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The Trojan War: Myth, Adaptation, and Modernity

Updated: Oct 19, 2022

The Trojan War has inspired more literary and theatrical works than one can recount. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides all wrote about its capture and the aftermath of its fall; Virgil’s Aeneid makes Troy central to the birth of Rome by casting Aeneas, a survivor of the Trojan war, as the founder of the Roman empire; and Shakespeare narrates the unfortunate tale of Troilus, one of Priam and Hecuba’s sons, in his Troilus and Cressida. More recently, Heinrich von Kleist, Jean Giraudoux, George Baker, and many others, have engaged Troy’s fall in works that allowed them to voice concerns about their own historical times, while Homer’s Iliad, the epic poem that first mythologized the destiny of Troy, has found adaptations in cinema, opera, classical music, and ballet.

As one contextualizes Marina Carr’s Hecuba within the rich intertextual culture created by previous retellings of the Trojan War, some questions emerge. Why is Troy still relevant? Why does this city, which archeologists discovered only in the late nineteenth century, continue to stir our imagination? One reason might have to do with the sprawling narrative of Troy, which offers artists numerous possible storylines from which to choose. The city has a past, a present, and a future. We know of Troy’s grandeur before the war began, the hardships caused by ten years of war, and what happened to the survivors once they left the burning city as slaves. Individual characters and their stories exist against the backdrop of a much larger narrative, a fact that fosters both specificity and context. Secondly, Troy’s narrative draws on universal themes such as love, betrayal, pride, hate, and honor, which have always fascinated audiences. In addition, its characters are layered, conflicted, flawed, and surprisingly current. Thirdly, Troy belongs to the world of myth and thus offers itself as a viable canvas for modern readings, as if in a palimpsest where two different realities may appear simultaneously. In this sense, Troy is the city conquered by the Greeks in the 11th or 12th century BCE and mythologized by Homer in the 8th century BCE, as well as an amplifier for more modern conflicts. Finally, Troy feeds our desire for retelling old stories in new ways, the pleasure of experiencing the new through the familiarity of the known, what adaptation scholar Linda Hutcheon calls “repetition without replication.”

Marina Carr’s Hecuba, which focuses on a feminist reading of the Trojan queen and her daughters, suggests the enduring power of the Trojan War to feed our fantasy. Cassandra, Hecuba’s daughter, suggests the continuity and expansiveness of Troy’s story in what is possibly one of the most heartbreaking moments in the play: “And the wind came too and we sailed with it to a new and harsher world.” Cassandra’s imminent voyage to Mycenae, the home of Agamemnon, carries with it the possibility of further stories and novel interpretations.

-by Stefano Muneroni

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