“Nevertheless They Persisted: Hecuba/Helen” – Stanford Rep Delivers Engaging Interpretation of Greek Tragedy

Last month, I was given the opportunity to catch a fantastic performance of Stanford Repertory Theater‘s “Nevertheless They Persisted: Euripides’ Hecuba/Helen.” This combined production of two Greek tragedies was adapted and directed by Rush Rehm, Stanford professor of theater and Classics and specialist in Greek tragedy.

As it turns out, he might be one of my future instructors at the Stanford Classics Department, and it would be extraordinary to benefit from his practical expertise in staging ancient plays as a way to enhance my literary study of Greek tragedy. Watching one of Prof. Rehm’s productions, as well as hearing him speak at a Q&A session afterward, was a nice preview of what awaits me, if I get to take a class with him in the future.

The name of the production comes from the phrase “nevertheless she persisted,” which refers to the silencing of Senator Elizabeth Warren on the Senate floor, and her refusal to stand down. The expression has become a statement of female empowerment, and these modern revivals of Euripides’ plays build on that theme by bringing together the stories of two mythical women, Hecuba and Helen, who each experience suffering and adversity, yet are able to re-gain some measure of power and autonomy through their courage, cleverness, and willpower.

In many ways, the positive ideals of empowerment and female strength clash with the dark, grim world of Euripides’ Hecuba, and the brutal act of vengeance that concludes the play. After the Trojan War, Hecuba (Courtney Walsh), the queen of Troy, becomes a slave to the conquering Greek army. After already losing her sons, her power, and her city, she learns that her daughter, Polyxena (Lea Claire Zawada), is to be sacrificed by the Greeks as a tribute to the ghost of Achilles. Then, she discovers that her son, Polydorus (Shayan Hooshmand), has been betrayed and killed by the greedy king Polymnestor (Joe Estlack).

Hecuba takes revenge by blinding Polymnestor and murdering his two innocent young sons. She does “persist” to re-gain control over her circumstances, but revels in a gleeful act of violence that suggests an abandonment of morality. Perhaps that is what makes this a tragedy: despite the efforts of Hecuba to overcome suffering and seek justice, we have nothing to show for it in this play, except for a trail of bloodied bodies and the destruction of innocent lives. Nothing seems to change, and there is no hope for a better tomorrow.

But there are fleeting glimmers of hope, too: in one of the most moving moments of the play, Polyxena delivers a profound speech in which she affirms her own inner strength and retains her dignity by willingly accepting her death. She wins praise from her Greek captors, who look on in admiration at her noble heroism, even as they are cutting her down.

Polyxena (Lea Claire Zawada) gives her final speech. Odysseus (Joe Estlack) waits impatiently in the background to take her away for her sacrifice.

All in all, I enjoyed the emotional ups-and-downs of this play, embodied in the intensity of the actors’ powerful performances, especially as Hecuba shifts from the depths of despair to the joy of triumphant revenge.

Courtney Walsh as Helen (left) and Hecuba (right).

In the second play, Prof. Rehm flips things on their head. In the last moment of Hecuba, the queen switches costumes on stage and Walsh, who plays both title roles, transforms into the beautiful Helen. From the darkness of the first play, we move to the lighter, ironic, and even humorous Helen, which features a different sort of tragedy: Helen never went to Troy, but it was a phantom Helen that the gods sent there with Paris, in order to cause the Trojan War.

In other words, a terrible war was waged and a great city destroyed in pursuit of a meaningless illusion, which points to the limits of human knowledge and the pointlessness of conflict: these concerns were relevant to the ancient Athenians watching the play, who were engaged in a long war with their Spartan foes, but also to our modern world. In interviews, Prof. Rehm explicitly brings up the modern parallel of the Iraq War and the non-existent “weapons of mass destruction.”

Not only that, but the real Helen, through no fault of her own, has her reputation smeared by those who blame her for the war and call her an adulterous whore.

In this twist on the traditional myth, Helen faithfully awaits her husband Menelaus (also Joe Estlack) in Egypt, where she’s been trapped for the war’s duration, and invents a clever scheme to escape from the tyrannical clutches of king Theoclymenus (Doug Nolan), who seeks to marry her himself. She persists and endures until she can be reunited with her husband and return to Greece, where she can reveal the truth and restore her reputation.

Helen (Courtney Walsh, right) is reunited with her husband, Menelaus (Joe Estlack, left).

Rush sprinkles his adaptation of Helen with comedic moments, reminding us that tragedy is not only a genre of suffering, but, as he explained at the Q&A, also something we can laugh at, by finding humor in the ironies and cruel jokes of life. Many of these moments, however, are not present in Euripides’ original play, but were added during the process of adaptation. These alterations are a bit uncomfortable for a student like me who studies tragedy as a form of written literature, and would prefer to rely on the actual text of Euripides.

