Monday, 27 October 2014


“What greater grief than the loss of one’s native land.”  - Euripides

One of the most amazing things about ancient Greek plays is their relevance to today’s world, even though they were written nearly two-and-a-half millennia ago. They deal with human situations that are familiar to us, and their characters are oddly modern in their emotions and the ideas that they struggle with. The tragedies in particular, can wreak havoc with our emotional stability as the raw power that they are packed with makes us participate in the plot’s twists and turns and we can only but sympathise with the vicissitudes of the protagonists’ lives.

Greek tragedy on the stage can be extremely powerful and well-produced, but it can also be ridiculous. Film adaptations of Greek tragedy are not common, and can also fall into these two extreme groups – the excellent or the very bad. Yesterday we watched Michael Cacoyannis’ excellent 1971 filmic adaptation of Euripides’ The Trojan Women. I was glad to say that it was a magnificent adaptation. The film was entirely stripped of its supernatural baggage (for example there is no prologue by Poseidon, god of the sea and no introductory episode with Athena and Poseidon talking about divine punishment), and thus was made entirely human and we could concentrate directly on the tragic situation of the fall of Troy.

Euripides’ play “The Trojan Women”, is not so much a tragic story as a portrayal of a tragic situation. Euripides dramatises the postwar conditions of the women of Troy, who become spoils of war. They are assembled in front of the ruins of their once-great city and await to be shipped to Greece where they will become slaves and concubines to the victors. The protagonists are Hecuba, the widowed queen of Troy; Cassandra, her half-mad daughter and seer; Andromache, Hecuba’s daughter-in-law, widow of Hector; and of course, Helen of Troy.

The play was produced in 415 BC shortly after the capture of Melos by the Athenians, in what was a particularly terrible time as far as hostilities between Athens and Sparta are concerned. Euripides’ purpose for writing this anti-war play is patent in the context of the brutal destruction of Melos and enslavement of its population. Euripides’ plays are largely a departure from the typical tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles. Euripides is often revolutionary in that he chooses to dramatise unconventional views, he takes the part of the underdog, exposes nobility of character in the humblest individual. In “The Trojan Women” this is exemplified, as he shows that slave women possess a nobility of mind that stands in striking contrast to the inhumanity of the victorious Greek warriors.

The ruthless drama portrays hope as self-delusion and folly, and the doomed women are shown as being resigned to their fate, with forbearance and acceptance of an injustice they see as their abandonment by their gods. Hecuba and the Trojan Women have to deal with the brutality of war and the irrefutable lack of compassion by the victorious Greeks. The callous disregard for the lives of innocent women and children is highlighted by Euripides. Hecuba is a woeful woman in a postwar environment full of terror and destruction. She never considers the possibility of female rebellion against corrupt yet superior male forces, although Cassandra may be said to do so, but is driven by vengeance.

The film has a star-studded cast led by Katharine Hepburn as Hecuba, Vanessa Redgrave as Andromache, Geneviève Bujold as Cassandra and Irene Papas as Helen. All act superbly and the film is carried by each of these spectacular performances that dovetail into one another and enliven wonderfully Euripides’ play. Brian Blessed as the messenger and Patrick Magee as Menelaus, Helen’s husband, have good supporting roles. However, this movie is an ensemble piece for the actresses who carry it off with great panache and talent.

Cacoyannis wrote the scenario based on Edith Hamilton’s translation of Euripides and also directed and edited the film. There is a unity of vision in the finished product when this happens. A scenarist, director who also edits the film gives us a product of his creativity that is truly part of himself. A play is a vehicle for the actors’ art, with the director being reduced to a technician. A film allows the director to assume the role of the artist and the actors are his paints, with whom he can create the art on the screen.

The music is by Mikis Theodorakis and complements the action well. Maria Farandouri sings with passion and her contralto voice provides a strong support to the drama on the screen. The locations and cinematography are excellent and the parched, dusty landscape on which the towering ruinous walls of Troy lay is extremely evocative.

When you see this film, don’t expect an epic. There are no chariot races, no nail-biting gladiatorial combats, no battle scenes with thousands of extras. There is no sex, no special effects, no scenes of popular appeal or mawkish sentimentality. The film has in common with the play the basic elements of a Greek tragedy: The viewer is involved in the action, and together with the characters experiences a personal transformation. A great anti-war film with a powerful message delivered in a raw, emotionally charged and violent way. See it if you can lay your hands on it. 

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