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Julie Baldauff, Julyana Soelistyo, Albert S. in The Children of HeraklesP.C. for the Ages
By Alisa Solomon

The Children of Herakles
By Euripides (translation by Ralph Gladstone)

American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge, MA Jan. 4-25, 2003.
Box Office: (617) 547-8300



Last Saturday--January 11, 2003--authorities in Lewiston, Maine deployed police sharpshooters and water cannons to prevent clashes between hecklers and dozens of white supremacists protesting what they called an "invasion" by Somali immigrants. 1100 have migrated to Lewiston in the last two years. At an alternative rally several miles away, an estimated 3400 participants expressed support for their new African neighbors. Lewiston's mayor--who in October notoriously urged Somalis to stop moving to the city and overwhelming its social services--did not attend either demonstration.

In December, Turkey began to position troops on its southern border to block an influx of Kurdish refugees anticipated in the wake of a U.S. attack on Iraq.

Worldwide there are currently 15 million refugees--and that counts only those who have fled their countries, running from war, persecution, starvation. There are 20 million more internally displaced persons, those uprooted from their homes but still within their nation's borders, and thus not recognized as refugees under international law nor eligible for protections. Experts predict that the numbers in both categories will keep getting higher. Meanwhile the capacity of aid organizations to provide genuine assistance is diminishing. Enduring solutions must be political. What's more, humanitarian organizations are becoming morally compromised in many cases--when food shipments fall into the hands of warlords, for instance. Sometimes--in the face of genocide, for instance--a stance of impartiality turns untenable.

This intractable crisis is part of what makes Euripides' 2400-year-old tragedy, The Children of Herakles, genuinely p.c.: "permanently contemporary" (to borrow Daniel Barenboim's phrase about Beethoven). The clash between morality and power that Euripides illuminates and the questions he provokes about a community's responsibility toward refugees are precisely what drew director Peter Sellars to the much overlooked work. In interviews and promotional materials from the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the play is having its American premiere (!), Sellars has repeatedly and passionately expressed moral outrage at the world's refugee emergency and extolled the capacity of the ancient Greek canon to provoke civic debate about a society's most pressing issues.

In presenting The Children of Herakles and surrounding it with an impressive series of pre-show talks by immigration officials, human rights activists, and refugees who have resettled in the Boston area, as well as a post-show series of films from war-torn regions currently (or recently) producing refugees, Sellars is aiming at a noble goal. He wants nothing less than to make theater matter to democracy by providing a space where, and a means through which, society's touchiest questions can be represented and opened for deliberation. It's an admirably ambitious, even thrilling, enterprise given the debased state of American theater these days--not to mention the utter vitiation of our democratic discourse.

There are innumerable instances in the play that ring disturbingly familiar: a bellicose head of state's emissary sounding just like George W. Bush as she bullies a rival with "all the weight of our power"; a girl offering to sacrifice herself to save her brothers in a chilling, noble speech that resembles the self-spectacularizing videos of Palestinian suicide bombers. But it's the overall mood of moral crisis more than the details of the plot that resonates with today's predicaments. When the children of the late Herakles, shepherded by his old comrade Iolaus, seek sanctuary in Athens, Eurystheus, the tyrannical head of Argos, demands their return. Yet nowadays, of course, refugees in America (who are vetted overseas and then resettled here) and asylum seekers (do-it-yourself refugees who somehow make it to the US on their own and then request safe haven) are not claimed by their governments. If the US denies them refuge, it's out of mistrust, callousness, greedy self-protectiveness, or plain indifference--not because anyone wants them back.

The production of The Children of Herakles functions as one piece of a larger affair. It is an inventive, often stunning rendering of the play, which could be discussed discretely, but I'm reluctant to separate out the "show" from the wider event. It could be done, too easily, in fact. One could blithely discuss the beauty of the square of fluorescent bars that surrounds the sons of Herakles center stage; go into raptures over the spellbinding traditional songs performed between scenes by the Kazakhstani master Ulzhan Baibussynova, who accompanies herself on the two-stringed dombra; impatiently frown upon Sellars' staging choices, such as the ritualized slo-mo self-sacrifice of the girl; complain about the energy vacuum in the play's last 20 minutes. The reason one could easily do all this, and more, without relating Sellars' directorial devisings to the contemporary questions of refugees, state power, and citizens' obligations raised in the rest of the evening, is that the director left the evening's most crucial link woefully weak. The key limitation is the children of Herakles themselves.

Everywhere Sellars presents The Children of Herakles (it has already played in France, Germany, and Italy) he casts, as the program insert describes them, local "refugee and immigrant youth" as the eponymous brood. So in Cambridge, some dozen brown adolescent boys in hoodies, Nikes, and baggy jeans sit silently on stage throughout the play, and are joined halfway through by a dozen brown pubescent girls in tight dungarees and tees. But we never hear a word from or about these kids: where they came from, how they got here, what's up in algebra class or field hockey practice. They are merely an Artistic Idea. An abstraction. Props.

