Tragedy and terrorism.
These emotions of course bring me to my concern here: How were the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center relevant to Greek tragedy and, vice versa, how is tragedy relevant to our understanding of terrorism? Most obviously, the attacks evoked pity for those who were the victims and fear that it might happen to any one of us, the very emotions that Aristotle identifies as the end of tragedy. Indeed, tragedy was invoked insistently in descriptions of the attacks on the World Trade Center, in article after article, in obituary after obituary. The aftereffect of the initial terror has been a lingering fear, heightened in the context of the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq.
The arts in general seemed to have had a role to play in shaping the response to the events. The attack was said to have been planned like a movie, and most people in the United States were seeing it on television as it was unfolding. The New York Times suggested that readers "consider the timing. When the first plane hit the WTC, presumably there would be no camera ready. So the terrorists provided a second attack at a decent interval that they knew would be captured on film or video, and then repeated from many different angles." (2) Another New York Times article put it this way: "The day's coverage had already shown that words had less impact than live pictures in this tragedy. Late in the day, ABC showed stunning new video, from a low angle, of the plane running through the second tower. Then the tape was played backward and we saw history reverse itself; the building appeared whole, as if in a wishful dream." (3)
When the attacks were a few days behind us, Rudy Giuliani came on television and encouraged everyone to go and see a show if they wanted to aid New York. Broadway has often been an emblem of New York City. In this situation, benefit performances helped make going to the theater seem not just an escape, but a way to help out. Theaters elsewhere debated what they should do. Peter Hall of the Lyric Opera in Chicago said: "People want theater and opera and dance even more than before. It has to do with declaring that you're not alone, you're not lost, you're not defeated and you're determined to carry on." (4)
The Times article quoted above on the media impact of the attacks goes on to say: "Familiar movie narrative patterns enabled the public to get its mind around the action and even dominate it, though there are some who will claim this trivializes tragedy by cutting it into the neat shapes of entertainment." (5) I would argue that this trivialization did indeed take place, for the tragedy soon became a melodrama. While melodrama as a form associated with women has recently been reclaimed as worthy of serious attention by feminists, it has traditionally been seen as a kind of simplistic drama, where good and evil are clearly distinguished and where good wins out in the end. (6) In this instance, when President Bush responded, he labeled the enemy an axis of evil, claiming virtue for the United States and leading a call for renewed nationalism. In his address to the cabinet, he labeled the attacks an act of war, but this was to be a different kind of war. As he put it then, "The freedom-loving nations of the world stand by our side. This will be a monumental struggle of good versus evil. But good will prevail." (7) And from the first, President Bush grouped together terrorists and the countries that sheltered them: "The search is under way for those who are behind these evil acts. We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them." (8) He sounded the same note in his radio address on 15 September 2001, when he announced a comprehensive assault on "terrorist organizations and those who harbor and support them." (9) The message was clear: "Stand with us, or face death and destruction yourself." The relationship between grief and nationalism was also clear: vigils for the victims often ended in singing "God Bless America," or "America the Beautiful." Sometimes the tune was "We Shall Overcome," but the irony of the Civil Rights anthem being used in a time of heightened racism and xenophobia was left unanalyzed.
In this outline for a melodrama, the cast of characters was for the most part male. The terrorists who boarded the planes were men, as were the Taliban and al Qaeda leaders. The call for swift vengeance was associated with the appearance of Osama bin Laden on the covers of Time, Newsweek, etc., making it a personal manhunt as well. The American leadership was also depicted as male (except for Condoleezza Rice). And the heroicization of the police and firefighters represented them as hyper-masculine: not only were they men, but they were brawny. As Camille Paglia said dreamily, "I can't help noticing how robustly, dreamily masculine the faces of the firefighters are. These are working-class men, stoical, patriotic. They're not on Prozac or questioning their gender." (10) Women were often portrayed as mourners, even though they were of course, as the obituaries made clear, a sizeable proportion of those who died in the Towers. The role of women in the representation of the war in Iraq is complicated and runs the gamut from Jessica Lynch to Lynndie England. Lynch was lionized and made more than she was in the media hype of her imprisonment; England was widely shown as one of the guards humiliating prisoners in Iraqi jails. (11) In the initial stages, however, women were seen not as the soldiers being sent overseas but as the ones saying goodbye to them.
As in melodrama the hero rescues the ingenue, so women were to be rescued in the war on terrorism. First, the plight of the Afghan women was highlighted in the print media and became one part of the justification for the war on Afghanistan--the impression given was that we were going to free them from the Taliban. The strategy of emphasizing the negative treatment of women was deliberate (as was the later use of Jessica Lynch), with the First Lady a leading voice in that "information" campaign. (12) Laura Bush took over her husband's weekly radio address: "Administration officials said Mrs. Bush's speech, apparently the first solo performance by a first lady in the weekly presidential radio address, was the beginning of an international campaign to call attention to the oppression of women and children under the Taliban." In that speech, she proclaimed that "The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women." (13) In briefings at the White House, President Bush showed his concern for "women of cover" who were unable to leave their homes in this country. (14)
Thus, at the same time that heroism was constructed as masculine by the absence of women from the representation of the firefighters and police, the distinction between the West and the East in the treatment of women was highlighted in a strategy familiar from nineteenth-century colonialism. Of course, we could not be seen as leading an attack on Islam and sending Christian missionaries, but we could still be liberating the women. This gesture seemed calculated to make the administration appear a friend to women and to heighten the contrast with the Taliban. (15)
This approach to the war on Afghanistan was problematic, not only because the "Bushies" were hardly perceived as feminists (nor did they want to be), but also because it had the potential to suggest interventionism in what would be value-laden issues in the postwar society. Ms. Miwandi, chief of the Pashtu language service of Voice of America, reported hearing complaints like this: "'We do not try to order how women are treated in America,' they tell me, 'so what right does America have to tell us how to treat our women?'" (16)
Moreover, women in Afghanistan had been agitating for their own liberation for years, and they actively sought to be represented in setting up the new government. (17) In the dominant American media, however, they were not seen as agents but were reduced to single-dimension, passive victims, in order to sharpen the Evil of the Taliban. There are as many complexities in the situation of women in Afghanistan as there are in the situation of women in the United States, but Afghan women were represented simply, so as to make them a part of justification for war. (18) The self-serving nature of this use of women was made clear when the time came to present the new government: radical women's voices were again muted. Furthermore, information from the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan (RAWA) suggests that not much has changed--but we no longer hear about Afghanistan. (19) Second, to further underline the difference between the United States and Afghanistan, Bush appointed four women as his public relations group for the war effort (Beers, Matalin, Hughes, Clarke). In this early stage of the war on terrorism, women were used to sell, and some were even selected with an eye to their experience in marketing.
