time pressure mixing in with the skeptical and ironic Socratic debate that ‘nothing is as it seems’, sweeping the characters into a vortex in which madness and hysteric are commonplace, imprisoned and enrapt in the eternal battle between chaos and order. Even the earth the characters walk is unstable and/or hostile, as evident in Trojan Women as well as Helen.
This to me is one of the things that makes Euripides my favourite of the ‘big three’ – the relatively quick pace of his plays; placing a greater urgency and immediacy in how the characters, including the Chorus, pursue their particular objectives, and in a particular decayed and sinking setting. This sense of urgency and immediacy is also characteristic of the many somewhat lengthy speeches found in Euripides’ plays. For example, all the main speeches by the characters in Trojan Women, including Hecuba, Cassandra, Talthybius, Andromache, Menelaus, and Helen, have this passionate pursuit of a specific objective, that gets checked by respective shocks and surprises, not least being Andromache’s extraordinary farewell speech to her doomed infant, Astyanax, that starts, ‘Go die, my best beloved’. She has to say farewell to him forever now, in this moment, the time pressure is massive, and this paces up the action. Subsequently, the reconciliation of opposites is severely influenced by time; not so much a smooth reconciliation but a chaotic whirlwind, which also assists in the placement of comedic elements within the narrative. The pent-ultimate piece being his last The Bacchae – but it is there from the beginning with Alcestis and Medea, and in Helen. The clutch of hysteria is never far away in a Euripides play; and judging how numerous ‘modern’ productions of his major works – there is also an element of ‘camp’ (‘not that there’s anything wrong with it’).
Helen of Troy? ‘Camp’? No,-nev-ah! Check out the numerous re-inventions and re-incarnations of ‘Helen of Troy’ in art, music, literature and the performing arts, particularly in plays, films, as well as operetta – and the element of ‘camp’ – a heightened dramatic and vivid realism is apparent. Each generation invents its own vision of Helen of Troy. In the later half of the 20th Century and today, as evident in the respective film versions, she is generally a kind of ‘Blonde-Venus’, a beautiful rich-girl vamp; and it’s not too different in the various ‘modern’ productions of Helen.
Billington’s perspective of the character of Helen in Helen, as well as the play in general is influenced by the productions he has seen, notably The Globe Theatre‘s 2003 production, translated by Frank McGuinness, with a ‘fetching’ Penny Downie as Helen. The futility of war, that there ‘Never was a “Helen of Troy”, striking a particular resonance with contemporary audiences that had witnessed UK troops following a US led invasion of Iraq in search of ‘weapons of mass destruction’, which didn’t exist – just like the ‘phantom’ Helen. This production does not seem to have dolled Helen up as some blonde-bimbo beauty queen, but as mature woman, spirited but not particularly glamorous. It sounds terrific, and I can quite understand how seeing this production may have influenced Billington’s re-evaluation that Helen is Euripides ‘greatest’ plays.
It is a matter of perspective and difference. Unfortunately, I don’t share this type of experience and resonance with Helen, which I have only seen twice, and both times as part of John Barton‘s The Greeks – and both relatively ‘camp’. However, when I do think of Helen of Troy, what comes up as an image is generally the great Greek actress Irene Papas in Michael Cacoyannis‘ film The Trojan Women (1971), which is also a very non-glamourous but completely fascinating portrayal of a woman (not a girl) battling for her life through her intelligence and charm and art of persuasion. Maybe Billington’s and my opinions and evaluations or Helen are not in ‘apparent contradiction’ as I thought; we both don’t seem to favour the blonde-bimbo version.
[Digression: I am a big fan of Irene Papas, and my depth of understanding and appreciation of Greek drama is partly due to her magnificent performances in Antigone (1961), Electra (1962), The Trojan Women (1971), and (my favourite) Ipheigenia (1977); as well as Zorba the Greek (1964), The Guns of Navarone (1961), Z (1969), Anne of the Thousand Days (1969), and Island (1989). Irene Papas is one of the few actresses who has successfully played a number of classical Greek heroines, including Antigone, as well as members of the House of Atreus – Helen, her niece Electra, and her sister Clytmnestra – all fantastic!
My biggest issue with Billington’s perspective and opinion, however, is his evaluation of the character of Helen. Billington sees the whole play as a ‘testament to female resourcefulness’; he cites BBC translator Don Taylor who states that Helen is like one of ‘Shaw’s life-force girls’, such Ann Whitefield in Man and Superman and Barbra in Major Barbra. Billington adds, ‘She is certainly just as clever’. Billington then lists everything that Helen does in the play – and it’s a lot.
It is Helen who begs the Egyptian king’s sister not to snitch about Menelaus’ sudden arrival. It is Helen who feigns mourning of the false grounds that Menelaus is dead. And it is Helen who comes up with a master plan that enables both her and her husband to escape: she’ll marry the Egyptian king if only he will give herself and her ragged accomplice (i.e. Menelaus) a ship in which to carry out the funeral obsequies according to Greek custom. Helen not only motors the plot, she is one of the most likable female protagonists in world drama.
