play thirty two: anne carson on the importance of tragedy

Today was my third reading of Hekabe (Euripides; school assignment). Rather than submitting you to another report on it here is the first page of Anne Carson’s introduction of ‘Grief Lessons’. 

Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief. Ask a headhunter why he cuts off human heads. He’ll say that rage impels him and rage is born of grief. The act of severing and tossing away the victim’s head enables him to throw away the anger of all his bereavements. Perhaps you think this does not apply to you. Yet you recall the day your wife, driving you to your mother’s funeral, turned left instead of right at the intersection and you had to scream at her so loud other drivers turned to look. When you tore off her head and threw it out the window they nodded, changed gears, drove away.

Grief and rage – you need to contain that, to put a frame around it, where it can play itself out without you or your kin having to die. There is a theory that watching unbearable stories about other people lost in rage and grief is good for you – may cleanse you of your darkness. Do you want to go down to the pits of yourself all alone? Not much. What if an actor could do it for you? Isn’t that why they are called actors? They act for you. You sacrifice them to action. And this sacrifice is a mode of deepest intimacy of you with your own life. Within it you watch [yourself] act out the present or possible organisation of your nature. You can be aware of your own awareness of this nature as you never are at the moment of experience. The actor, by reiterating you, sacrifices a moment of his own life in order to give you a story of yours.

Anne Carson, “Grief Lessons: Four Plays – Euripides”, New York: New York Review of Books, 7.

play eleven: the caucasian chalk circle

BB. What a guy.
BB. What a guy.

Author: Bertolt Brecht

Translator: James and Tania Stern with W.H. Auden

Synopsis: to make sure we never get too close, the primary narrative is presented as a play-within-a-play. Soviet peasants in dispute over land abandoned by retreating Nazi forces tell the story of young servant woman Grusha Vashnadze and how she saves the life of child prince Michael in a time of civil war. Abandoned by his well-bred parents, Grusha crosses mountains in her attempt to save him from his pursuers, adopting him as her own son and sacrificing any thought of her personal happiness. Ultimately rewarded for this sacrifice, she is the Everywoman whose courage and selflessness in the tumult of war is only matched by her innocence of its cause.

What moved me: the simple, painful lyricism of Brecht’s poetry. The exchange between Grusha and Simon (Grusha’s fiancee) when he has returned to find her married is excruciating. They cannot tell each other what they have been through and so it is left to The Singer to tell us what we already know.

SIMON: Is the young lady saying that someone has come too late?

Grusha looks up at him in despair, her face streaming with tears. Simon stares before him. He picks up a piece of wood and starts cutting it.


So many words are said, so many words are left unsaid.

The soldier has come. Whence he comes he doesn’t say.

Hear what he thought but didn’t say:

The battle began at dawn, grew bloody at noon.

The first fell before me, the second behind me, the captain sabred the third.

My one brother died by steel, my other brother died by smoke.

My neck was burnt by fire, my hands froze in my gloves, my toes in my socks.

For food I had aspen buds, for drink I made maple brew, for bed I had stones in water.

SIMON: I see a cap in the grass. Is there a little one already?

GRUSHA: There is, Simon. How could I hide it? But please don’t let it worry you. It’s not mine.

SIMON: They say: Once the wind begins to blow, it blows through every crack. The woman need say no more.

Grusha lowers her head and says no more.


There was great yearning but there was no waiting.

The oath is broken. Why was not disclosed.

Hear what she thought, but didn’t say:

While you fought in the battle, soldier

The bloody battle, the bitter battle

I found a child who was helpless

And hadn’t the heart to do away with it.

I had to care for what otherwise would have come to harm

I had to bend down on the floor for breadcrumbs

I had to tear myself to pieces for what was not mine

But alien.

Someone must be the helper.

Because the little tree needs its water

The little lamb loses its way when the herdsmen is asleep

And the bleating remains unheard.

remembrance day

My grandfather, Robert Gordon Martin, served in Darwin during WWII. He never spoke of this experience. Our only real evidence of it was his blindness, which had been induced in old age by his smoking (they gave out free cigarettes during the war). My grandmother, Mary Jean Martin, also served, although in wireless communications and not, as I thought, by delivering bomb-filled cigars to the front line of Germans on horseback.

Ron Middleton, dead at the age of 26, was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for action in a raid on Turin, Italy.

I think Poppy’s exposure to the war, and his profound reticence about the experience, has fuelled my fascination with the way humans act when exposed to this very particular form of adversity. It not only exposes our predilection for mutual suffering and barbaric cruelty but it also shines a light on our nobility and the pure selflessness of bravery.

For a long time I have been trawling the War Memorial website, reading the stories of those soldiers who were awarded for their exceptional courage, and this morning I came across Ron Middleton, who was born a year after my grandfather and died in 1942, at the age of 26. This account has been taken from the War Memorial Victoria Cross Encyclopedia.

Rawdon Middleton was born on 22 July 1916 at Waverly in Sydney, a great-nephew of the explorer, Hamilton Hume. His family moved to the western districts of New South Wales when he was young and he attended school in Dubbo, becoming a keen sportsman and later finding work as a jackeroo.

He enlisted in the RAAF on 14 October 1940 under the Empire Air Training Scheme. Having learnt to fly at Narromine, New South Wales, Middleton was sent to Canada to continue his instruction. He reached Britain in September 1941 and was promoted to Flight Sergeant in December that year. In February 1942 Middleton was posted to 149 Squadron, Royal Air Force, and began his operational career. His first operational flights, to the Ruhr, were as second pilot in Stirling bombers but by July he had become first pilot. His first operation as captain of an aircraft was to Düsseldorf.

On 28 November 1942 he took off on his 29th operation (one short of the thirty required for completion of a ‘tour’ and mandatory rotation off combat operation) to the Fiat works in Turin, Italy. Middleton’s aircraft was struck by flak over the target, one shell exploded in the cockpit wounding Middleton in the face and destroying his right eye. The same shell also wounded the second pilot and wireless operator. Middleton lost consciousness and the aircraft dived to just 800 feet before the second pilot brought it under control. They were hit by more flak as they tried to escape the target.

When Middleton regained consciousness he began the long and gruelling flight back over the Alps towards England, knowing that his damaged aircraft had insufficient fuel to complete the journey. The crew discussed the possibility of abandoning the aircraft or trying to land in northern France but Middleton decided to head for England where his crew would have the chance to bail out. During the return flight he frequently said over the intercom “I’ll make the English Coast. I’ll get you home”. As they approached the French coast the Stirling was again hit by flak but flew on. Now over the English coast with only five minutes of fuel left Middleton ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft. Five men left the stricken plane, and two remained on board to help Middleton before attempting to parachute to safety, although unfortunately both were drowned. The Stirling then crashed into the sea, killing Middleton. He was only one operation away from completing his first tour on bombers.

Middleton’s bravery was recorded in the English press and earned him the admiration of the British public and a posthumous Victoria Cross. His body washed ashore at Dover on 1 February 1943 and he was buried in the churchyard of St. John’s, Beck’s Row, Suffolk, with full military honours.

The last line of his Victoria Cross Citation reads: “His devotion to duty in the face of overwhelming odds is unsurpassed in the annals of the Royal Air Force”.