What is lost by the transformation from tragedy into melodrama? Primarily, I would argue, a sense of the ambiguity of the issues, as we can see from the example of the deployment of women. Of course, no president or world leader wants to think of him- or herself as a tragic hero, especially given the popular association of tragedy with "tragic fall." But the events of the recent past (terrorist attacks, the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq) do have a great deal in common with Greek tragedy. It is not surprising that a number of Greek plays have been performed recently, with specific reference to current events. (20) Thus, for instance, we had Euripides in Boston (the Heracleidae told as the story of immigrants with actual immigrants in the cast (21)) and in New York (the Trojan Women performed by a church in Inwood as a benefit for RAWA). It is interesting that in a time when the position of the Classics in the general education curriculum is most often defended by conservatives like Lynne Cheney and progressives are accused of having killed Homer, Greek plays are being reproduced to critique American policy. (22) Fiona Shaw, who played Medea in a new production of Euripides' play, said in an interview after the one-year anniversary of September 11: "Two years ago, we lived in a world where Greek tragedy had to justify its position, but that has changed now.... It is like what people lived last year." In the same article, director Deborah Warner said: "We desperately need Greek plays. We need them when democracies are wobbly." Warner sees the Medea as a play "about the tragedy of someone who is pushed to the place where she has no choice." (23) And antiwar activists staged Lysistrata around the world as a statement of opposition to the war in Iraq, showing that ancient drama may be a suitable vehicle for protest.
The plays I consider here were written in the city of Athens, in the heyday of its strength after the Persian Wars and later during its war with Sparta to defend that supremacy; the United States today is in the position of power that Athens was in then, without a Sparta as counterbalance. (24) The plays do not take simple, straightforward positions on the issues; I will read them as complicated commentaries on ethical problems--in contradistinction to the melodrama (probably unconsciously) constructed by the Bush administration. As a feminist critic, I am reluctant to assume wholesale relevance of ancient "great literature" to contemporary concerns, in part because unproblematized adherence to that assumption has been intrinsic to the humanist tradition that has squelched attention to women and other excluded minorities. (25) Nonetheless, these plays do have a stature, if not based on some absolute merit, at least based on their position in the Western literary tradition. My inquiry here assumes simultaneously that the Athenian context is important, and that the plays can transcend their original time and place. (26) On the most general level, reading Greek tragedy can bring into sharper focus the responsibilities for war and the costs of war because, unlike melodrama, the plays are typically based on characters making difficult choices. (27) More specifically, as in the current United States situation, there is a clear relationship between women and the waging of war, but it is not a simple case of rescue, as it would be in melodrama.
Daniel Mendelsohn's reviews of productions of the Heracleidae and Medea highlight the treatment of women; he accuses both directors of misunderstanding the plays. Sellars, Mendelsohn says, ignored the women in the interests of current affairs, and Warner ignored the mythic dimension in the interests of making Medea relevant. Mendelsohn presumes that there is one way to look at women in tragedy--as the way to act out the "preoccupations of Athenian theater," which were, he asserts, "issues of import to the citizen audience"; women were "symbolic entities representing everything 'other' to that smoothly coherent citizen identity." (28) Such an approach is one way of addressing the contradiction between a culture that officially consigned women to the private sphere, yet whose drama focused on them to a large extent; resolving that conundrum has preoccupied scholars of women in ancient Greece for some time. Though Warner would send us back to Athens for lessons about democracy, the city was a problematic democracy; the ideal identity of Athenian culture was class- and gender-based.
The limited nature of Athenian democracy was reflected in the production of its art form, the drama. The city-state controlled the production in very specific ways (granting poets the right to produce plays, assigning the actors, paying the audience), and the pre-performance displays were part of the celebration of the empire as well as of the god Dionysus. (29) Women were excluded from the production of tragedy, just as they were from the assembly and juries. Thus, though tragedy was a popular art form, an art form of the people, there is a huge debate about who went to the plays; if everyone went, they went in different capacities. In essence, the festival was not intended for women; that is, civic culture as constituted by the plays, the watching of the plays, was male. Women were neither the authors, nor the judges of the plays, nor the actors of the plays. (30) Nonetheless, the plays repeatedly return to women and the family, even those that build on the epic tradition of the Trojan War, a tradition that was predominantly masculine. Why is that? While I have great respect for the notion that female characters stand for the "other," that position taken on its own can lead to ignoring women per se. Here I shall focus instead on the relationship between women and war, asking whether women were deployed in tragedy as they were in the heating up of the war on Afghanistan. There is a loose parallelism here: the response to terrorism in the wake of September 11 depicted it as a male world; women, however, were used as victims of Taliban repression and as the propaganda arm of the United States government to justify the war on Afghanistan. Similarly, Athens was a democracy that excluded women, yet female characters dominated the stage of tragedy; in particular, they were used to justify the Trojan War. In tragedy, however, they also served to point out the cost of war.
To make the argument more specific, I will examine the intersections of the discourses of war and gender in three plays: Aeschylus's Agamemnon and Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis and Trojan Women. I am particularly interested in the ways in which these plays render women both objects and subjects, potentially providing support for war but (in contrast to melodrama) also enabling the audience to be critical of it. The plays of the Trojan War cycle provide the obvious point of comparison for these times. How do they enable us to understand making war on terrorism, or the current situation in Iraq, in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center? (31)
When asking what Greek tragedy has to say about the relationship of war and gender, one cannot ignore the Oresteia. Aeschylus lays out the costs of the Trojan War and the problems with personal revenge; by taking conflicts to an impartial third party, in this case the Areopagus, the excess of vendetta is avoided. (32) The role for "women," or female characters, in the trilogy shifts from one extreme (Iphigenia, pure victim) to another (Athena, powerful agent), with Clytemnestra occupying a shifting position. Though gender plays an enormous role in the trilogy as a whole, I am most interested in the Agamemnon for its presentation of the intersection of war and gender. In this play, we can see that women are sometimes strictly used for masculine political purposes, but they are also crucial players. Helen, who supposedly caused the war, and Iphigenia, sacrificed to make it go forward, never appear; they are only referred to by the Chorus and other characters. Thus they are most obviously counters to be used in the rhetoric of others. (33) Through them, the play most clearly connects war and gender.