True, Euripides doesn't give the children any words to say, and Sellars is almost totally faithful to the text. (He reassigns a few lines here and there, "kings" become "presidents," and Baiboussynova sings to Allah, not Zeus, atop the altar to Athena she graces so gloriously; otherwise there are no changes.) But once Sellars takes the step of using real refugee kids, he can not make them so irrelevant, so undifferentiated, if he genuinely means to engage his audience in thinking about their own country's policies. Even without tinkering with Euripides, he could have featured these kids in the pre-show discussions, giving one or two a turn each night; he might have extended what amounts to a very brief break for snacks between the play and the film (billed as a dinner with opportunities to chat with the featured experts and cast members) and actually organized tables with a mixture of spectators, kids, company members, and a moderator, and supplied ample time for conversation.

That would have required jettisoning the film series, which might not have been a bad idea. The film doesn't start until almost four hours into the evening and at least on the night I attended, few playgoers stayed for it. That night the film was The Valley, a documentary with impressive and often graphic footage from the trenches of both sides of the war in Kosovo, but with absolutely zero analysis, at least in its first hour. Watching with fatigue, I recalled a remark in A Bed for the Night, David Reiff's devastating critique of the humanitarianism industry. He recounts a warning he heard from a colleague the first time he set out for Bosnia: "You don't learn anything from the bang-bang." I wasn't learning anything and left before the film was over. I would have much preferred hearing about that algebra test or field hockey team, engaging, that is, the public conversation Sellars so rightly wants to encourage. But he does not supply it the room or the nudge it needs in order to happen. The audience stays passive all night long, comfortable in our familiar role as consumers. And just when we might exchange a word with a stranger, ask a kid a question, it's time for the next act.

The kids do have a central action they make twice in the course of the play, once when the President of Athens grants them refuge, and again when they are free to go home: they come out into the house to shake hands with audience members and thank us for taking them in. It's hokey, yet it's also the only moment of hot emotion in the production, otherwise mostly played with spare, unpsychologized declaiming into microphones. The point seems to be that this gesture is more about us than about them.

Following Euripides, Sellars draws a direct connection between the Athenian citizens of the play and the audience in the theater. The journalist Christopher Lydon, who also moderates the pre-show discussions, and Heather Benton play the chorus of citizens, reading from scripts at a table situated in the front of the house. Sellars seems to want us to really become those Athenians, emulate them by living up to the democratic ideals that demand the protection of refugees. Trouble is, that's not where Euripides leaves the play. Toward the end, he makes a sudden turn into new political and emotional territory.

Some scholars think Euripides tailored the play's ending to comment on the executions, without trial, of five Peloponnesian envoys transiting through Athens a few months before The Children of Herakles had its premiere, a time when Athens was at war with the Peloponnesian League. In the final scene, Alcmene, the aggrieved mother of Herakles, vengefully demands Eurystheus's head, even though the law forbids the execution of prisoners of war. The chorus of citizens accedes to Alcmene's vengeful claim as long as their kings, they say, "are cleared of all responsibility." How easily ardor overcomes jurisprudence. Having nobly gone to war to protect refugees, the Athenians now passively stand by as a prisoner is executed. Euripides rebukes his Dionysia Festival audience with this irony, cautioning them against getting too smug about ideals they can so casually let slide. What's more, Euripides refuses any romanticizing of the refugees as thoroughly innocent and heroic by making Alcmene's bloodlust so ugly.

How are we to read this ending in a time and place where Alcmene's demand is utterly normal? Sellars provides no answer. Governor George Ryan's laudable commutation of 150 death sentences this week notwithstanding, America doesn't express much horror at capital punishment; quite the contrary, especially when the relatives of the victim get to play a role in sentencing. And when it's enemy combatants who are involved, as our attorney general insists, who needs a trial?

Sellars grabs for a reference point for this final scene by dressing Eurystheus in a prisoner's orange jumpsuit and chains, and placing him behind a voice-distorting piece of Plexiglass such as those that separate inmates from their visitors. The modern dress is not what's jarring--Iolaus as well as Athens' president and Eurystheus' emissary (both played by women) wear business suits. Indeed, only Alcmene's modified black burka feels out of place. The gesture toward a huge new set of issues, however, which aren't really taken up, leeches away the production's intensity. Drawing a correspondence, after all, isn't a dramatic argument and the image feels ungrounded, unballasted by any exploration of all that image calls forth.

The danger here--as with all quick contemporary reference in classical theater--is that the one-dimensional associations actually weaken the contemporary power of the play. They become not a spur to thinking the parallels through but to more cynicism and resignation as one merely recognizes that the brutality of today has been with us for 2400 years. That's the last thing Sellars is after, although Euripides may not be so optimistic.


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