Not disputing that Helen initiates and drives the action of the play, nor that she is spirited, resourceful and even that she is ‘likable’, nonetheless – she is a ‘trickster’. Helen’s name is synonymous with great beauty as well as great duplicity. Look again at Billington’s list, and ‘likable’ as she may be she is leading a game of deceit and duplicity for personal interest. In this sense, I guess she is as ‘likable’ as Shakespeare’s Richard III; and she can be just as ruthless and deadly. As for her being like one of Shaw’s ‘life-force girls’ this too is a bit misleading. Shaw’s women are clever and resourceful, but they also have great integrity, ethics and morals. These may be challenged and they may be self-deceived in certain matters , within a specific play, but for the most part they are not a duplicitous as Helen. Maybe Catherine in Shaw’s Great Catherine and Orinthia in his The Apple Cart are closer to the Helen in Helen – they are also very ‘likeable’ and are women not girls.
[Digression: Who are the most ‘likable female protagonists in World-Drama? I think I would put Mae in Kaufman and Hart’s Once in a Lifetime and Mame in Lawrence and Lee’s Auntie Mame above Helen in the ‘likable’ box.]
Helen isn’t likable – she’s lovable; that is her function and purpose in the classical Greek cycle. Men go crazy over her – has Mr Billington?
Let’s quickly glance at two of plays by Euripides in which Helen appears – The Trojan Women (416 BCE) and Orestes (408 BCE), which respectively are the pre-Helen and post-Helen plays. The elusive nature of Helen is immediately apparent as it is almost as if we suddenly have three different Helen’s.
In Trojan Women, just before Helen appears, the Chorus warns Menelaus not to believe anything that Helen may say, and to be careful of her power to persuade and manipulate the truth. They encourage Hecuba to challenge Helen, and to remind Menelaus that he was full of intent to kill Helen and restore his honour – that is until Helen appears, the last major ‘Trojan Women’ character to do so, and persuades him otherwise. In this play she is like a devil woman, a witch, a sorceress, and yet, her speech is the most formal and focused, and persuasive of all the Trojan Women.
In Orestes she seems more like an elusive dumb bimbo; her vanity and childish/childlike temperament is emphasized; and to a certain extend you find yourself agreeing with Orestes, Electra and Pylades that the death of Helen would be no great loss to mankind.
And then in the middle there is Helen – certainly a delightful comedy and parody of the whole Trojan War – but is the character of Helen a resourceful and faithful wife, or a duplicitous ‘trickster’. In fact, she is both, but it is one’s own personal perspective, tastes, experience and knowledge that will determine which is more dominant. I tend to see more the ‘trickster’.
Admittedly, this interpretation partly rests on how the character of the Egyptian king, Theoclymenus, is portrayed. He is a bit of a cold-fish, nontheless, he is a young man who is the victim of manipulative deceit. If he is portrayed as a cantankerous and unappealing character who deserves to be deceived then when Helen’s family (her father Zeus, mother Leda, and twin brothers, Castor and Polydeuces) turn up to stop him taking any form of revenge then this is all very acceptable. If, however, he is played as a young romantic man endeavouring to do what is right and dutiful, as well as genuinely in love with Helen, then he and his predicament is more sympathetic, loving neither too wisely or too well. Subsequently, when Helen’s family appear, Zeus, they are more like a mafioso family, basically making Theoclymenus an offer he can’t refuse.Whatever the case, the character of Helen in Helen casts a hypnotic and charismatic spell over her companions in the play; all the other characters succumb to her persuasive charms; she tells them what to do and they do it..
Billington places Helen within an historical context; that it was partly inspired by the news of the disastrous naval defeat in the so-called ‘Sicilian Expedition in 413 BCE that effectively destroyed Athenian supremacy at sea. He states that through this play Euripides showed his ability to reconcile opposites, writing a play that ‘simultaneously offers a redemptive optimism and questions the whole purpose of war‘. Nonetheless, despite the comic tone, as Billington states, ‘the idea that Troy was toppled because of a phantom Helen threads its way through the play like a seam of blood’. Brilliant! ‘Likable’? As Billington hints at, whilst Helen may be ‘likable’, nonetheless, there is an elusive elements, a question of doubt over the moral worth and integrity of Helen, this lovable beauty, for whom so many died in her name.
To emphasize this point Billington then offers two quotes from Frank McGuinness’ translation, which was performed at the Globe Theatre, London. The first is from a Servant who says to Menelaus ‘
We all saw a city ripped asunder, Men breathing their last – for the sake of what? An illusion, a dream – nothing, nothing. We fought the Trojan War over nothing.
The second quote, from a lyric ode by the Chorus, is even more damning:
Your birth was the death of that great city. It’s streets and towers are now opened tombs. What was the fight for – illusion and dream? Are gods like men – nothing is what it seems? Sad nightingale, poor birds of the air, Sing the damnation of all warmongers.
As a clear critique on the futility of war Billington almost persuaded me here that Helen is indeed a ‘great’ play – almost, but not quite.
[NEXT: #4 – The Assembly Women by Aristophanes (c. 448-380 BCE)