Admittedly, the added comedic portions align well with the ironic tragedies of the play. When Helen laments, “I’m famous for my beauty. It’s a curse,” she uses her wit to suggest the complexly double-sided nature of beauty, at once her greatest asset yet a burden that contributes to her reputation as an air-headed, vain adulteress, as well as its devastating role as a glorified, illusory ideal for which pointless wars are fought.

Menelaus’ bewilderment, as he struggles to understand how he could possibly have two wives, both of whom claim to be Helen, daughter of Zeus or Tyndareus (no one knows for sure), is funny, but the moment also asks us to ponder the deeper absurdities of human existence and the difficulties of achieving an objective understanding of reality.

Menelaus (Joe Estlack, left) laughs at Theoclymenus (Doug Nolan, right) in his ridiculous military garb: note the three swords.

When Theoclymenus emerges from his palace in ridiculous camo gear, absurdly juggling three swords, we laugh at his buffoonery, before remembering the threat he poses to Helen and Menelaus. We are reminded of the inane boasting and grandstanding of certain politicians and authoritarian strongmen: is it a horrible joke, or a terrifying reality that these are the types of leaders who run our world today? Certainly, the ancient Athenians asked the same question of their politicians.

The text of Euripides which comes down to us has no stage directions, and so, it is up to the director and actors to interpret the lines of the play into movements on stage. Menelaus’ encounter with the housekeeper, who berates him and prevents him from entering the palace, becomes funnier through the addition of physical comedy. At the end of the play’s text, Helen’s twin brothers appear, but we don’t know which of them speak when making their divine pronouncement: this becomes a joke as Castor comedically speaks over his brother, but again, this is located nowhere in the text.

Edition of Euripides’ Helen in its original Greek.

All this raises the question of what we are trying to do when staging a Greek tragedy: reproduce an ancient author’s play as closely as possible, or create our own interpretation of it? How far can we depart from the original Greek text, when it comes to translation, adaptation, and stage directions? What exactly counts as a authentic production of a tragedy? Can there an objective standard for what makes a “true” tragedy? As the play Helen would have us ask, what does it even mean for something to be “real”?

In the end, as a director, Rush Rehm has succeeded in making his own version of Helen that is uniquely humorous, and one that would have aligned with Euripides’ thematic intentions. Whether that is authentic or not remains up for debate.

Finally, I appreciated Prof. Rehm’s ability to convey the peculiar, idiosyncratic elements of Greek drama without making them seem too foreign to a modern audience.

First, the music. We know that Greek tragedies were originally accompanied by music and that the plays alternated between spoken dialogue and lyric passages which would have been sung or chanted, to mark shifts in register. To create a sense of this effect, musical director Michael Keck utilizes musical instrumentation with Asian influences to set the scene in Thrace, near the coast of modern-day Turkey where the ships of the Greek army are stranded, or in the exotic land of Egypt.

Daringly and unusually, this production attempts to suggest the lyrical, poetic nature of song in tragedy, with Hecuba singing her lamentation alongside music to emphasize the emotional intensity of her suffering, and so too does Helen sing in a similar lamentation scene. But Prof. Rehm doesn’t overdo this: there is only one song per play, which grants special significance to the heightened register and formal tone of those scenes and prevents us from being overwhelmed. Any more than that would feel like musical theater, a modern genre that has little resemblance to tragedy.

Hecuba (Courtney Walsh) stands together with the chorus of captive Trojan women.

Now, the chorus, an essential part of any Greek play. They are a unified group of characters who act and speak as one. They set the tone of the play, give it structure, and provide narrative and mythical background. They are involved in the action, but represent a generalized perspective that allows them to step back and offer commentary not only on the events of the play itself, but on the broader universal human experience.

Modern productions sometimes struggle with the chorus. One method is to emphasize their unity, by having them sing, chant, or speak their lines in unison, but in addition to being an unfamiliar style to audience members, this has the problem of obscuring the clarity of the verses: not ideal, if we want to grasp the important information they are sharing.

The Chorus in action.

The chorus of this production achieves a nice balance. Each line is spoken separately by individual chorus members, so we can hear what they’re saying, but at times they speak together for emphasis.

Yet their essential unity remains, primarily through the highly engaging and energetic choreography, which allows the chorus to rhythmically dance and move across the stage as if they were all parts of one body. Every movement occurs in synchronicity with their words. Choreographer Aleta Hayes does great work here: the ancient Greek chorus is brought to life in a way that feels organic, and not at all forced.

Overall, “Nevertheless They Persisted: Hecuba/Helen” was an excellent achievement of a production that shows what is possible when it comes to modern adaptations of Classical drama. Ancient works performed on stage need not be thought of as alien or unfamiliar after all.

Unfortunately, the run of this show at Stanford’s Roble Studio Theater is over. Rush Rehm is now bringing his version of Hecuba to Athens, Greece, the city where Euripides presented that same play over 2000 years ago. Besides that, there will be no chance to catch these plays anymore, so be sure to see Stanford Repertory Theater’s next production, hopefully of another Classical work.

Other Reviews and Media:

Photo credits: Frank Chen and Zachary Dammann


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