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THE TROJAN WOMEN

DIRECTED BY KAREN CASE COOK

 

AN INTERVIEW

WITH DIRECTOR KAREN CASE COOK  

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This program is titled Women & Patriarchy – you are doing a play written by a Greek man 26 centuries ago, what does it say to audiences in 2019?

The Trojan Women, born out of the Oral tradition of myths, was written by the Greek tragedian Euripides and first performed in 415BC. The play is both historical reference of life in the day as well as an exploration of the aftermath of war, women as captive, the savage behavior of men and both subjected to the whims of the Greek Gods. The Trojan Women offers the audience insight into the fate of women and the finite life roles they could aspire to in a Greek patriarchal society. Represented in the play are queen, mother and old woman (Hecuba), dutiful wife and mother (Andromache), virgin clairvoyant (Cassandra), sex object (Helen of Troy), and everywoman (Chorus).Though it may feel as if we have gone down the rabbit hole into 415BC, Trojan Women offers a looking glass into which we can examine women’s roles in an ancient patriarchal society.

Where did you find this translation?

Because the 2019 reading series is Women and Patriarchy, I thought it would be great to find a translation of The Trojan Women authored by a woman. So I hopped on the internet, “googled” translations, and there it was—Canadian playwright and poet, Gwendelyn MacEwen’s Trojan Women, copyright 1981.

Is it a translation or an adaptation of the Euripides?  How much does it differ from the original in specifics or just in tone?  Or ??

It is an adaptation. According to Claudia Dey, in her introduction of MacEwen’s Trojan Women, she writes: “MacEwen chose this play to adapt not to denounce her modern audience but to prod them into reflection – and perhaps, action. As in so much of her work, The Trojan Women was a cry for consciousness.” The plot points and the order in which the characters are introduced along with their impending plight remain consistent with the original with one exception. The original Euripides’ play begins with Poseidon’s monologue and next a scene between Poseidon, the god of sea earthquakes, horses and Athena, the goddess of wisdom, war, crafts addressing the punishment of the Greeks for sacking Troy. While MacEwen’s adaptation retains Poseidon’s monologue, the Poseidon/Athena scene is omitted. We go directly to the Chorus and Hecuba’s lamentations. As noted by Shelagh Wilkinson in her essay titled Gwendolyn MacEwen’s Trojan Women: Old Myth into New Life—Gods have no place in MacEwen’s Troy. It is the characters alone, their thoughts, their actions, their conflicts within and between others that is the focus of the world of her Trojan Women. When comparing earlier translations that more closely resemble the language and verse structure of the original text, we discover that MacEwan’s dialogue is more linear and direct. Her adaptation is infused with poetic imagery, with fewer references to Gods and long passages inclusive of the Greek myths and historical events. MacEwan delves into the “psychological battles” between the women, creating a heightened urgency and forward movement of her play. Wilkinson writes— “MacEwen sets up the role that each woman has accepted, and then, by confronting the stereotype, she has the women move beyond the otherness into autonomy.”

 Sounds bleak – is there humor in this piece?

Though the play is a tragedy, there is humor. Yes, the women are victims, captives in the aftermath of war but MacEwen’s adaptation transcends the ruins of Troy. Juxtaposed with the loss, the brutality, the grief, the self-examination are moments of humor. As I read the play, I found myself smiling at MacEwen’s keen intelligence and wit of her dialogue. I look forward to the actors and myself mining the humor in the play for our staged reading.

You’ve directed Greek plays in the past, what are the challenges for directors and actors?

These stories are thousands of years old, far beyond a 2019 director and actors’ life experience. Research, research, research offers insight into the world of the play, forging a bridge between the past and the present. Together, as we gain a deeper understanding of the times, the milestone events, the culture, the life experience of those living, say in 415BC, we begin to unearth that connection between our own life experience and the life experience of the play’s characters. Ultimately, it is our collective humanity that will prove to transcend time. Language presents its challenges as well. The Greek playwrights were poets whose plays were written in dactylic hexameter (six feet) similar to Shakespeare who wrote in iambic (five feet) pentameter. The complex sentence construction, the phrasing infused with beautiful imagery and historical names, places, and events can be challenging to grasp when read, spoken and heard. Many modern day Greek translations retain some of the historical content and imagery while incorporating language and sentence structure, writing in prose rather than verse, all geared toward present day sensibilities.

On a side note, when I direct a Greek or Shakespeare play as part of the rehearsal process, I toss out the convention of following the rules of speaking in verse—the rhythms, the rhymes, the stress of words. I have found that if one tells their story and speaks the thought, we have a fighting chance to transcend the challenge of language and verse, lifting the play off the page and onto the stage.

Do you think the wooden Trojan Horse story is real or a made up thing by Virgil in the Aeneid?  