The Chorus enters in the Agamemnon singing of the events of ten years before, when the war began and the Atreidae, yoked in the honor that comes from Zeus (43), set forth. The Chorus compares the two brothers to vultures stricken with the loss of their children (paidon), as a result of which one of the gods sends vengeance. "Just so," they say, "Zeus the great guest god drives the Atreidae against Alexander, for the sake of one woman with many men" (60-62). Thus, in a neat proportion (as A is to B, so C is to D) and turn of phrase, the vultures' stolen young transmute into Helen taken by Paris. (34) While Helen's promiscuity is raised as an issue with the word poluanoros, she is also rendered an innocent victim by this comparison to the young.
In the next stanzas, the Chorus turns to the omen that accompanied the army's setting out for Troy; they see another pair of birds, this time eating a pregnant hare. Thus, the Atreidae turn from victims to predators. The prophet Calchas interprets the omen as a sign that the sons of Atreus will sack Troy and destroy its herds (126-30), but this is not strictly good news, for Artemis who loves young things hates the feast of the eagles (138) (35) and she might demand another sacrifice: "The terror turns back ranging through the house, a deceitful anger that remembers the child that shall be avenged" (154-55). In the setting out, then, Helen poluanoros is imagined as the victim, but in the process of retrieving her, the Greeks become like their own enemy, preying on the harmless young of others (vultures become eagles). As a result, they may be subject to the same law of retaliation. This multivalent reversal happens throughout the trilogy, as the deployment of the lion image makes clear as well. The ode takes its departure from Paris and Troy, then it turns to a man nurturing a lion cub that turns into a full-grown lion--just as, the Chorus sings, the Trojans nurtured Helen, who then wrought havoc on those who took her in. Through metonymy the ode refers to Paris; through metaphor it refers to Helen (718-26). In the end, however, the conquering Argives are likened to bloodthirsty lions when they attack Troy (825). The Chorus names Helen as the destroyer, finding a pun in the root of her name and the Greek word for destroy ("Who named you thus so truly in all things?... destroyer of ships, destroyer of men, destroyer of cities," 681-90). The woman functions as an excuse for war and her name marks her (687), but the army's behavior is in excess of justice. When the Chorus wants to blame Helen for the destruction of the army and the death of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra warns them not to think that she is the one who killed many men (1464). At the very least, Clytemnestra forces the audience to distinguish the actual killing, which was done by men, from Helen. The Agamemnon narrative, then, is a morally complex one; the implication from the beginning is that the Atreidae are not only victims of predation with Zeus's imprimatur, but also victimizers in their victory.
The virgin Iphigenia as well as the oft-married Helen is used to make the war possible. (36) Like Helen, Iphigenia is seen only at a considerable distance, since her story is recounted by the Chorus. The episode is deeply embedded in the longer narrative that sets the tone for the play--the Chorus's hopes and fears ("Sing sorrow, sorrow, may good win out in the end," 121, 139, 159), the power of Zeus and the other gods, the law of hospitality--making it clear that she is a means to the end, serving the purposes of larger cultural narratives. The layers surrounding her are noteworthy. Even when the Chorus is telling her story, we do not at first hear Iphigenia's voice; rather, her father is quoted, elaborating his conflict between war and family. Aeschylus puts Agamemnon squarely on the hook, presenting him making a choice ("putting on the yoke of necessity," 218) which determines what he will become. (37) Only then does the Chorus describe Iphigenia for us. This Iphigenia is pure victim, emphasis on the pure as well as on the victim. She is not named, but only mentioned as daughter to her father, a relationship pointedly not sufficient for her salvation:
Pouring then to the ground her saffron mantle She struck the sacrificers with The eyes' arrows of pity, Lovely as in a painted scene, and striving To speak--as many times At the kind festive table of her father She had sung, and in the clear voice of a stainless maiden With love had graced the song Of worship when the third cup was poured. (237-47; trans. Lattimore)
Two other female figures, Cassandra and Clytemnestra herself, on the other hand, dominate the revenge action. Cassandra, silent on the chariot, a powerful seer but one who is not believed, motivates part of Clytemnestra's anger, (38) and of course Clytemnestra, the woman with a man-counseling heart (11), takes control of the city and stage. In her husband's absence, Clytemnestra assumes power (she has set the Watchman and designed the beacon sign of the fall of Troy), which is contested by the Chorus time and time again. Her status is in part rhetorical. (39) In a visionary moment Clytemnestra prays against an exaggerated response by the Greek army, an attack on sanctuaries of the gods (338) that would delay the homecoming of Agamemnon's army. Though she pretends that she is merely hoping this sacrilege will not take place, she makes it happen poetically and magically by speaking of it (338-47). When Agamemnon calls the army an animal lapping blood (826) and notes that it has exacted double payment for the harm suffered, he confirms her vision and makes himself fit for the punishment she has devised. She then forces him to enact his own arrogance for the audience by rolling out tapestries not meant for human feet, and then tempting him to walk on them with her boasts of the wealth of the house; she goads him into acting like the eastern potentate he has just conquered by asking whether Priam would not have done the same (935). (40) In effect she stages an instance of the excess that led to the doom of the rest of the army and thus seems to justify her own revenge.
Even though the Chorus members have spoken harshly of the war ("Ares the moneychanger" exchanges living bodies for urns full of ashes [437-44], the corollary of our "body bags"), the revenge does not seem justified to them. (41) Once the conquering hero returns, they do a quick about-face and support him. Clytemnestra's power is eclipsed. Gender plays a role in choral opposition--it is unbearable to both Cassandra and the Chorus that a woman/wife should bring down the king/husband. Though she has claimed political power over the Chorus throughout the play, Clytemnestra is subordinated to Aegisthus at the end of the Agamemnon and killed by her son in the Choephoroi. When Athena establishes the court of the Areopagus in the Eumenides, she does so by alluding to her birth from the male and asserting that she sides with her father in all things (Eum. 735-41). In the end, when the court system is established, the jury of Athenian men plus Athena side with Orestes.
