The Beauty Myth


Greek tragedy hasn’t been exactly kind to Helen of Troy. Accused of igniting the Trojan War, the Spartan queen is as renowned for her beauty as her unfaithfulness. By all (male) accounts, her infamous dalliance with Paris wrought the complete destruction of a prosperous Asian city, not to mention the bloodletting of a generation of Greek men. A choral ode in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (provocatively rendered by Ted Hughes) lays the decade-long carnage squarely at her perfumed feet: “The name Helen/Not so much a name as an earthquake/To bounce a city to burning rubble./Not a name but a plague./Spreading scream by scream from city to city,/As houses become tombs.” In Euripides’ The Trojan Women (translated here by Richmond Lattimore), Paris’s mother Hecuba doesn’t even allow Helen the luxury of palming off her adultery on the gods: “My son was handsome beyond all other men./You looked at him, and sense went Cyprian at the sight,/ since Aphrodite is nothing but the human lust,/named rightly. . . . ”

Can’t a good-looking girl get a break in the ancient world? Actually, Euripides cut Helen some slack a few years after writing The Trojan Women—his revisionist melodrama Helen elaborates on a variant of the myth found in Herodotus’s The Histories, in which Menelaus’s supermodel wife never made it to Troy but instead sat out the war innocently in Egypt. Ellen McLaughlin’s often brilliant new play, Helen, anachronistically imagines what this woman’s life was like, holed up in a four-star hotel overlooking the grand pyramids. After 17 years of bad foreign TV with absolutely no coverage of the siege of Troy and its chaotic aftermath, Helen (a ravishing Donna Murphy) waits for her husband (Denis O’Hare) to both retrieve and redeem her. It’s bad enough having to put up with a recalcitrant servant (Marian Seldes wearing a Cleopatra wig), but worse knowing a copy of your very being has been fashioned out of thin air by Hera, making every lie said of you an apparent truth.

Unlike Euripides’ suspenseful comic-drama of escape, McLaughlin’s Helen proves more deeply meditative on the plight of women as objects of beauty, as refugees from men’s violence, and as human beings of limited freedom and therefore possibility. Helen’s hotel room is both a luxurious prison and a metaphor for a gender oppression that’s as psychologically internalized as it is socially enforced. The play also searchingly investigates the gap between our private selves and the public stories that serve as our false, albeit more entertaining, substitutes. When Athena (a sassy, silver-clad Phylicia Rashad) drops in after a brief visit from poor, sexually harassed Io (Johanna Day in white cow ears), it becomes clear that our mortal lives, with their poignant beginnings, middles, and ends, provide irresistible narrative fodder—sport not only for the gods but for ourselves, no matter how self-damaging the yarns may be.

Though static in comparison to the brisk intrigue of the original, McLaughlin’s update has an authentic tragic current that compensates for the play’s theatrical deficiencies, most notably a longueur-ish garrulity that hampers the second act. Tony Kushner’s sensitive direction—as elegant as Michael Yeargan’s contempo-Egyptian set—allows his cast the silence needed to register the expansive implications of their words. And no one does this more powerfully than Murphy, who restores Helen’s wounded dignity by embodying not only her character’s sorry history but its universal patterns and meanings. Dressed in diaphanous flounce, her hair a waterfall of blond ringlets, she gives us not only an image of beauty but the stunted heartbreak underneath.

While it wouldn’t be fair to reveal the new Helen‘s ending, suffice it to say that Menelaus’s scruffy return from shipwreck doesn’t signal the sacrifice of feminist perceptiveness for Euripidean thrill. Along with Charles L. Mee’s Big Love, which recast Aeschylus’s Suppliants into a galvanic modern fable, McLaughlin’s poetic reconstruction demonstrates that, perhaps even more than Shakespeare, it’s the Greeks who are our truest contemporaries.

Moonwork’s Voices From the Hill offers a musical appreciation of Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology, a work whose enduring quality lies more in the largeness of its moral scope than in any linguistic originality. The cycle of poems—Whitmanesque only in their canvassing of our diverse national spirit, not in the inertness of their lyrical forms—distills the testimonies of characters buried in an Illinois graveyard. While the various speakers may invite theatrical impersonation, Masters’s writing poses dramatic challenges that Gregory Wolfe’s spare production doesn’t so much solve as mask with music. There’s an et cetera quality to the serialized list of chattering corpses, with ironies canceling each other out and social insights pitched to the whisper of the page. Still, the likable cast does a commendable job with the material, particularly in those moments composed by Andrew Sherman and Rusty Magee, who unfortunately didn’t get to set all of the selected poems to music. Masters’s words blend blandly together when spoken onstage. But when converted to song, they momentarily ring out with individuality.

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