Updated: Oct 19, 2022
Marina Carr begins her Hecuba in media res: “So I’m in the throne room,” Hecuba tells us, “Surrounded by the limbs, torsos, heads, corpses of my sons.” This grisly inventory is the first of many such images. Their cumulative impact is to illustrate the senselessness of war, and to justify the mingled cry of anger and grief which is the drama’s soul. Troy has fallen. Priam is dead. Hecuba is both a widow and a queen dispossessed. Agamemnon, Troy’s conqueror, arrives hot on her heels. He can’t help but be impressed: a current of eroticism charges the enmity between these foes. Even so, because Agamemnon is fearful of the possible return of a rightful king of Troy, he demands that Hecuba turn over her son. Hecuba, not yet broken by her suffering, refuses. So the tragedy begins.
This is not quite Euripides’ Hecuba—not a new translation, and not a superficially “updated” retelling. Instead, Carr reshapes the story in its bones, crafting a feeling feminist portrait of a grieving wife and mother, while also, through a striking literary intervention, problematizing the notion of any one authoritative telling. Carr’s innovation is to abandon the traditional chorus in favour of a no less stylized convention of reported speech. Her characters explicitly speak their minds, as in Shakespearean asides. More unusually, however, they also sometimes narrate their actions, as well as the thoughts and actions of their interlocutors.
Hecuba: They told me many things about him, this terror of the Agean, this monster from Mycenae, but they forgot to tell me about the eyes. Sapphires. Transcendental eyes, fringed by lashes any girl would kill for. I pretend I don’t know who he is. And you are? I say. You know damn well who I am he laughs, and you may stand. Agamemnon: And she says she’ll stand when she feels like it. So I lift her off the throne. Now that wasn’t too difficult, was it? I say.
By involving the actors as both narrators of and characters in the drama, Carr implies that no one version of any event, whether mythical, legendary, or historical, can ever prove definitive. “Helen does not exist,” Hecuba will later insist to Agamemnon. “You made her up. You needed a reason to take it all.” By casting doubt upon the existence of Helen of Troy, Carr further blurs the lines between fact and fiction, while simultaneously expressing an admirably principled skepticism towards the notion that there could ever be a worthy pretext for war. For Carr, at least, narrative multiplicity clearly does not equal moral relativism.
Indeed, it is in large part because of their unflinching engagement with the question of how to live well that the ancient heroes have endured so tirelessly, even unto the present day. At the same time, the timelessness of figures like Hecuba must also be attributed to the endurance of the creative spirit, which renews itself again and again in the voices of the women and men who steward our myths. Alas, whatever way Hecuba’s story is told, it never seems to end happily. But if there is any hope to be gleaned from her sad fates, it may be in the very doggedness of their having been so fervently told and retold again, told and retold anew.
-by Liam Monaghan