THE TROJAN WOMEN
ANNE CARSON AND ROSANNA BRUNO
80pp. Bloodaxe. 10.99 [pounds sterling].
IT IS AN EXCITING MOMENT when Anne Carson collaborates with the cartoonist Rosanna Bruno, renowned for The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson (2017), on the play by Euripides identified in antiquity as the most heartrending tragedy ever written: Trojan Women, which dramatizes the suffering of the women of Troy after the city's defeat by the Greeks. The play's reputation has created a subterranean impact. When Philip Sidney championed theatre in his Defence of Poetry (1581), he illustrated tragedy's emotive moral instrumentality with a story of how the murderous tyrant Alexander of Pherae was forced to leave the theatre when moved by the "sweet violence" of the depiction of the sorrows of Hekabe and Andromache (two of the play's main characters). Alexander realized it would not be expedient for his subjects to see him weep. This anecdote, in conjunction with an itinerant actor's description of Hecuba's despair, suggested to Shakespeare's Hamlet the very idea that "the play's the thing / Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king". Claudius must leave the theatrical production at his court because it hits, as Euripides' Trojan Women had done long ago, far too close to home.
This tragedy's monumental standing makes Carson's decision to rewrite it as "A Comic" (the subtitle) provocative and risky. When children are meeting brutal deaths and almost every female is a rape victim, playing with generic fire requires exceptional judgement. Carson once worked in the graphic art world; but despite the success of her previous welding of another canonical Greek tragedy, Sophocles' Antigone, to comic book format in Antigonick (with the artist Bianca Stone, 2012), the unrelenting focus of Trojan Women on war crimes induced scepticism in me, exacerbated by the cover. It both intimates Bruno's debt to conventional visual idioms of graphic-art Gothic and announces that the tragedy will be enacted zoomorphically: a seductive fox in high heels (Helen) stares at a dejected elderly dog (Hekabe).
Further alarm bells sounded during Poseidon's opening speech bubble (the text seems throughout, as in Antigonick, to be in Carson's upper-case handwriting, creating effects ranging from crazed diary entries to red-top headlines). Carson has a well-earned reputation for abstruse references. Her prizewinning "novel in verse" Autobiography of Red (1998), inspired by Stesichorus' fragmentary lyric poem Geryoneis, notoriously requires knowledge of cinema, photography, Plato, Dante, Heidegger, Yeats, Whitman, Judith Butler, Homi Bhaba, Paul Celan, Woolf, Einstein, Freud and Emily Dickinson, among others.
My trepidation grew: her Poseidon flippantly alludes to Hotel Troy (a former sanitorium in North Carolina featuring Classical Revival architecture), to a (pay-walled) poem about James Baldwin by the darling of US High Poetry circles Frederick Seidel, and to Robert Graves's First World War memoir Goodbye to All That (1929). I prefer my art less cluttered by displays of intertextual bravura. Yet I was converted by the last page, where Hekabe stares through the smoke swirling upwards from the ashes of her "deleted" civilization, concluding, "Start...