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Beyond the Cleft Chin: The Tragedy of Herakles

Can someone who is immortal be a tragic hero? Is he able to experience tragedy at all? Greek tragedy, as Anne Carson insinuates in the introduction to her translation of Euripides’ Herakles, is all about the delineation of limits, the heft of existential proportion. As the perfect hero, Herakles has very nearly bypassed the normal topography of human experience by becoming a cleft-chin cliché. Everyone knows the half-god Greek from his heroic undertakings. But what happens once the tasks are completed and the battles won? “Herakles has reached the boundary of his own myth,” writes Carson, “he has come to the end of his interestingness. Now that he’s finished harrowing hell, will he settle back in the recliner and watch TV until the end of time?”

This is the question that quietly burns at the center of Euripides’ play, becoming both the source of dramatic action as well as the formal challenge for the playwright: how does a cliché destroy itself?

Barnard Columbia Ancient Drama’s recent production of Herakles in the Minor Latham Playhouse was notable for many reasons. The acting, particularly Yilin Liu as Lyssa, is superb. And Caleb Simone’s deft direction ensures that the entire production coheres wonderfully. But the play is also performed in ancient Greek (with subtitles projected for the audience) and, most significantly, accompanied by a reconstructed score on an auloi, a double-reed wind instrument. It is, perhaps, as Mary Spencer writes in National Review, “the first time the instrument has been fully employed in the performance of a tragedy since ancient times.” And while it isn’t necessarily true that tragic performances have become “cliché,” they can often take on the Herculean quality of having “reached the boundary of their own myth.” It’s a wonderful paradox that pushing them farther back towards something more resembling their original formal structure allows them to resonate more clearly within a contemporary audience. This production of Herakles thus makes itself relevant by eschewing timeliness.

The story of the play is simple. Herakles, all his other tasks complete, is in the underworld capturing Cerberus. While so occupied, his home city of Thebes is taken over by the tyrant Lycus. Just as Lycus is about to put Herakles’ father, wife, and children to death, the hero sneaks back into the city just in time to save them from the tyrant’s hand. Shockingly, the goddesses Iris and Lyssa (or wrathful fury personified) intervene and cause Herakles to mistake his family for the enemies he’d already vanquished during his labors. Herakles comes to his senses tied to a column, horrified by what he’s done. His friend Theseus eventually arrives, and convinces him to flee Thebes and accompany him to Athens. The play is very obviously split in two. On one side is the slow-paced sorrow of the family before Herakles’ arrival. On the other is the long and horrible recognition of what Herakles has done. The brief moment of hope, Herakles arriving just in time to save his family and kill his enemies, is just as quickly dashed by his insane violence, and is the fulcrum on which the play is balanced.

It speaks to the power of Greek tragedy, as well as its origins as a religious event, that it finds strength and functions through paradox. One of those paradoxes is that the further away in time and culture the tragedy seems, the more relevant it is to our perennial human concerns. As a former soldier myself who spent years away from his family, it’s difficult for me not to read PTSD into the story of Herakles. Trauma never finds you where you expect it to. It’s never in the moment of combat itself, or triggered by toy guns or cars backfiring (at least not in my experience). PTSD sneaks in through the attic window when you least expect it. You might be driving along on a beautiful day, listening to the radio. Or grocery shopping. Or mowing the lawn. It’s never when you’re ready for it, when it’s obvious. Lyssa comes in at the most anodyne times, or the most exalted ones. She comes right at the moment when your labors are done, you’ve returned home, and put your house back in order. She destroys your clichés from the inside out.

The gods in Greek myth are capricious. It’s the wisdom of limits and boundaries, what we might call morality, that are for men. The gods do what they want and men do what they should. In the play, Herakles sneaks back into Thebes after seeing an ill omen. He doesn’t arrive by the common roads, in the full light of day, to properly reconcile himself to his homecoming. At first, this seems like the smart thing to do, since he avoids the attention of Lycus and his lookouts. But the alternative, coming home the proper way, with the full recognition of the city, would have resulted in a slightly less horrific outcome. His family might have died, of course, but it would not have been by his own hand. This is less a point about unavoidable fate than about the value of doing things the proper way. How many other veterans do I know who feel as though their homecomings were done silently slinking along backroads through preoccupied cities?

All of these thematic elements, particularly the resonance with PTSD, are underscored by the Barnard Columbia Ancient Drama production’s use of music. We tend to overemphasize the text of the play, ignoring the full and immersive experience that the dramas provided as they were originally performed. And Callum Armstrong’s playing throughout the performance serves to exalt the nervous ambiguity of musical performance itself. Music can be used to soothe, to heal wounds, and calm rage. But as we see in Lyssa’s sad but terrifying speech, music can also be used to symbolically represent wrath—to evoke it, even. It is the ultimate ambiguous medium, and Greek tragedy is made even stronger by implementing it.

As the gadfly philosopher Zizek says during his film A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, speaking about the classic Chaplin film The Great Dictator, “People applaud exactly in the same way as they were applauding Hitler. The music that accompanies this great humanist finale, the overture to Wagner’s opera, Lohengrin, is the same music as the one we hear when Hitler is daydreaming about conquering the entire world and where he has a balloon in the shape of the globe. The music is the same. This can be read as the ultimate redemption of music, that the same music which served evil purposes can be redeemed to serve the good. Or it can be read, and I think it should be read,in a much more ambiguous way, that with music, we can not ever be sure. In so far as it externalises our inner passion, music is potentially always a threat.” In this aspect, in the realm of morality, music belongs more to the gods than to humans.

Calem Simone’s production of Herakles should be considered a resounding success. It uses all the tools at its disposal to cut to the raw center of tragedy. As much as we like to consider ourselves ironic post-Enlightenment children, more sentimental than naive, anyone who has suffered for a cause and then been made himself to suffer unjustly will sympathize with the hero. As Roberto Calasso writes, “[Herakles] deserves the compassion of the moderns because he was one of the last victims of the Zodiac. And the moderns no longer really appreciate what that means. They are no longer in the habit of calculating a man’s deeds in terms of the measures of the heavens…. [F]or [Herakles], everything is obligation. …A pitiful seriousness weighs him down. All too rarely does he laugh. And sometimes he finds himself having to suffer the laughter of others.” This seriousness is the limit to the myth of Herakles, as it is of all cliché.

Scott Beauchamp’s work has appeared in the Paris ReviewBookforum, and Public Discourse, among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books. He lives in Maine.

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