Though she is an agent, we must note that Clytemnestra is not only linked with female monsters like Scylla or an amphisbaena (Ag. 1233), but she is explicitly identified as a female who must be excluded from the city or civilized life. (42) To return briefly to the performance practices and their effect, let us not forget that in fifth-century B.C.E. Athens, these figures would have been realized on stage by male actors pretending to be women, which could mark them too as pieces in a game organized by men--though less so than the narrated figures of Iphigenia and Helen. Modern stagings, in which female characters are believably played by women, may, in contrast, emphasize the power of the female characters when they escape male control. This dual performance possibility underlines a duality within these figures, both deployed by others and acting as agents. In a similar duality, the triumphal conclusion of the Oresteia does seem to vindicate Agamemnon when it absolves Orestes from guilt; yet the Erinyes remain beneath Athens as Eumenides, kindly ones but powerful. (43) The lessons one takes from tragedy may depend on whether the focus is on the moral complexity, or on the closure achieved.
What can the play can tell us about wars on terrorism at the start of the twenty-first century? One, it suggests that we should look skeptically at women cited as causes for massive expeditions. One could argue on the basis of archaeological evidence that the Trojan War did take place but that it was caused not by a woman but by competition for trade routes; it was only one episode of many. (44) In essence, Helen was an excuse not the cause (cf. Polybius 3.6 on prophasis and aitia). (45) Why was it necessary even to suggest women as an excuse for American operations in Afghanistan? Perhaps to create the image of America as generous and not as vindictive. Second, as Aeschylus knew that Agamemnon had much in common with the Trojans, so we should be aware of the similarities between us and our enemies. We supported the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, and Saddam Hussein during the Cold War; thus, though they are represented as the enemy or villain in Bush's melodrama, they are not simply "others." The torture and photography of the humiliated prisoners at Abu Ghraib reveal the desire to treat our enemies as beneath consideration, but at the same time they demonstrate the similarity between "us" and "them," since this prison was the site for Hussein's torture. Third, we can see the sacrifice of Iphigenia as symbolic of the sacrifice of the young who always die in wars; but in the United States military today, those dying are not the sons of the President or of men of his class. On the whole, we have an army made up of young men (and increasingly women) who need the economic benefits provided by military service, that is, lower-class individuals. (46) Iphigenia can also stand for all the women civilians in Iraq and here who will lose out. In the choice of guns not butter, has not the quest to "liberate" Iraq come at the expense of our own poor people? In addition, Aeschylus's Agamemnon renders problematic America's claim to be settling accounts, and points to the dangers in moving from war against one person to war against a nation. Of course, the people of Afghanistan (and now of Iraq) were not responsible for destroying the World Trade Center, any more than the people of Troy were responsible for the seizure of Helen. Finally, Greek drama inevitably draws attention to the possibility of revenge. What form will revenge take in our day?
Although in the Oresteia women are both justification and necessary sacrifice for war, they are not simply victims: Clytemnestra is an agent. But she is not a free agent, for her desires are subsumed under the myth of the House of Atreus and she is placed within an action motivated not only by her own demands for blood, but also by Aegisthus's power struggle with Agamemnon. How are women today implicated in international struggles publicly figured as male? Insofar as Clytemnestra was both a male actor and a female character, agent and object, we (male and female audience members) can use her to think about our own ambiguous positions.
When Euripides turned to the Trojan War, the Peloponnesian War was his present-day reality. Troy was the model of a war (like the Persian Wars) against an Eastern outsider, yet when Euripides was staging many of his plays on the subject, Athens was at war with Sparta, in defense of an empire won after decisive encounters with the East in the Persian Wars. As Edith Hall points out in her introduction to a new volume made up of Euripides' war plays, "It is scarcely surprising that this type of brutality made an impact on contemporary drama." (47) Don Taylor is similarly clear in his introduction to the plays: "The reason for Euripides' concern with war stares at us from the face of history." (48) But how does Euripides mean us to understand his own society? It is not at all obvious what position he takes, even if we see clearly the concern with war, or that the plays had any effect. How then can we use his work to understand our own imperialist expansion, the contradictions between democracy and capitalism, democracy and imperialism? Clearly not in a simplistic or straightforward fashion.
Euripides answers the question of what tragedy can tell us about war and gender in two ways. He takes the Iphigenia vignette in Aeschylus and makes it the action of an entire play, Iphigenia at Aulis. In this version of the story, Agamemnon's daughter has been brought to Aulis on the pretext of a marriage to Achilles, and her presence and that falsehood are major elements in the plot. The play opens with the dilemma of Agamemnon and his struggle with Menelaus about carrying out the sacrifice. While Aeschylus's Iphigenia is pure victim, silenced both by the action and by its mode of representation, Euripides' Iphigenia speaks. She thus moves from object of discourse to apparent subjectivity. Iphigenia enters joyfully, glad to see her father; she is next a maiden terrified of death, and then transformed into a young woman willingly embracing it. We must work through the causes and the effects of such a transformation. (49)
Even more than Aeschylus, Euripides questions the motives for war. From the outset, the Iphigenia at Aulis makes prominent just how these can be manipulated. The opening sets the tone of ambiguity and indecision; letters are being written and unwritten, sent and recalled. The dialogue between Agamemnon and Menelaus challenges Agamemnon's statements of fact in the prologue: Did Agamemnon really oppose sending for his daughter, or did he, as Menelaus argues, seek the leadership of the army (337) and an opportunity to win fame (kleos, 357; philotimon, 342, 385)? Characters in the play blame Helen over and over again (e.g., 76, 467, 573-89 [Paris and Helen], 683). But Helen is merely an excuse for a nation of men who want to go to war. Her case is amplified until she comes to stand for all Greek women who must be protected from barbarian rapists (370-72, 1266, 1275, 1380-82). From the beginning, though, the underpinnings of that position have been questioned: Is the war for Greece, or is it for Menelaus's private pleasure in the wife he could not even keep (382-84, 389)? If it is for Greece, it is still not necessarily rationally motivated: after Menelaus suggests that the war is Greece's chance to do something really noble and worthwhile (370-71), Agamemnon agrees, but he calls his own country ill (411). Starting the play with an argument underlines its dialogic quality. We never know whom to trust, if anyone, in this play. (50)
Perhaps this is the play's most valuable lesson for modern readers: Iphigenia at Aulis puts into high relief the use of women as a justification (just as the Iraq "war" placed the United States in a situation where other excuses were fabricated or asserted, e.g., weapons of mass destruction and the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein). As in this play, the forward movement of the military gains its own momentum (when so many troops were amassed near Iraq, there was never any doubt that they would have to be used, as there was no doubt at Aulis). The Greeks used regaining a woman as an excuse to engage in a war of conquest. The women of Afghanistan, the weapons of mass destruction, were American rationalizations. Rape, ironically, or fear of rape, is part of the reality for women in the chaos of present-day Iraq, as it is in many war-torn societies.
