Euripides was always a loser. Of the 92 plays he wrote from 438 to 405 BCE, only four of them were honored with first prize at the Dionysia theatre festival in Athens. Yet, year after year, Athenians flocked to see his plays. What’s more, he was widely understood to be one of the best playwrights at perhaps the richest era for the form. So, why did he keep losing? For the same reason why Duchamp’s Fountain or Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ were, initially, poorly received: He just made people uncomfortable.
As Anne Carson would have it: “He has a gift for withholding or spoiling elements of a play that we as the audience want to be there or to be perfect, so that we can derive an appropriate tragic pleasure.” Carson, whose new translation of Euripides’ Herakles — H of H Playbook — has been published by New Directions, is drawn to this discomfort. Indeed, a folder on her computer entitled “Unpleasantness of Euripides” documents her answers to the question “Why is Euripides so unpleasant?” She writes in Grief Lessons (2006 NYRB), “Certainly he is. Certainly I’m not the only person who thinks so. Not the only person whose heart sinks at the prospect of reading, teaching, or attending one of his plays. It’s . . . that sinking feeling of oh no here we go again as the bleakness closes in.”
There was a lot to be uncomfortable about: Euripides was a pacifist during a time of war. He wondered aloud whether Athenian democracy had taken a wrong turn, veered into populism. He indicted the war hawks who were in power and the atrocities Athens had committed against foreign countries in the Peloponnesian War. He questioned the old gods and the old philosophies. His plays were formally experimental and morally ambiguous; they asked sticky, inconclusive questions like: Should we really valorize heroes, like Herakles? What is a hero? Aren’t they just people who sneeze and lie like the rest of us? What has our country become? Is this really the pinnacle of civilization? How can the gods be just when horrible things happen to us?
It’s the discomfort that drew Athenians — and Carson — back to the playwright. Carson has translated or adapted ten of Euripides’ plays. Perhaps she returns to Euripides because she, too, makes people uncomfortable, for she has a hard time being categorized. She is a poet, a classicist, a teacher, a visual artist, and a notoriously unwilling interviewee. She plays with form, translates fragments, writes novels in verse, essays in tangos, librettos, epitaphs, lesson plans; her work puts Woolf next to Thucydides, Marilyn Monroe next to Helen of Troy. She likes the places where the lines blur, where discomfort presses you to return to a text again and again. So powerful is the discomfort of Euripides that she has already translated Herakles once before, in Grief Lessons, a collection of four of Euripides’ tragedies paired with critical essays.
So why return to a play that she has already translated? Maybe because the questions Euripides asked about democracy and populism feel relevant today. Maybe because Herakles has become something of a personal fascination for Carson. Maybe because in 416 BCE, Euripides created an open wound and Carson can’t keep herself from picking at the scab.
And Herakles is quite the scab. The original tale goes something like this: Herakles’ family is about to be killed by the evil, populist demagogue Lykos. Where are the gods? (No answer). Where are Herakles’ friends? (No answer). Where is Herakles? Out doing his famous Labors (killing Hydra, kidnapping Cerberus, and such). Just in the nick of time, Herakles busts out of Hades, returns home, saves his family, and kills Lykos. Celebrations ensue. That is, until Herakles is turned crazy by the goddess Hera and in a blind rage, kills his wife and children. Realizing what he’s done, he contemplates suicide. Finally, he is convinced by his friend Theseus to affirm his life, to leave Thebes, and travel to Athens where he will be cleansed of his sins.
If you’re feeling whiplash, you’re not alone. The play is full of disruptions, or reversals of fate, what Aristotle called peripeteia. Euripides’ peripeteia are violent and endless; over and over again, the play is crushed and reformed. Herakles himself only enters the play halfway through, the smell of Hades still in his hair, a symbolic rebirth as he reenters the domestic sphere from the land of the dead. You get the sense that if you listen to the story long enough, there will be yet another reversal of power; the suppliant will be saved only to be killed in a worse way, the hero will become the murderer, the homecoming will lead to the hero’s homelessness.
The play itself twists disturbingly, halfway through, from a comedy into — well — a tragicomedy? A tragedy? Not even the chorus, who traditionally invoke history to make sense of the action, know what to make of this dissonance: “the evils here . . . go far beyond /anything in the past,” they say in Carson’s first translation. Like Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” Herakles doesn’t cohere to form; as soon as you think you’re in one story, it dies and is reborn. The play continues on, despite the conductor waving his arms yelling for it to stop; it has gathered its own momentum and will self-destruct on its own, fragmented terms.
Carson’s new translation, H of H Playbook, literally embodies this deterioration. The words themselves are printed on fragments of paper that look like they’ve been precariously cut and pasted onto the canvas. The play’s physical structure is subject to upheaval, gaps, subversion at even the smallest shake.
