“Bored” with the Theater of War?

Performer addresses NYC audience via skype (author’s photo)

First believed to have been performed in 415 BC, Euripides’ play The Trojan Women tells of the violence committed by the Greeks during their siege of Troy, a city not too far from the borders of contemporary Syria. Scholars believe Euripides wrote the play as a critical response to the Athenian slaughter of the people of Melos during the Peloponnesian War.[1] The tragedy draws from an ancient history to speak powerfully against contemporary war crimes and human trafficking—and classicists have taken great interest in the ways in which the play has been reinterpreted over the past century. Performed in Arabic entirely by Syrian women currently living in refugee camps in Amman, Syria: The Trojan Women provides a platform for Syrian refugees to share their experiences of war through a dramatic reinterpretation of the ancient Greek tragedy.

When the performers were recently denied entry visas to the United States, Columbia University organized a promotional event on campus that was attended by many like myself who are currently teaching and studying ancient Greek texts. Over Skype, the Syrian performers spoke about their experiences working on the play in response to questions from their U.S. audience. The highly performative aspects of “engaging across a divide”–particularly on the U.S. side of the screen–dissipated the moment one of the Syrian women took the microphone, moved her face close to the computer camera and surprised her audience by asking in perfect English, “Are you bored?” In response to our silence, she raised her voice and enunciated with a wide smile, “Boooooored?” At that moment, her question disturbed and problematized our passive, distant, and comfortable consumption of war narratives on a screen. The discomfort she provoked flips the spectator’s gaze  inward, drawing attention to our role not only as audience members but as crucial participants in the tragedy behind the tragedy. For a project that aims to give a human face to the suffering that is a consequence of war, achieving this is a success in itself.

A critic might bemoan the repetitiveness of the women’s narratives about suffering. The empathetic viewer, however, as well as one familiar with ancient Greek tragedies and Homeric epics can identify the rhythmic ritual of catharsis as the women repeated stories of disenfranchisement, homelessness, and fear. These performers voiced the redundancy and banality of violence they experienced in a way that mirrored the repetitive passages of violence my students wrestled with understanding in Homer’s The Iliad. The experience of hearing an ancient text come to life with the Syrian women’s voices is not only what makes the play so poignant but conveys its relevance.

Some critics of the project had raised concerns about cultural imperialism (i.e., Why are you imposing western works of art upon them?). This concern, ironically, reflects the distorted way in which the history of western civilization and its cultural heritage is constructed. When critics claim Greek tragedy for ‘the west,’ they are drawing from an imagined genealogy that locates the ancient Greek past within contemporary European geographical and cultural borders. Such concerns deny the intimate historical, socio-political, economic, and cultural connection between the ancient Greek empire’s legacy and the Arabo-Islamic world, let alone the role of the latter in transmitting that legacy. The Syrian director dismissed the concerns about cultural imperialism as complete hogwash: these classics, he said, were far more familiar to the Arab world than they were being given credit for and have been staged many times before. Simply stated, Troy is far closer to Damascus than London or Milan.

Beyond that, what is most striking is how the performers understood the text. Usually taught to highly educated North American and European readers, Euripides’ play emerged as incredibly accessible and familiar to these women, a few of whom were illiterate. A number of the women strongly connected with the queens-turned-slaves motif, mentioning specific lines that spoke most deeply to their own situation. The familiarity of the characters and legibility of an ancient text to an illiterate Syrian refugee speak volumes not about where the text lies on the scale of high and low art but about how experience can render a text legible. It also reflects the privilege of those who experience war narratives with detachment and unfamiliarity (even if wars have been fought in their name). As a director in the audience noted, the women’s lived experience enhanced the authenticity of their performance in ways that highly trained NYC theater professionals could only dream of.

The value and appeal of such “authentic” performances raises ethical questions about the emerging market for theater of war and the “qualified” labor which war provides. In the past few years, a number of theater projects have begun to cast survivors as performers in retellings of well-known works. For example, Palestinian director Hossam Madhoun wants to bring Tolstoy’s War and Peace to the stage in Gaza and use drama therapy during the workshops to help in the healing process of traumatized Palestinian children. In a reinterpretation of Verdi’s Macbeth, the opera is set in a Congolese village by South African director Bret Bailey who works with a troupe of refugee-performers from the conflict zones of the Eastern Congo. The U.S. Department of Defense also caught on several years ago, investing millions of dollars in the Theater of War, a public health theater project that has staged Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes in over 50 military sites as well as hospitals.

Syria: The Trojan Women explicitly employs art as the great translator of “foreign” trauma in order to make it familiar and shake the world of the powerful from a violent silence. Here, this particular project again raises the question “How integral is the audience to the meaning and success of a work of art?” In this case, the refugees specifically say they want the West as well as their host countries to understand their suffering and acknowledge their role beyond the audience as spectator and critic. They believe that art, and particularly a two-thousand year old play to which their target audience has ascribed sublime value and has incorporated within a classical canon, will convey their message and provoke their audiences to discomfort and action.

[1] See also the “Melian Dialogues” in Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War. Trans. Rex Warner (London, England: Penguin, 1972), 400-408.

About Sahar Ullah

Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah is a PhD Candidate of Arabic and Comparative Literature and a Literature Humanities Preceptor of the Core Curriculum at Columbia University. She is currently completing her dissertation on the continuities and transformation of the amatory prelude in thepost-classical Prophetic Encomia.