Euripides also consistently focuses on the female victims of war. While the Oresteia talks about the sacrifice of a maiden, the Iphigenia at Aulis represents it. The presence of Iphigenia and Clytemnestra in the Argive camp underlines the paradox of an art form that emphasizes women and the family in a city that excluded women: in a war supposedly based on women and for women, women are out of place. This point is made clear by Agamemnon's plea with his wife to go home, by Achilles' embarrassment in facing her, and by Iphigenia's modesty. Iphigenia must remain inside if at all possible (993-94, 998-99, 1340). Because of Euripides' plot device, the public/private and male/female binaries are destabilized. (51)
Euripides uses the awkwardness to good effect. At the outset, Iphigenia's enactment on stage gives poignant prominence to what is lost in war. We see her and her love for her father. Her girlish pleasure is excruciating for an audience that already knows what is about to happen, having witnessed the scene between Agamemnon and Menelaus. Her resistance to death is strong, allowing Euripides to emphasize further the waste of war. In response to her, Agamemnon asserts the position that he had contested earlier: "It is Greece for which I must sacrifice you whether I want to or not. We are all less important than this: Greece must be free, and so much as it is in you and me for her to be free, so much we must do, and not, since we are Greeks, have our wives taken from us by force, by barbarians" (1721-75; trans. Gamel). But Iphigenia still does not want to die; she laments her death and blames Helen and Paris in the song immediately following (1279-335).
At a crucial moment, however, Iphigenia changes her mind and supports her father, and this is the main use Euripides makes of her. Aristotle draws attention to the unlikelihood of this transformation (Poet. 15, 1454a31), which should give us pause as well. Iphigenia takes Agamemnon's self-serving and lying speech and makes it real; we see the effect of her sacrifice on Achilles--he falls in love with her. How then are we to take her moment of heroism? Is this fetishism, as I argued in Anxiety Veiled, or the triumph of love, as Helene Foley argued in Ritual Irony? It is hard to imagine that Euripides simply cheers Athens on against its enemies through this reworking of the Trojan War story, but given the glory of this Iphigenia and the effect she has on the Chorus, the internal audience that Euripides carefully deploys, it is also hard to dismiss her as a dupe.
Looking at the play in the context of the current war, it seems that Iphigenia faces necessity. Earlier in the play, Agamemnon sounded paranoid or even duplicitous when he argued that he must go ahead with the sacrifice because Odysseus knows and the army will come to Argos to attack his family if he does not. But that fear is realized: Achilles has just told Iphigenia that his own men have turned against him (1344-67). There is indeed no way out.
Instead of allowing herself to be dragged off, Iphigenia assumes subjectivity by committing herself to the war effort. Her decision underlines the cost of war but also illuminates the illusion that makes it happen again and again. We have here an example perhaps of the way in which the heart and the mind can be in conflict. The audience knows that Agamemnon is self-serving, that Achilles is not half the man that Iphigenia is, yet she moves us. So, we can realize that the pity we felt for the victims of terrorism was being manipulated for the war effort, yet still feel stirred by the rhetoric and music used to stimulate patriotism. Does Iphigenia's choice move the audience to forget her father's base motives? Perhaps, because Achilles praises her (1421-23), and the female Chorus immediately begins the process of glorifying Iphigenia for her sacrifice: "Your glory will never leave you" (1504). It is not surprising that they do so, for they entered the stage singing of the glories of the Greek army. (52) Smitten with Achilles, they were excited to see him and the other Myrmidons. This Chorus of women reaffirms the heroic masculine project. Don Taylor puts it thus:
Euripides [has] seen that in war it is always the young who suffer and die, and vulgar rhetoric encourages them to do so with flags in their hands and tunes of glory on their lips. What we have seen in the play is the corruption of two potentially heroic women by the degraded atmosphere of the army camp, a world in which morality has disappeared and self interest and violence rule. The two women arrive in this military world, and they are destroyed by it, Clytemnestra being transformed into an avenging fury, and Iphigenia becoming that most tragic of spectacles, an innocent allowing herself to be used as an icon of vulgar patriotism and destruction. (53)
This is a little too facile, however. Iphigenia is co-opted into supporting nationalism and Panhellenism, and that is not a simple process. The terrifying thing is that her quest for glory through sacrifice apparently succeeds in the play. Moreover, her choice (death kicking and screaming, or death willingly) turns out to be the only one that American citizens had regarding Iraq: war kicking and screaming, or war willingly. Iphigenia makes one ask, "What are the benefits given to women and others who oppose war in order to win them over?" Is it a threat (of violence) or a promise (of glory)? Iphigenia shows how those two modes of persuasion work. In our own day, people who might be assumed, on the basis of their race and/or gender, to identify with the outsiders to power (Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice) are sucked into the tragedy.
The Trojan Women looks like the antiwar play par excellence; the Greek victors are terrible, and their victims are noble. (54) Small wonder that even though it seems that nothing happens (more like an oratorio than a drama, said Sartre in the introduction to his version), it has been staged often in the twentieth century to oppose war. (55) In France it was a vehicle for opposing colonialism in Algeria and Vietnam; Andrei Serban produced it chillingly in the 1960s at La Mama, where the audience felt the claustrophobia and fear of the slave women as they waited to be admitted to the theater. In the current situation, the Greek play--with its assurance that all will die, and much wringing of hands--seems all too applicable. As Nicole Loraux points out,
In a world where even fundamental divisions seem obscure, and where Manicheism is not a comfortable option, expressions of mourning have become, if not a weapon of war, at least the only weapon in a struggle that is unarmed, or hopeless. Today, grief is often the grief of mothers, like that of Hecuba and Andromache in The Trojan Women. (2002: 13 n. 26)
A recent staging in a New York performance of the play used a Chorus of presumably Afghan women with their heads covered to make the point: What is left of Afghanistan, what will be left of Iraq?
