Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Helen of The Wooster Group: A Face That May or May Not Have Launched a Thousand Ships

by Susan Koenig

Archaeology has always been a tricky field, relying upon reconstructions of the past to enable us to understand our present. Sometimes events written about by ancient people become myth as they fade, evidence of their existence being buried by a variety of elemental forces. One such event was the Trojan War. Until the late 19th Century, Troy was a fictional town, existing only in Homeric tradition. Then the ruins of the nine cities were found in modern-day Turkey, and, given the similarities between the landscape and how Troy is described by Homer, the site made Troy a possible reality as opposed to entirely legend. That being said, there is still debate in the field, as there always seems to be. There are a number of sites that could possibly be Troy, but many archaeologists agree that this site is the most likely candidate. Despite these lingering questions, there are now scholars asking not whether the Trojan War was a historical event, but how the actual Trojan War differs from portrayals of it in popular literature. One of the most famous of these literary portrayals is Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida.

Recently, The Wooster Group of New York staged a version of Troilus and Cressida which they renamed Cry, Trojans! Saturday, February 1st, a group of us from GW took the five-hour bus trip to New York City to see the show. It was the most thought-provoking theatre performance I’ve seen in a very long time. I found myself sitting there during the curtain call, trying to parse out what it was I’d just witnessed. One thing that captured my imagination – and that of many others, if our discussions after the show were any indication – was the representation of the women of the play. Shakespeare wrote three complex and varied characters in Cressida, Cassandra, and Helen. All three were wonderfully portrayed, but I found myself especially drawn to the portrayal of Helen.

Scene from Cry, Trojans! by The Wooster Group
Image from: http://thewoostergroup.org/twg/twg.php?troilus-and-cressida

When The Wooster Group decided to take their 2012 production of Troilus and Cressida (originally done with the Royal Shakespeare Company performing the Greeks while The Wooster Group did the Trojans) and rework it into a standalone production, they decided to cut as many of the Grecian scenes as possible. As a result, Helen only appears in one scene (III.i).

When playing the Greeks, the actors wore black masks to differentiate the Greeks from the Trojans. Helen seemed entirely out of place, her mask the only one in a sea of Trojans. Immediately, she did not belong. Given the recent conversation where the Trojans debated returning her to the Greeks, it was even more striking how different she was.

Perhaps what set her apart most was her voice. Kate Valk portrayed the physical Helen, mouthing the lines, but Scott Shepherd did her speaking voice and Andrew Schneider sang for her. The three actors were so in sync that initially it seemed Valk’s voice was being electronically manipulated.  Upon further scanning the stage, however, Shepherd and Schneider became evident.

In the original 2012 co-production with the RSC, Scott Handy played Helen (and Ulysses). Knowing this, it’s easy to see why The Wooster Group chose to replace Valk’s voice with Shepherd’s and Schneider’s. They publicly acknowledge that they are working to recreate the RSC’s performance, as they did with their 2007 Hamlet, and this is a way to take that staging from the original and make it uniquely Wooster. However, it feels like there’s much more to their performance of Helen than simply emulating the 2012 production.

I, for one, can’t help but point out how puppet-like Kate Valk’s movements were, almost as if she were a marionette being twitched about the stage by these male voices. Helen herself comes from a line of myths revolving around women being used by men. Her mother, Leda, was either raped or seduced by Zeus, depending on which version of the myth you read.  Her involvement in the myth of the Trojan War is just as muddled. Indeed, we never know if Helen went with Paris willingly. Depending on the myth, Helen left or she was kidnapped. The one consensus seems to be that she was one of the few who survived the war. Valk’s movements and the displacement of Helen’s voice draw attention to the divide in the mythological Helen.

This also becomes intriguing when we examine that fact that archaeology now believes some version of the Trojan War actually occurred. George Washington University’s very own Eric Cline told Stefan Lovgren in National Geographic, “The archaeological and textual evidence indicates that a Trojan war or wars took place, and that Homer chose to write about one or more of them by making it into a great ten-year-long saga.” Given that he already altered much of the historic war(s), Homer added in a more compelling reason for the war’s initiation: Helen of Troy. Many archaeologists speculate that the Trojan War was actually fought for economic reasons, but an irksome trade fee is less exciting than a stolen or fleeing queen. If the mythic Helen never existed, whether or not the Trojan War did, then doesn’t The Wooster Group’s portrayal of her point to her Homeric origins and Shakespearean legacy as much as it points to their production with the RSC? She is a puppet in Homer’s, and thus Shakespeare’s, Trojan War as she is a puppet for Shepherd and Schneider.

Calling attention to the complexities of the character in the source mythology also draws our attention to the complexities of Shakespeare’s Helen of Troy. She is not the face that launched a thousand ships and burned the topless towers of Ilium. Rather, she is human, as are the Shakespearean versions of all these Greek and Trojan heroes. They are about as non-Epic as it is possible to get, and it seems that The Wooster Group is highly aware of this in their performance.

Works Cited
"History of the Trojan War." History of the Trojan War. Stanford University, n.d. Web. 31 Jan.     2014.
Korfmann, Manfred. "Was There a Trojan War?" Archaeology Magazine 57.3 (2004): n. pag.        Archaeology Magazine. Archaeological Institute of America, May-June 2004. Web. 01   Feb. 2014.

Lovgren, Stefan. "Is Troy True? The Evidence Behind Movie Myth." National Geographic.          National Geographic Society, 14 May 2004. Web. 01 Feb. 2014.

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