Saturday 24 November 2012

What the Hecuba-Actress wasn't allowed to say to the Bishops

Manual for Women Bishops

Monday felt like a good day for the ancient history of women past their youth who exert societal influence. I was thrilled to be Chris Evans’ ‘Mystery Guest’ on BBC Radio 2, invited to explain the identity of the ’16 Vestal Virgins’ in Procol Harum’s classic song ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’. I wish I'd had time to add that ‘procol harum’ is an approximate and mis-spelt (procul would be correct) Latin translation of the 1960s slogan FAR OUT

To inflame further my enthusiasm for ancient priestly women, I received advance copies of my labour-of-love Adventures with Iphigenia in Tauris (OUP New York), a book-length harangue about the most important priestess--ever--of the girl-goddess Artemis/Diana.

Forget it, girls.
But on Tuesday, alas, uppity females aspiring to leadership got their usual come- uppance. The Church of England voted to exclude women from even diocese-level authority. This took me right back to my Anglican childhood when I was told I couldn’t sing in the church choir because, as a girl, my voice was ‘impure’. Tell that to ancient female choruses for Artemis.

Poster for Trojan Women currently at the Gate
The same evening I got even more depressed about the current state of women in civic and spiritual leadership, at a largely excellent adaptation of Euripides’ Trojan Women in London (the Gate Theatre, Notting Hill). Acidic, fresh, and animated, the (fine poet) Caroline Bird’s (wholly unpoetic) script made great arguments in support of teenage girls, psychotic females, and young mothers perinatally. But it collapsed completely in feminist terms when it came to Hecuba. She was dumbed down, lost all her authority, turned into a total snob and made insensitive to her daughter and daughter-in-law.

In the original, Euripidean Trojan Women, however, Hecuba offers THE SOLE ROLE IN  WORLD THEATRE UNTIL BRECHT (notwithstanding Ibsen) where a non-villainous female is given the psychological stature and eloquence equivalent to  e.g. Shakespeare’s Lear.  Full  stop. End of. Treat her with respect!

Hollywood blacklists Hecuba
I still have not recovered from Wolfgang Petersen’s bewildering decision to delete altogether the unforgettable Iliadic Hecuba from his Brad-Pitt-Fest Troy (2005): Peter O'Toole, as a mysteriously single King Priam, was left pathetically 'throne alone'. 

So when it comes to Hecuba’s other great literary manifestation, in Euripides’ darkest tragedy, as the magnificent, bereaved leader of Troy in its last hours and last rituals, please could young feminists be careful? Do we really want to take all the tragic heroism out of the only middle-aged woman that ancient Mediterranean literature ever took with any degree of seriousness?  I understand and sympathise with all young Amazons' need to Kill the Mother, but it was the Fathers, surely, who were and still are really responsible for destroying Troy?


  1. I worked on Troy. I don't think the decision to remove Hecuba was Wolfgang's - not that I'm necessarily defending his direction, but there were a number of sweeping decisions made very early on which as far as I could tell were the result of a half-arsed early script which forces in California decided to stick with more or less unchanged throughout. The one I remember actively querying was the decision to condense ten years into about six weeks; even the producers couldn't find much of an answer - it had just sort of happened. This kind of thing happened a lot. I fear Hecuba's death might have been one of neglect.

    My sister directed Trojan Women with some students in Cumbria earlier this year. I'll ask her what she did with Hecuba.

    1. Hi Matt, well I won't be rude about Wolfgang, then. But honestly, 'half-arsed' doesn't even get it when it comes to deleting Hecuba. What capacity did you work on the film in?

    2. I'd say I was a researcher, but I think they rather grandly called me a consultant or research consultant or something, a) because I was freelance, and b) because nobody else really knew what they were doing anyway. I started off working mostly with the armouries, costume, special effects, design people, and so on, mostly to do with the composition and equipment of the soldiery, which I'd done on a couple of previous productions (including an ultimately unproduced version of Alexander), which is all my 'expertise' really stretched to at the time. Film people have a habit of making use of you for everything if they like you, so I was used for historial research more generally as Troy went on - and then ignored entirely, of course. My other work at the time was in the games industry, so the idea was that I would have sufficient understanding of what constitutes 'entertainment' to take the pragmatic approach about any use of creative licence, while being sufficiently knowledgeable to make sure anything really dumb or outrageous wasn't included. Which is all completely pointless when, as I found out, they'd pretty much decided to stick with the script as it was, it being itself seemingly virtually unresearched. The writer never came to the UK as far as I'm aware or met with any of us working in development at - I forget - Shepperton, I think, and when we tried to feed back matters of concern it just never really happened. This is typical. My own personal nadir was a four hour debate about some great balls of fire the special effects people seemed determined to insert for no particular reason, and the bizarre decision to stage most of the major battles on the beach, rather than outside the city itself. If I tell you that I've never actually seen the film, you'll perhaps appreciate that I concur with your disappointment. To me it felt like a demonstration in how not to make decisions, really. It was in part the lingering feeling of massive and unnecessary ignorance that my time in the film industry left me with that eventually provided me the inspiration to study history and classics properly, and to reasses various aspects of what I take to be the important elements of creative work.

  2. Weren't you collaborating with my favourite poet Tony Harrison in producing Iphigenia in Tauris for the theater. Any news on that? Harrison's introduction in the published version of his Hecuba translation from some years ago is also well worth a read.

  3. Rehan, the play is virtually finished and has already workshopped for a week at the National Theatre Studio. It is a new play, completely brilliant and set in the Crimean War, with a bunch of British soldiers dressing up as ancient Greek women and performing Iphigenia in Tauris. Funny and touching Watch this space or my website for more news soon... next we need to get a suitable theatre to take it on...