MacEwen’s Trojan Women and Evans’ Trojan Barbie are adaptations of the tragedy Trojan Women by Euripedes. The choice of source for both works clearly demonstrates the continued relevance of the original work: that contemporary female authors decide to re-investigate the tragedy — for MacEwen, in a form more dedicated to the original, while in Evans’, in a form more consistent with contemporary American culture – can be understood as a justification of Aristotle’s definition of tragedy from the Poetics, whereby “tragedy is a representation of a serious, complete action which has magnitude…accomplishing by means of pity and terror the catharsis of such emotions.” (Aristotle, 1449b 25-30) Hence, “serious, complete action which has magnitude” in a sense must be timeless. For MacEwen, this is apparent in her adaptation of the text, which does not radically differ from the original, while, for Evans, even in a trivial and banal culture, as underscored in her re-working of the original title to emphasizes “Barbie”, “serious and complete acts” are still possible. Despite the differences in the two pieces, therefore, the authors arguably endeavor to demonstrate that life in fact still can have meaning – if “terror” to use the Aristotelian terminology is still possible, than life also has “magnitude”. This thesis will be argued in reference to the opening scene of both plays, where these themes are immediately presented.
MacEwen’s decision for the opening scene is more ominous, somber and minimalistic than that of Evans: “the scene is set outside the broken walls of Troy. At stage right is the hut of Helen. Downstage centre there is an altar with a perpetual flame…the light increases by degrees, until the stage is fully lit by the time Helen appears.” (5) Evans, in contrast, employs a direct reference to terror through a scene of mutilated doll parts. The “doll hospital” is a more explicit setting of terror, recalling horror films, while MacEwen’s is more subtle. However, both writers, by establishing the outset of the play in this manner, demonstrate a commitment to the basic Aristotelian thesis of the importance of terror to tragedy.
MacEwen’s translation words of the Chorus at the outset of the play suggest precisely this interplay between terror or suffering and reality: “History is a spider’s web. This is not Troy. This is a perfect world of pain. Time is a world of pain/that circles ‘round with stars and planets/In the dizzy skies!” The line “this is not Troy” may be interpreted as stressing the a-historical character of the narrative and thus why it is suitable for adaptation: the historical circumstances of the Trojan war are not the precondition for “pain” and “suffering.” In this sense, tragedy is itself timeless. From the Aristotelian perspective, therefore, in so far as terror, pain and suffering is possible, acts of magnitude are also possible. Action is not trivialized, and arguably in the contemporary world this is all the more important, to the extent that this world is often described as nihilistic and one lacking meaning or significance.
This motif is more explicit in Evans, as demonstrated by the work’s title, which makes direct reference to a particular time period. Whereas MacEwen divorces the play from its immediate historical conditions, Evans embeds the play in a concrete historical setting, only to perform the same act of overturning the significance of historical. MacEwen wants that the “overall effect of the Chorus is impressively hideous”, (4) while for Evans, the Chorus is instead serving an almost comedic function, offering sitcomesque one-liners such as “I suppose you like drinking mud. Since you’re wallowing in it. I prefer water.” (12) Nevertheless, the Chorus here also contributes to establishing this same atmosphere, stating for example at the very outset of the play in response to Hecuba’s question of what caused a sound: “Clea: A riot, maybe. Or thunder. An old pot smashing.” (10) In so far as the Chorus still possesses the same function as in MacEwen, it can be said that the attempt is to create an ominous atmosphere which functions as the Aristotelian precondition for tragedy.
The continued relevance of tragedy in this sense is only possible if the comfort of the world can be broken down to the extent that we see that terror and therefore tragedy, following Aristotle, is possible. In a world that fights “wars on terror” we can say that to the same extent that such wars are practiced there are also attempts to prevent the possibility of what Aristotle terms “serious complete actions that have magnitude.” Despite their differences, MacEwans and Evans’ adaptations intend to communicate this possibility to their audience.
- Aristotle. Poetics.
- Evans, Christine. Trojan Barbie.
- MacEwan, Gwendolyn. Trojan Women.