In his essay, “The Task of the Translator,” Walter Benjamin calls good translation an “afterlife,” and afterlives are baked into the DNA of Herakles. On a cellular level, the plot is full of rebirths (Herakles the hero becomes Herakles the murderer). Thematically, the play is continuously reincarnated (comedy to tragedy to absurdity) and — in a larger sense — Carson’ first translation gave new life to the story in 2006. Now H of H Playbook is the afterlife of Carson’s own relationship with the play, as she takes the same text and grants it an entirely new form, with a new setting, new cast of characters, and new — more contemporary — predicaments. Indeed, H of H Playbook is much more about Carson’s own obsessions and a Euripidean spirit of subversiveness than fidelity to the content of Euripides’ text. The translation leaps between antiquity and modernity, indulging Carson’s longheld erotic fascination between Herakles and the monster Geryon, and her penchant for anachranisms (Cherynobl, Moby Dick, Anselm Kiefer, and Percy Byssche Shelley all feature in the motley cast). In one beautifully bound book, she has stitched together the Anne Carson starter pack in Euripidean gift wrapping. Benjamin, in his explanation of translation, describes the original text as an enclosed circle, and the translation as a line that glances off the side of the circle, hitting at a single point; accordingly, H of H glances off Euripides’ original text and runs into infinity on its own, into another time and place.
One of the ways that Carson constructs this second afterlife for Herakles is to continuously jump between the immediate present and the far past. To start, H of H is set in a trailer park, the dictator Lykon is a “totalitarian cracker,” Herakles family is ever-aware of the border police that would catch them if they escaped, and Herakles himself into a Labourer who has been abandoned by capitalism. (In the book, Herakles is called “H of H,” as if to suggest that he himself is out of another book, that his fate may be predetermined, but the journey to that fate will be entirely new).
Carson continues her tightrope between time periods as she forces her readers to entertain both modern and ancient interpretations of the play. By granting characters an interiority not afforded to them in the classic texts, she enters her characters into a longstanding debate over their own motivations, and meaning. This translation does not only represent a reincarnation of Euripides’ play, but also of all the critical debates that have been had about it. One such debate revolves around the question of responsibility. For years, groups like Theater of War have turned classic texts like Herakles and Ajax into cathartic experiences for war veterans. They frame Herakles as a victim of PTSD, a claim that many academic classicists resist. Rather, academics tend to point to the paradoxical, ancient Greek relationship to responsibility. Why do people do bad things? They ask. Well, because they do, thumps the disappointing, very Greek, answer.
This debate plays out in the text of H of H Playbook. Like in the original, Hera — a jealous god — sends Madness to turn H of H crazy. H of H has done nothing to deserve this fate, and yet, when he asks, “Are [the gods] after us again?” His father responds, “Forget the gods. You have a new suit of woe to put on.” What he means is that we do horrible things, and even if the world is run by gods who resemble angsty teenagers more than a benevolent dictator, we must take responsibility for our behavior. On one hand, this denies H of H the satisfaction of blaming his actions on the gods. On the other hand, the chorus takes on the more modern interpretation, explicitly framing H of H as a war veteran. They chant: “Psychic episode” / says Special Ops / “unrelated to battle experience” / They discharge him, Misconduct.” Even Theseus says, “You don’t walk out of ten years of Labours into normal living.” These tales frame H of H as a victim of his own psychic trauma, the trauma of being at war. Whatever the Labours are — capitalism or killing Geryon or going to battle — they represent some of the horrors of life. But what the Greeks were getting at — and what H of H must face — we still have to live with the burden of our actions. In the end, it doesn’t matter why. It matters that we did it. Just like Euripides, Carson leaves us with no clear morality, no heroes — or rather, heroes that are “berzerk” — and with the vague consolation that perhaps, once and a while, we might find a friend (Theseus) to come along and relieve the misery, the unfairness, the agony of being alive. Ultimately, as the chorus says, “we go in grief.”
It’s a pretty bleak outlook. And yet, from the crack of tragedy comes the shooting bud of absurdity. Sandwiches, farts, and overalls gallop through the pages. As illustrator and translator, Carson creates a conversation between the visual and the written, that — like with modernity and antiquity — forces the reader to leap back and forth, while the meaning weaves in between. The illustrations are often swirling forms that mimic one another, bursting out of their own frame and squirming in between dialogue, as if they can’t be held in place by their borders. Sometimes the language itself is handwritten, as if it desires to be painted. Sometimes it is the lack of illustration that speaks loudest: A violent wedge of blood splashes across two pages when H of H murders his family, followed by pages of sparse dialogue, unillustrated, a gut-wrenching quietness; the lack of illustration conveys an inarticulate moment in the theatre of visual representation.
And the form? It’s not quite a play because there are illustrations. We are told that the monologues are in fact voiceovers, but it’s also not a video, or an auditory experience. It’s difficult to characterize, both beyond any one form and a perfectly singular form. It epitomizes the Carsonian mythology that mixes genre, that writes biographies that are mile-long operas, fictional essays, novels in verse. Euripides, too, asked questions about the capacity of theatre, and about what form was capable of carrying which burden. He said that new knowledge requires new forms of expression, and perhaps we need a new kind of theatre for a new moment in history. And a new kind of theatre — replete with gaps and tangents, modern and ancient myths, mystery and tragedy mixed with utter absurdity — is exactly what Carson has created.
H of H Playbook
By Anne Carson
Published October 26, 2021
Emma Heath is a teacher and freelance writer based in California. She is earning her M.A. in English Literature at Middlebury's Bread Loaf School of English. Follow her @emmabheath on Twitter, email at email@example.com, or read her microfiction @emptybrackets on Instagram.