The Trojan Women takes place after the war is over, on the shores just beneath Troy about to go up in flames; it focuses on the Trojan women (and the prince of the royal family), for the Trojan men are all dead and the Greek victors appear only briefly. Like Agamemnon and Iphigenia at Aulis, this play debates the causes of the war and reveals its costs. The opening prologue with Athena and Poseidon informs the audience that the supposed winners will pay a price for their vicious conduct as they sacked Troy. In the recent production that I saw, the updating for the modern audience led to the elimination of this scene. As a result, the cost of war seemed to be borne by women exclusively--whereas Euripides' play questions the justice of the gods who are supposedly in charge and makes it explicit that the Greeks too will suffer. At the time of its production in Athens (415), the Athenians were in a brief respite from war, but about to embark on a campaign in Sicily; men in the audience might have identified as the Greeks versus the Trojans, men versus the women, and hoped to be the victors. The prologue shows the dangers attendant on victory, as it can remind us that there are no winners in nuclear war. (56)
The Trojan Women, like Iphigenia at Aulis, might also be unsettling because it undercuts a traditional polarity in tragedy and Greek thought. (57) While the Persian Wars and Trojan War pit East against West, and presumably barbarians against Greece, here the Hellenes are called barbarians (764) and fearful (1159) when they take the life of a small child, lest his noble blood lead to a Trojan uprising. The horror is underlined by having even the Greek herald commiserate with the boy's mother and grandmother (e.g., 710). The barbarian theme is complicated again when Hecabe asserts that Helen was won over by barbarian gold, not by Aphrodite, raising the possibility that the Greeks were similarly won over by the prospect of ruling Troy and its wealth (991-97). The imperialistic element is mentioned explicitly in Helen's version of the Beauty Contest. Helen argues that Paris was offered rule over Hellas or rule over Asia, but chose her instead; as a result, Hellas should thank her for their freedom (933-34). And Andromache mourns for her son Astyanax in part because he was to have ruled Asia (748). The barbarian/Greek polarity is further undercut by the privileging of the Trojan women, especially Andromache and Hecabe, over the Greek Helen. Andromache is virtuous and loyal, in contrast to Helen, and Hecabe has the force of reason on her side, traits that Greeks (like Jason in Medea for instance) liked to reserve for themselves. (58)
Athenians in the audience, male or female, could also have identified with the victims--they might have thought of their own women and children who had been taken as slaves at Plataea, for instance; if so, the nobility of the Trojans would be consoling. If they identified with the victors, however, either as men or as Greeks, that nobility and strength of character could of course be intimidating. In the version that I saw in New York City, the point was being made explicitly that the women of Troy were like the women of Afghanistan, left widowed, without housing, and without food, and like many war widows, the victims of sexual assault. In that production, the women's strength came through loud and clear. Cassandra will be responsible for Agamemnon's death (and Hecabe will lift herself up in the Hecabe and bring vengeance to her enemies). Our expected enemies are not simply helpless, no more than Cassandra was; and having made war on the man President Bush likes to characterize as evil, etc., what strength from the victims will come back to haunt us?
To return, then, to a question that I have been circling around/asking repeatedly: Why are women so prominent in these plays, given that they were excluded from the polis and excluded from the army? On the one hand, using women inevitably raises questions of power; the situations of Iphigenia and the Trojan women stress the pathos of having to pay for a war without having the power to declare it or fight it. We can learn a great deal if we remember Athens as a brutal empire that was also a democracy for citizen men; we refer back to it, as Warren says, in these times, and by so doing, we can learn something not only about democracy, but about the limitations of democracy, and about the contradictions of freedom for some, and slavery for others. The Greek was to rule the barbarian, man was to rule woman, as the famous "Thales" citation (Diogenes Laertius 1.33) makes clear: he is fortunate because he is a man (not an animal), a man (not a woman), and Greek (not barbarian). Aeschylus and Euripides reveal the brutality of war, the cost to family that it claims to protect, even as the war on terrorism threatens to erode domestic programs for women, and our own freedoms as citizens. Is it terrorism or the war on terrorism that might demand the expansion of the Patriot Act? The United States government and media do not seem to care about any casualties other than our own (as if a war where no American citizens die is not really a war); the plays of Euripides with "others" who are indistinguishable from citizen wives might problematize that distinction for our fearless leaders. Moreover, even Hesiod's nightingale, in a parable meant to illustrate the power of the powerful, might be able to do a little harm to the hawk (Op. 202-12).
On the other hand, representing war through its effects on women can show what encourages people to buy into violence when it is not obviously in their interests. While the nationalistic ideology of war uses Iphigenia, it also enables her to find herself desirable and admirable. Iphigenia embraces her father's logic, the Chalcidean women of the Chorus admire the heroes, and in so doing they are part of the war machine. Helen and Cassandra both argue that the war has made the fame (kleos) of the men. As shown most clearly in the case of the representation of Clytemnestra (and Athena), it is not biology that makes women oppose violence and war (as Abu Ghraib's female abusers also confirm).
This essay is embedded in larger questions about the universal versus the specific meanings of tragedy, which are themselves related to some extent to the religious/political debate. To what extent can avowedly progressive critics use the lessons of tragedy without succumbing to the flattening effects of humanism? Cautiously, I would say that these plays elucidate structures in the relationship between gender, war, and power; there are similarities between the Athenian imperial democracy and the American imperial democracy. In particular, the way women were deployed in the justification of the war in Afghanistan and in the justification of the Trojan War makes Greek tragedy's critique of war useful for the contemporary reader interested in understanding what might be at stake today. This reading, then, is about why Greek tragedy is good to think with, at the same time that I recognize that this art form will not change political realities now any more than the plays did in their own day.
(1) This essay is dedicated to the memory of Shilpa Raval. It was presented at Hamilton College and at Yale University, at which time I was fortunate enough to have insightful comments from Shilpa and Margaret Homans. I would also like to thank the anonymous readers, and Steve Oberhelman for his sharp editorial work.
(2) Gabler 2.
