"An ambitious debut for a new theater
And The Women of Trachis is probably seen the least of all. This production is, as far as I have been able to tell, the first professional staging of the play in North America since 1960, when Julian Beck directed Ezra Pound's bizarre translation at the Living Theatre Repertory, with Judith Malina as Deianeira. (There have been a few student productions in the interim, including recent ones at Concordia University (1994), Brigham Young University (1998), and Christopher Newport University (2000).)
What accounts for this neglect? To Karelisa Hartigan, author of Greek Tragedy on the American Stage, the unfamiliarity of The Women of Trachis "defies easy explanation."
The conventional answer is that The Women of Trachis is poorly structured. With the female protagonist dead with one-third of the play yet to go, and the male protagonist not yet even having appeared on stage, The Women of Trachis might seem to be two plays enacted sequentially: the tragedy of Deianeira, who fails to win back her absent husband, and the tragedy of Herakles, a son of Zeus fated to meet an all-too-mortal end.
But it is facile to simply conclude from Deianeira's early departure and the late entry of Herakles that the play does not cohere. Deianeira and Herakles, mismatched wife and husband, are both everywhere in every scene of The Women of Trachis. Deianeira's experiment with the love potion has consequences made shockingly manifest through the protracted death agonies of Herakles in the final scenes. The death-by-love-potion is paraded before the audience in the most gruesome fashion, and we are never permitted to forget that it is all Deianeira's doing. In the words of Carl Mueller, one of the translator's of our performance text, "If her corpse had been dumped onstage, she could not have been more present." As for Herakles, he is the principal subject of no fewer than six choral odes prior to his being carried onto the stage, not to mention elaborate speeches by his wife Deianeira, his son Hyllos, his herald Lichas, and Lichas' antagonist the Messenger.
I believe The Women of Trachis is structurally sound. It is also an immensely moving tale told by a consummate master of tragic irony, with Deianeira's foolhardy experiment with the love charm tragically closing a circle set into motion by Herakles' earlier slaying of the hydra of Lerna but in reality begun even earlier by those contentious Olympian spouses Zeus and Hera, whose discord engendered all the major events in the life of Herakles.
Our production hopes to convey the fierce momentum and colossal irony of Sophocles' tale of the parade of lies, deceptions, misunderstandings, failures of communication, and acts of arrogance that lead to the death of Herakles. Ultimately, the poison that will kill Herakles comes from one of his own arrows, which he had used years before to eliminate a shaggy-haired groper who threatened Herakles' then-new wife Deianeira. Now, not understanding its true nature, Deianeira retrieves the same poison from a dark spot in her home and, with every good intention, sends it to her unfaithful husband. Like a dormant disease, the love potion had lain hidden for years in Deianeira's and Herakles' home, as if waiting with infinite patience one day to break out. Herakles' philandering, and the blatancy with which he has shipped his new trophy-wife-to-be ahead of him to be received by Deianeira, set loose an inexorable chain of events that lead to the play's climax.
Who are the women of Trachis after whom the play is named? Seemingly unable (because of Herakles) to call this play the tragedy of Deianeira, or (because of Deianeira) to call it the tragedy of Herakles, Sophocles apparently sought to avoid the issue by naming his play after the chorus of fifteen Trachinian maidens who sang the choral odes that stud the dramatic action. Our production conflates these fifteen onlookers into a single character and gives her a personal history and a major dramatic role in the story. And, in our production, filling in some ways the status more traditionally occupied by the Greek dramatic chorus are the Oichalian women, brought to Trachis as prisoners. Their role in the drama has also been expanded; and although they never speak, these women bear silent witness to both the touching kindness of Deianeira and to the egocentric brutality of Herakles.
According to legend, the Olympic Games were established
in antiquity by no one other than Herakles. In this year in which the
modern Games return to Athens, site of the premiere performance of The
Women of Trachis, we feel it is fitting to restore Herakles and his
family to the stage and, more significantly, reintroduce this ignored
Sophoclean drama to our audiences. We hope to shake the dust off this
old story and bring it characters once more to life. Flawed work? You
be the judge.