On Friday night, we went to the opening night of the Alumnae Theatre’s production of Gwendolyn MacEwan’s beautiful, lyrical, memorable version of The Trojan Women, the original of which was written by Euripides. It is set at the crumbled wall of Troy, where the women of Troy are gathered in the pre-dawn dark. Over the course of the play, the sun rises, but it brings not hope or beauty but the inescapable aftermath.
The Greeks came, with their horse; now Troy is destroyed and the women are soon to be de-Troyed, deployed on Greek ships as trophies. Their husbands? Dead, of course. “In their tattered black robes,” MacEwan tells us in the stage directions, “the women resemble crows.” Hecuba, Priam’s queen, is an old crone in rags (though, as Poseidon says at the play’s beginning, “negotiable (like old gold). . . . both worthless and highly valuable (if you know what I mean)”). Her son, Hector, is also dead, and Hector’s wife Andromache is about to face the loss of her young son, too: the death even of the future. Hecuba’s daughter, the nubile prophetess Cassandra, is to be Agamemnon’s trophy… to find out how that turns out, read Agamemnon by Aeschylus. (Hint: very badly indeed.) And Menelaus comes to reclaim Helen, the woman who started the whole thing: a vain pathological liar, to whom MacEwan has given the great line “I am not a slut, I am not a silly bitch! I am Helen, I am beautiful!”
At the end of the play, the city burns behind, and the women are led off to the Greek ships. Talthybius, the Greek messenger, looks back and sums it up, echoing lines already heard in the play:
As the moon bends the oceans
So this darkness bends the mind.
Even the planets are weary.
Everything awaits a series
of wretched and unreal tomorrows.
Goodbye, you splendid towers,
You once magnificent citadel,
You horrible heap of stones…
Sing for the great city that cries out
like a soul,
That falls like a shadow
On the threshold of Nowhere…
This place, this place was Troy.
MacEwan’s play holds a special place in my memories; I’ve seen three different productions of it now, and the first was when I was a drama student at the University of Calgary. I have never had the chance to perform in it, but have many times savoured the lines I could have said – and the many lines I could not have, as most of the parts are female, and none of the productions cast men in female roles.
But of course for most people Troy and its adjective Trojan carry no such flavours. It is true that (to quote Led Zeppelin) “the pain of war cannot exceed the woe of aftermath,” but we don’t so often pause to think of the aftermath of the historical battles, in spite of the many poems and songs and plays of aftermath (I am quickly put in mind of Robert Burns’s “The Battle of Sherramuir” and the little-known Tolkien work “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son,” and, for that matter, songs such as “Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye” and the very affecting “My Youngest Son Came Home Today”).
Rather, we think of warriors. We think of fights. We think of heroes. The popular movie Troy was certainly not an elegy for the widows. What sort of a boy is named Troy? Stereotypically the football hero, the square-jawed popular guy, maybe a fraternity brother… Try to picture it as the name of someone nerdy, quiet, thin, pale. Difficult, no? That tr is so truculent, so strong, perhaps trustworthy; it has traction, like a tractor-trailer truck. Oh, Troy is the golden boy – they may even weigh him in troy, that standard of weight that is used for gold (and is named after Troyes, France, which is not connected etymologically to the Troy of Greek legend). He is shiny, he is solid, he is a fighter. Ironically, he is lighter – a pound troy is lighter than a pound avoirdupois, which is what we use to weigh people and poultry and pillows and so on. (Incidentally, this means that a pound of gold is lighter than a pound of feathers.)
There was a real Troy, by the way, and it really did fall as a result of a battle – and, it seems, a few other times in history, too, once by natural disaster. We don’t know what the reality was of the personalities and motivations involved. But the ruins are on the Turkish coast (or near it – the coast has moved in the intervening 3200 or 3300 years), on a hill in Anatolia now called Hisarlık. It was named after its founder, Troas; one of his sons was Ilon, from whom Troy got its alternate name, Ilion (in Latin Ilium), whence the name of Homer’s epic, the Iliad.
Troy, in Latin, is Troia, and that i became written as y in modern English, but in Troian the i took on its alternate longer form, which in modern English has come to be a separate letter standing for a sound that Latin and Old English didn’t have: j. That jaw-jutting tongue-tip affricate adds even more solidity to the word. And the places you are most likely to see Trojan include the condom racks of drugstores and the gymnasia and stadia of high schools (how many high-school sports teams are called the Trojans? To follow legend, one would expect all the teams called Spartans to beat the teams called the Trojans, but I wonder how many of those students even know much of anything about Homer’s epics… I’m sure most of them know the word from drugstores, whether they’ve ever bought any prophylactics or not).
Well, well. Mindless violence and the prevention of future generations. And so we’re back at the play. And all those golden boys are weighed in the balance, and their pounds of flesh are still outweighed – and outlasted – by the black feathers of the “old crows,” the widows they would leave behind.