(3) James 15. In the discourse surrounding American torture in Iraqi jails, photographs again play an important role. "In our digital hall of mirrors, the pictures aren't going to go away. Yes, it seems that one picture is worth a thousand words. And even if our leaders choose not to look at them, there will be thousands more snapshots and videos. Unstoppable" (Sontag).
(4) Kinzer 2001: 1.
(5) Gabler 2.
(6) Frye 47 defines melodrama as showing "the triumph of moral virtue over villainy, and the consequent idealizing of the moral views assumed to be held by the audience"; he takes melodrama as "advance propaganda for the police state"; Brooks, esp. xi, 25. On melodrama and its relation to feminism, see, e.g., Gledhill. I thank my colleague Dana Luciano for sharing with me her paper ("Missing: Memorial and Re-Vision," Modern Language Association Annual Meeting, 2002) on the openness of the flyers for the missing after the attacks, in contradistinction to the "rapid national construction of a single, sufficient narrative about the 'meaning' of the World Trade Center bombing." Death did turn into national vendetta, but the memorials were separate, as Luciano suggests. Some tragedy revolves around mourning and lamentation: Foley 2001:14 et passim; Loraux 2002; Lardinois and McClure 11. Indeed, the relationship between mourning and tragedy was the starting place of this essay. For the importance of the Athenian funerary oration, see Loraux 1986; Seaford 74-86 on Solonic legislation, 84 on gender, 92-105 on reciprocal violence and Athens, 132 on Eumenides, 139-43 on lamentation and tragedy. For a summary of the relationship of the epitaphios and tragedy, see Katz 81-88.
(7) Seelye and Bumiller 16.
(8) Cited in Schmemann 1.
(9) Bush 2001b: 5.
(10) Cited by Brown 5.
(13) Stout 4.
(14) Federal News Service, 4 October 2001; the President also called them "moms who wear cover" in a meeting at the Islamic Center (Federal News Service, 17 September 2001). On Bush's ignorance and the confusion with "women of color," see Safire.
(15) An interesting article in the New York Times (18 November 2001: 9.1) by David Rohde makes the connection and the contradiction explicit: "First, network news programs broadcast images of Afghan women removing their burkas.... At the same time, news images showed Afghan men using their new freedom to do what men do: they went out and bought television sets. A few hours later, it looked as if Americans were aping a similar movement, but in translation, the sublime became the ridiculous. On network television, models had peeled away their clothing and were showing off thong panties as ABC broadcast the Victoria's Secret fashion show." Liberation as clothing and consumerism!
(16) Stanley 4.
(17) Eisenstein; King.
(18) Eisenstein points out the parallels between "East" and "West" in their treatment of women: "Neither side embraces women's full economic and political equality or sexual freedom. In this sense fluidity has always existed in the arena of women's rights and obligations between the two. The Taliban's insistence on the burkha and the United States military's deployment of women fighter pilots are used to overdraw and misrepresent the oppositional stance." She emphasizes "the similarities between these different formulations of patriarchal privilege." See Eisenstein 80, 83; also above, note 13. While I have benefited greatly from Eisenstein's essay, it is most significant to me that the United States wants to heighten the contrast in order to justify its actions.
(19) There are many articles on this point at the RAWA web site; see, for instance, Leopold.
(20) Loraux 2002: 11 makes a similar point about France. For specific and immediate responses to the attacks on the World Trade Center in relation to tragedy, see Romain.
(21) Kinzer 2003.
(22) Eagleton xxvi refers to the Left's suspicion of tragedy; but Greek plays have often been staged with a progressive political agenda in mind. To take just one example, see Sartre's version of Trojan Women in 1965 (a response to Algeria, according to Edith Hall, and to Vietnam, according to Loraux 2002). Green opposes seeing Trojan Women as an antiwar play at all.
(24) What is the view of Athens in antiwar tragedy? For an interesting consideration of the tension between popular (idealizing) notions of Athens and Thucydides' critique of empire, see Mills 79-86. Athens in the extant tragedies is viewed very positively, though the horrors of war are made clear.
(25) For a succinct statement of the relationship between humanism and colonialism, see Sartre 1963: 7-8 and 1967: xiii. Sourvinou-Inwood 9, 47-50 relates tragedy's universality to its exploration of religious questions; she argues that emphasis on universality has wrongly led to underplaying the religious aspect of tragedy. I would add that the same emphasis on universality leads to an underplaying of the Athenian political meaning of tragedy. Nonetheless, ritual references also lead to the "zooming" of the text into the world of the audience (Sourvinou-Inwood 231-46 on Oresteia). Dealing with political interpretations of the playwright, Bowie 12 points out the many mythical and ritual aspects of the trilogy; these, he argues, make up a pattern that "provides a filter through which the Athenians can look at the recent changes to the political scene and make sense of them."
(26) The work of Jean-Pierre Vernant and the Centre Louis Gernet school established the importance of social context in understanding Greek tragedy; Vernant's crucial points for later critics are, first, that the drama is about Athens (it "turned itself into a theatre"), though he notes that it "does not reflect that reality but calls it into question" (9). Second, tensions and ambiguities are caused by tragedy's double system of referents--the world of legend and the reality of the audience. On anachronisms in Agamemnon which refer to recent Athenian experiences of war, see Leahy, esp. 4-5, 6-7, where he discusses funeral urns and Athenian public funerals. See too next note.
(27) Eagleton 108-09 relates the lack of "sure distinction" to myth on the one hand and to the Freudian notion of over-determination on the other. Nussbaum, esp. 25, similarly emphasizes the ethical value of these complications in tragedy.
(28) Mendelsohn 2.
(29) A certain political interpretation of tragedy has become prevalent. See, e.g., Euben 1986 and 1990; Longo; Meier; Somerstein et al. 19; Wiles; Goldhill. But as Nicole Loraux 2002: 14 asserts vehemently, "The theater of Dionysus is not in the agora"--nor was it located in the pnyx. For strong critiques of this tendency to political readings, see Griffin; Sourvinou-Inwood 1-12. Croally 5 melds the two, political and religious: "An event of great civic importance in fifth-century Athens was also inevitably of religious significance."
(30) For the significance of the male actor, see Rabinowitz 1998; for a recent summary of evidence on the exclusion of women, Griffith; on importance of female characters, Rabinowitz 2004.
