Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Dear Helen

These days find me in Portland, writing a new play. The play is Helen, a companion piece for Cressida, a prequel that starts after Helen, having been abducted by Theseus, returns to Sparta and ends with the dawning of the Trojan war. 

The impetus behind Helen was a nagging sense of guilt, supplied by my inner feminist, during rehearsals for Cressida. When workshopping the play, the cast and I discovered the utility of bashing Helen of Troy. We needed some spark for the affair between Cressida and Diomedes. She loves Troilus deeply and he has no reason to trust her. Both, however, have a rebellious side. They question the war and they hate, hate, HATE Helen. 

In Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, Diomedes dares to say the following to Paris about Helen:

For every false drop in her bawdy veins
A Grecian life hath sunk; for every scruple
Of her contaminated weight
A Trojan hath been slain. Since she could speak
She hath not given so many good words breath
As, for her, Greeks and Trojans suffered death. (4.1.71-6)

In Cressida, I had Diomedes speak these words to Cressida in response to her raging at the futility of the only two recourses available to Trojan women, prayers and tears. In this new context, Diomedes' lines are meant as proof that Grecians and Trojans, men and women, alike are in the same figurative terrible boat, (they are actually on a literal boat, at the time) and Helen is to blame. The irony that on Cressida - a project whose mission was moving a woman from the margins to the center - so thoroughly disparaged another woman was not lost on me. I joked that the only proper penance was to write a play for Helen.

I am not sure when Helen went from an intriguing joke or fanciful daydream to an artistic mission. Once again, I am starting with Shakespeare and tracing the literary heritage forward and backwards from there. Helen has precious few lines in Troilus and Cressida: however, one of them goes to the heart of the ambiguity of Helen's story. She tells Pandarus, "Let thy song be love: this love will undo us all" (3.1.100). What love is Helen referring to? Does she predict (or, after seven years of warfare, concede) that Paris' love for her spells the downfall of Troy? Or is it her love for him? Or is she thinking of Menelaus' love for her? How does she feel about her estranged husband? Does it matter? Love is a plague on both their houses.

Such a conclusion may feel mature even as it cheats the reader of Helen's story. In Troilus and Cressida  that is alright. That play is not Helen's story. The more I worked on Cressida, the more I came to respect the way Shakespeare interrogates perpetual warfare and the sexual double standard. Someday I'll direct his play. For now though, I want another play. I want Helen's story: a tale of love, adultery, religious visions, rape, and growing up the prettiest girl of all. Helen is a complicated character. Helen will be an apology to her, not for her. 

Head of Helen by Sculptor Antonio Canova


  1. You know I hadn't really thought about it, but Helen does seem to be the victim of a lot of slut-shame. Or at least the shame that comes from being (allegedly) such a beautiful, desirable woman. I guess it's what unites her with other famous women who've been degraded and mocked because of their beauty (Marilyn Monroe comes to mind.) I'll be interested to hear more about this project as it progresses!

  2. Also, you might want to read American Eve. It's a biography about Evelyn Nesbit, another beautiful girl caught between the men who desired her only for her body. Here's a link to the NY Times review.


    1. Thanks for the tip! The book sounds awesome. I knew nothing about Evelyn Nesbit until reading the NY Times piece and it was strange to read it when my reading list lately has been things like How I Learned to Drive, The Handmaid's Tale, and now, Lolita. Especially, Lolita.