Most of what we know about the wooden Trojan horse today comes from Virgil’s Aeneid (12-29BC). My research revealed that the “infamous” horse first appears in Homer’s The Odyssey, written around 800 BC. I asked myself if the Trojan War is a true historical event, was there a Trojan Horse? My research led me to the 1985 BBC TV documentary In Search of the Trojan War, written and presented by Michael Wood. His investigation looks to historical and archeological evidence that would match the story of the Trojan War, as told by Homer in the The Iliad (8th Century BC). Wood shares— “And that right down the ages, it was the tradition, that at the end, Troy’s towers were deliberately thrown down by the vengeful Greeks in a scene imagined by every generation of poets and artists for over 3000 years.” He offers up that Troy is a real place now in Turkey. Troy was sacked, around 1250 BC, but was it a battle between Hittites and the Greeks or an earthquake that tore down the walls of Troy, opening the door for the siege? I am drawn to Jerome Sperling, who studied the Classics and Archeology. He concludes, “To me, it doesn’t have great significance, this criticism because everybody’s Troy is different from everybody else’s Troy. It depends on what blend you make of the poetry you’ve read or how much of the archeology and you care about it and how much you use your own imagination…I’m overpowered by Homeric poetry…It’s an overpowering experience. But that doesn’t make it, doesn’t have to make it historical, because you see poetic truth comes in the people he talks about, their hopes and despair and problems, and conflict. That’s where the truth of it is.”

So, the Trojan Horse—the wooden horse—is it real or an allegory? “The answer resides within the imagination of each individual.”

Directors talk about actors with “chops” – what does that mean?

Skill or excellence.

 When an actor comes up to a line in Greek tragedy that is "oh woe is me" or the equivalent -- how do you help the actor through that?

Minimalism, sculpting bodies in space and laying bare the human heart on stage is my directing architecture. Together we explore where “woe” lives in the actor’s heart. Think of an iceberg—the tip above water are the words—“Oh woe is me”. Yet, underneath, below the water’s surface, connected to the tip of the iceberg, is the actor’s heart. It is the actor’s heart connection to “woe” that informs what the line means to the actor and how that actor will say the line, all of which will be joined to the character’s wants, what they are fighting for, their goal as it pertains not only to their story but to the other characters’ stories and ultimately, the play as a whole.

Talk to us about Helen … how do you feel as a 2019 artist feel about this woman?

Did Helen willingly leave her husband or was she raped and abducted by Paris? Ancient Greek sources contradict each other. A little background—Paris, Prince of Troy, was asked by Zeus to pick the most beautiful goddess—Hera, Athena or Aphrodite. Aphrodite promised Paris the most beautiful women in the world if he selected her. He chose Aphrodite and we have come to know Paris’ prize as Helen of Troy, the most beautiful women who launched 1000 ships.

How do I feel about Helen?

Interesting.

Helen is first given to King Menelaus as the prize in a competition between her suitors. Helen is then, for a second time, offered up, as a reward, a sex object, a pawn in a contest of beauty between, ironically, three female gods. Helen is the antagonist in The Trojan Women, forever branded as the villain, the cause of the Trojan War, where, with the help of the God, the Greeks sailed to Troy and for a third time, a prize perhaps, to be reclaimed for Menelaus.

I feel empathy for Helen. Like Hecuba, Cassandra, Andromache and the Chorus, Helen, too, is a woman—a pawn in a patriarchal society with very little choice, if any, as she navigates her life’s fate orchestrated by Gods and man.

 This is the first play of 4 under the title Women and Patriarchy –  is there a connection between Helen or Hecuba and The Duchess, Hedda, or Dusa (which you are also directing)?   Are the actresses channeling the same essence in all 4 plays?  How are they linked?   What is the importance of the “sum of the total?” 

The connective tissue between Helen, Hecuba, The Duchess, Hedda and Dusa is Woman.

Their link between them lies in their journey to overcome the inherent repression dictated by their assigned roles in a patriarchal world. In each play, are all on the path to self-actualization, to unearth true self, a self no longer bound by the rules of the patriarch?

The experience of women is universal—so is the essence or the channeling of that essence the same?

I don’t know—maybe our womanhood, our nature, who we are, our struggles, our hopes and dreams, our potential may be passed down from generation to generation through our DNA. Does our potential lie on one of the two X chromosomes (Nature) and the expression of our potential dictated by society (Nurture)?

Each play in the Women and Patriarchy staged reading series provides an opportunity to explore the society, its culture, thoughts, feelings and desires during the times when they were written.

The importance of the “sum of the total” is rooted in our witnessing, through these terrific plays, the roles assigned to women in a patriarchal society by offering up the journey each woman undertakes either to play by the rules thus negating her true self or to embark on a path toward discovering her authentic self.

These plays, in themselves, are a kind of archeological dig. By stepping into and excavating the world of each play, we unearth the life experience of Woman in the day. Have women’s roles in a patriarchal society evolved from 415BC, to 1613AD, to 1890AD to 1976AD and beyond—from wife, mother, old woman, virgin, sex object to Women living their true authentic selves?

That answer resides within the heart of each one of us.