Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Heracles: Modern Lessons from Ancient Tales

What can Ancient Greek texts tell us about our modern times? Aquila Theatre would argue they tell us just as much today as they did when they were first performed. In the case of Euripides's Heracles during the Peloponnesian War during the 400s BCE, the horrors of war and violence brought home mirror the stories of today's veterans. At the USC Vision and Voices event I attended last night, I was in absolute awe at the integration of Greek themes in modern wars, not the least of which were two of the actors who were themselves veterans of the Vietnam War. Additionally, the chorus, a staple of Greek theatre, was played by footage of interviews with veterans echoing themes of chorus lines in the original script. The acting was impressive, especially behind the main characters' masks and the interpretation of madness striking Heracles was nothing short of incredible. The real reason I would like to write this post, though, is not necessarily to praise the play, but to discuss the salient points about war and narrative that it evokes.
Heracles Performance

What was most striking about the event was the similarity in war narratives from all veterans from WWII to Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, which were all ultimately similar to the Peloponnesian narrative of Heracles. The themes of loss, isolation, madness, and brotherhood span the gaps of space and time and were apparent in every veteran's war narrative. I will expand about these similarities below, but first, I would like to pose the question about what this means for our servicemen and women, that they have a unifying, common experience that the rest of society cannot hope to even imagine? How can a return to civilian life ever truly occur? Has the experience of war created permanently fractured minds and roles for the veteran?

A common theme was one of brotherhood and isolation during and after times of war. An Iraq veteran discussed the scariest moment of his service was when he saw his bunk mate disappear in a cloud of sand produced by a mortar. The fear of losing his friend, not the danger to himself was the moment he remembered, the feeling he had was of brotherhood and loyalty to the friend. Theseus was this friend to Heracles in the play, where he immediately forgave Heracles for murdering his family because of the friendship that they had. Even going so far as to help Heracles up, though he was covered in blood, to take him to Athens to start again. The bonds creating through fighting side by side, risking lives side by side as one veteran described as happening with people who were "previously strangers" not months before. These bonds become stronger than blood and isolate soldiers from friends and family who were not at war. One of the first scenes was of a woman who was lamenting her loss of relationship with her family who now did not know her. She could not be the person she was after war, because that person was foreign to them. Instead, she had to start over, completely from scratch, to build a relationship with her own family. A younger sister had aged from a child to a college student and they were to each each other, complete strangers.

The final theme that pervaded the stories was that of madness. Many interviewees mentioned comrades in war that has become obsessed with killing and the power that came with it. One veteran told a story of a soldier who had stopped another soldier from killing an old man. Instead of killing the man, he lit up a cigarette for each of them. After lighting the cigarettes and enjoying a few puffs, the soldier then proceeded to kill the man, previously showing mercy, then showing incredible hate and fury soon afterward. The madness of Heracles was similarly swift and temperamental, influenced by interference from the Gods. Although Heracles was ultimately able to find some solace in knowing that his actions were not completely his own, today's veterans can take no refuge from their actions, because no matter how influenced by the terrors of war, there are still performed by their own hands.

Within the topic of madness, it is easy to apply Burke's dramatist pentad. When one analyzes the five points of  an event (act, actor, agency, purpose, and scene), emphasizing one part over the other can lead to different conclusions about responsibility and motivation. The story of the old man can be seen as: actor - soldier, act - killing the old man, scene - war torn Iraq, purpose - killing the enemy, and agency - the military weapon and command. If one emphasizes the purpose, scene, and agency, that this was a soldier commanded by superior officers in a time of war to kill the enemies, then the act can be justified as heroic, honorable, and a call of duty. Emphasizing the act, and the actor, however changes the event from a war-time standard to a single man, a soldier, but a solitary one under no direct duress, killing an elderly man. When you minimize scene, the time of war, and instead just focus on the killing of an elderly man after a sign of compassion becomes a terrible, horrific, and unjustifiable act of murder. One thing is certain, one can never truly separate any of these five, just as one cannot separate a soldier from his duty and the scene of war. Is the soldier's act truly one of madness then? Or is it a justified response given the situation and motivation for the action?  In either interpretation, there is a theme of madness and its effects on a soldier that is prominent and of great importance to the sanity and well-being of soldier's returning home.

The play was a marvel in that it succinctly and uniquely linked the modern atrocities of war with a classic Greek text. The combination created a contextualization of war in theatrical terms and the application of theatre to the real world.

No comments:

Post a Comment