(31) Nussbaum xxxi-xxxii also takes up the relationship between tragedy and contemporary ethics; she sees Aeschylus and Euripides as stressing the relationship between "grim necessity" and "bad behavior." Cf. Williams.
(32) In our own day, the comparison would be to the United Nations. In the months before the United States went to war with Iraq, it was urged by peace activists to "let the inspections work," that is, to use the United Nations instead of "going it alone" in Iraq. On the simultaneous attraction of and problem posed by revenge for Attic tragedy, see Burnett 1998: xvii-xviii, 99-118 on Choephoroi, 225 on change toward the end of the Peloponnesian War when civil disturbance was actual. Leahy 8 emphasizes the "antiheroic, disillusioned tone, which robs even victory of its glamour." Leahy ultimately reconciles this aspect with two others, one a strong theodicy pointing to Agamemnon's guilt (20-23). As Margaret Homans pointed out in her oral response to an early version of this essay, the Eumenides trial scene is only seemingly "objective" since Athena announces that she favors the male in all things.
(33) Wohl 71-86 links Iphigenia and Helen as agalmata.
(34) On the word for "young," see Elata-Alster 37-38, pointing out the linguistic paradox; Fraenkel ad loc.; Denniston and Page ad loc. Of course, as with all the imagery in this trilogy, there are many referents, as Lebeck 1 et passim points out.
(35) On what motivates this anger, see, inter alios, Denniston and Page xiv-xv, xxiii-xxix; Elata-Alster; Fraenkel 2: 97-99; Furley; Lebeck; Lloyd-Jones 1962 and 1983; Peradotto; Stuart; Whallon; Zeitlin 1965: 463-64.
(36) On the sacrifice and scapegoating, see Suzuki 5-9.
(37) The bibliography on Agamemnon's choice is extensive; see, e.g., Nussbaum 32-47; Dover, esp. 65-67; Lloyd-Jones 1962.
(38) On the silence, see Taplin 77-78; Wohl 110-17.
(39) On Clytemnestra's rhetorical power, see Foley 2001: 207-34; McClure, chap. 3. On her masculinity, Rabinowitz 1981; Winnington-Ingram; Zeitlin 1978. Katz 88-91 points out that her masculinity is not assumed but created through language.
(40) Foley 2001: 210 also makes this point; see Morrell 154 on Easternness and femininity as related terms, 151-52, 155-57, and n. 21 on the question of what kind of cloth this is; Conacher 38 and n. 71; Lebeck 74-79; Wohl 86-87, who discusses this cloth as an example of the misuse of agalmata.
(41) Leahy 6-7 connects this image to contemporary Athens.
(42) For a fuller working out of this point, see Rabinowitz 2004. Foley 2001: 228 has recently argued that though Clytemnestra claims political power over the Chorus, she is re-feminized; McClure 72 argues: "Women's speech must be regulated, and persuasion stripped of femininity." For feminists, Athena remains a bitter pill--this is a woman who is more like a man.
(43) For a consideration of the lessons to be learned despite the masculinity of the genre, see Wohl 1998: 179-82. When I presented this paper at Yale University, respondent Margaret Homans could not accept that the invention of the jury trial represented any kind of progress because of the fate of the Erinyes. Their utilization for fertility in the future, like Athena's masculinity, seems to minimize or control female power.
(44) For a popular layperson's discussion of this material, see Wood 206-08, 212-14, 241, 249.
All this depends on many factors, e.g., the historicity of the Trojan War and its date. The war, if it really occurred, has been dated anywhere from 1400 B.C.E. to the end of the eleventh century; see the excellent summary of the different views in Hood, who offers extensive bibliography.
The economic reasons would center on Mycenaean encroachments in western and southern Turkey. See the essays in Mellink, and in Foxhall and Davies. For the Mycenaean presence, this has been amply discussed by many; Guterbock is the starting point.
(45) Helen was contested as the cause of the Trojan War in antiquity: Stesichorus's Palinodia, Euripides' Helen, Herodotus 2.116. Thucydides 1.4-9 discusses piracy and sea battles as the necessary background for the Peloponnesian War. Thanks to Steve Oberhelman for the Polybius reference.
(46) On rural poverty and war in Iraq, see Bishop; on racial disproportion in the United States military, see Halbfinger and Holmes. The Associated Press quotes Army Staff Sgt. William M. Cox as saying, "Whether it's for money for college or just a way to make a living [inductees] are looking at the money."
(47) Hall xi. Earlier historians (e.g., Delebecque and Goossens) made specific comparisons between the Trojan War and the Peloponnesian War. Following her own religious interpretation, Sourvinou-Inwood 361, in contrast, sees emphasis on the symbolic distance from Athenian reality.
(48) Taylor xiii.
(49) See Rabinowitz 1993: 38-54, with references.
(50) Croally 161 makes the same point about Trojan Women.
(51) Croally 70-119 on the disturbing of polarities, male/female among others; 169-92 on space and gender, with other references.
(52) The Chorus reminds me of the articles about hunky firefighters after the attack on the World Trade Center, or shots of businesswomen watching construction workers on their lunch hours in Chicago--the female gaze re-inscribing male physical desirability.
(53) Taylor xxvi-xxvii. He makes the comparison to Wilfred Owen's antiwar poem on Abraham and Isaac.
(54) Croally 232. See Taylor for a list of the relevant atrocities: Melos or Sicilian invasion, Plataea, Mitylene, Scione. He points out that "It was a war conducted with little mercy on either side" (xxix-xxx); Hall xvii; cf. Green, opposing the view that it relates to the immorality of Melos. Loraux 2002: 82 outlines "a conflictual reading of tragedy" that retains "the politics that prescribes forgetting and the mourning that regenerates memory."
(55) Sartre 1967: xii. Sienkewica 81 relates the two views: "Although the Trojan Women has been praised as a fierce condemnation of war, it is often reduced in the next critical breath to a disconnected series of scenes, a group of pathetic scenarios." Critics like Burnett 1977: 291 and Gilmartin 213 nn. 1-2 use the attacks on the play's structure as a jumping-off place for their own discovery of organization.
(56) Sartre 1967: xii-xiii, pace Green.
(57) Croally 103-15, 205.
(58) For similarities of Greeks and Trojans in the Hecabe, see Segal 110.
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|Author:||Rabinowitz, Nancy Sorkin|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2005|
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