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.

play five: agamemnon

Le sacrifice d'Iphigénie, by François Perrier, 1633.
Le sacrifice d’Iphigénie, by François Perrier, 1633.

Author: Aeschylus

Translator: David Grene and Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty

Published: 458BC

Synopsis: The Chorus and Clytemnestra clamour for the return of her husband and king, Agamemnon, from his victory in the Trojan War. However, a pall is cast as his death at Clytemnestra’s hands is increasingly foreshadowed. It is prophesied by Cassandra (the Trojan princess taken by Agamemnon as his concubine) that his wife will visit her fury upon him for sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia to Artemis, who had becalmed the winds and so forestalled the Greek ships from setting sail to Troy. She also foretells her own death and enters the palace welcoming its inevitability. Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover, reveals himself as a co-conspirator and the Chorus warns of the return of Orestes, son of Agamemnon, to avenge his father’s death.

What moved me: the impotence of the Chorus of old men.

But we, dishonoured for the ancientness of our flesh,

were left behind then when the army went;

we remain, propping on staffs a strength like a child’s.

For the child’s marrow, too, leaps within his breast

but is only the match of an old man’s;

the god of war is not there either.

And the overold, the leafage already withering,

walks his three-footed way, no stronger than a child;

wanders, a dream in the daylight.

play one: hecuba

Hecuba Blinding Polymestor by Giuseppe Maria Crespi
Hecuba Blinding Polymestor by Giuseppe Maria Crespi

Playwright: Euripides

Published: c. 424 BC

Translator: William Arrowsmith

Synopsis: A tragedy set before the Greek forces depart after the sacking of Troy. Trojan Queen Hecuba, wife of Priam, has been reduced to servitude. Her daughter Polyxena is sacrificed by Odysseus and Agamemnon to appease the ghost of Achilles, who has immobilised their fleet. Hecuba’s grief is compounded when her son Polydorus is murdered by his guardian, King Polymester of Thrace, out of greed. Hecuba seeks her revenge with other Trojan women by blinding Polymester and killing his two sons.

What moved me: Polyxena – the embodiment of regal virtue – speaks to Hecuba of her impending doom. The hard sounds of ‘B’, ‘D’, and ‘G’ are unrelenting and make me feel like my feet have been tied to a concrete block and I’ve abandoned to the sea.

But now I die,

and you must see my death: –

butchered like a lamb

squalling with fright,

and the throat held taut

for the gashing knife,

and the gaping hole

where the breath of life

goes out,

and sinks

downward into dark

with the unconsolable dead.