The horrors of an ill-conceived war tarnish the international image of a wealthy, proudly democratic world power. America in 2007, or Athens in 415 BC? The answer is both, but sometimes the lens of history sharpens our view of current folly.
Artists know how to depict past conflicts to send a sneaky message about present ones. Robert Altman's M*A*S*H, set during the Korean War, skewered Vietnam policy. In The Trojan Women, Athenian playwright Euripedes portrayed the devastating aftermath of the Trojan War, a conflict from Homeric times. Meanwhile, his city's Peloponnesian War atrocities multiplied. Champlain College professor Eric Ronis is directing a mixed cast of student and professional actors in the wrenching play this week, as the Iraq war enters its fifth year. He doesn't shy away from making thematic connections.
"Euripedes himself was not just writing a historical piece," Ronis says. "He was writing a contemporary comment on what he saw as the injustice of the Greek affair in the Peloponnesian War."
When The Trojan Women premiered in 415 BC, the fate of the island of Melos was particularly fresh in the audience's minds. Athens had massacred Melos' men and sold its women and children into slavery because it remained neutral in the war. Other cities met similar ends. The Trojan Women is an intense look at the emotional state of women - wives, mothers, grandmothers - after their men have been slain and before they are dispersed into servitude across Greece.
Ronis staged Aristophanes' Lysistrata not long after the Iraq war started. "That seemed very topical at the time," he says. But as the conflict dragged on, The Trojan Women struck him as the "dark side" of the classic comedy. "It's nice that in an ideal world, women can withhold sex and the men would stop [fighting]," Ronis reflects. "But what really happens to women in war is they're raped; they're humiliated; they are forcibly taken from their children, who are killed; families are ripped apart; they watch their husbands die."
Ronis cites current examples beyond Iraq. In Africa's civil wars, "Women are raped just to prove a point," he says. "It's a power thing: 'I can have your women; I control your women.' So the question becomes for me, to some degree: How can women fight back? What can women do?"
Euripedes makes clear that the women of Troy will carry the memories of their fallen men into every corner of Greece, where they are enslaved. He also hints that what goes around comes around: Greater woe may befall the conquerors.
The character of Cassandra has become a synonym for doom-laden prophecy. But she has a more shocking corollary in recent Middle Eastern history, Ronis believes. "You would not necessarily have thought of Cassandra as a warrior," he explains. But her attitude in the play is one of "'Let me take out someone I hate, and I can make a difference that way.' So every time we rehearse it, I refer to her as the suicide bomber."
Elements of the production reinforce the parallel between ancient and modern times. Ronis uses a soundtrack of traditional Arab chant to evoke a "timeless feeling," he says. Several characters wear costumes resembling burkhas. Actors break the fourth wall and "make their appeals directly to the audience," Ronis notes. King Menelaus enters "à la George Bush making a stump speech, pressing the flesh."
Ronis believes the play's themes "speak for themselves." Their modern relevance is a tragedy even Euripedes could not have foreseen. "It's a shame that this is what we do," Ronis says. "This is what humanity is. And 2500 years ago, this play was written, and nothing has changed. Nothing has changed, except our weapons have become more sophisticated."