Probably the most exciting response from the East Bay's theater community to recent events is the Shotgun Players' decision to delay their original season-ending show in favor of the ultra-timely There Will Be No Trojan War. Also known as Tiger at the Gates, this was French playwright Jean Giraudoux's attempt to envision the moment in mythic Greece after Paris' kidnapping of Helen and before the onset of the ensuing ten-year war. While I know there are those who might consider Shotgun's decision to stage this play a blatant attempt to cash in on the war in Afghanistan, I think audiences will find the play relevant and refreshing. And anyone who put in the time at the Rep and John Hinkel Park last year for the Aeschylus and Euripides stories, There Will Be... provides yet another facet to epic events in ancient Greece, the hitherto untold story of how Troy might have felt about the war that bore its name.
Giraudoux was not only a playwright and journalist but also a veteran of the First World War, and he obviously suffered the fatigue felt so strongly in the country that lost more soldiers than any other of the combatant nations. One out of every two Frenchmen served in WWI, and the nation wanted nothing more at conflict's end than to rebuild her battered economy, reform her corruption-riddled government, and live peacefully.
The really intriguing thing about this play is that the context within which it was originally presented is so morally ambiguous. Giraudoux favored Franco-Germanic rapprochement (the parallels are clear in There Will Be -- Greece represents powerful, militaristic Germany; Troy is peaceful, agrarian France) and was willing to overlook Nazi atrocities. His mood was shared by many of his countrymen who were prepared to sacrifice certain liberties -- or even minorities (i.e., Jews, Gypsies, those troublesome immigrants) -- if it meant they didn't have to fight another war. Eugen Weber in his fascinating history of early 20th-century France, The Hollow Years, quotes a veteran named Jean Giono, who said in 1937 that if the worst part of Germany's invasion of France was that he would become German, "For my part, I prefer being a living German to a dead Frenchman." Even more troubling is a letter written by Simone Weill stating that German occupation of France was preferable to war even if it meant "certain laws of exclusion against Communists and Jews."
Giraudoux understood that there is an often-voiceless population that is irrevocably affected by war. As Weber notes, between the wars France had a million more women than men between the ages of twenty and forty; France was a nation gray with women in widow's weeds. It often falls to women to denounce war, yet just as often they do not have the political clout to stop it -- in 1935 when There Will Be was first staged, French women were a decade away from getting the vote. Most of Giraudoux's voices against war are female: Andromache's (Beth Donohue) pleading and impassioned, Hecuba's (Trish Mulholland) incisive and colorful, Polyxene's (Sarah Maslin) innocent. Helen herself is ambivalent, but we are led to understand that she cares nothing about what happens outside of herself. Director Patrick Dooley has chosen to make Busiris the fast-talking pro-war lawyer more interesting by cross-casting the very funny Sabrina Klein, but even Busiris eventually switches sides. Similarly, Giraudoux's men are arrayed against peace -- whether their motives are simple bloodlust (Michael Cheng's drunken Ajax), politics (Fred Ochs' smarmy Priam), or gussied up as art (Clive Worsley as the poet Demokos) -- such that Malcolm Brownson's thoughtful, troubled Hector stands out all the more as a warrior who sees war clearly and wants no more of it. Giraudoux casts gender politics in stark relief; Hector's manhood is questioned because he stands with the women, while the women's protests are belittled because as Demokos puts it, "They may say anything."
As important as the questions There Will Be raises about the necessity or validity of war, there are also the ones about how individuals and populations work themselves up to war. The way the people of Troy clamor for war resonates uncannily with how easily we Americans have accepted the current conflict. When the crew of Paris' ship contradicts the story Hector is trying to sell Ulysses about how Paris has not "insulted" Helen, when Demokos applies his talents to the war effort ("The mission of those who understand how to speak and write is to compliment and praise war ceaselessly and indiscriminately"), and when Helen chooses to ignore her complicity in the events, we see the ways people respond to the possibility of war. Youthful excitement, convenient intellectual justification, a turning away in favor of other pursuits -- Giraudoux saw them all in his contemporaries, just as we see them in ourselves.
Dooley's casting is inspired. Besides Shotgun regulars Donohue, Worsley, Mulholland, Andy Alabran, Brent Rosenbaum, and Greg Lucey, we get John Patrick Moore as spoiled, pretty Paris, who looks ready to throw a tantrum if his toy -- the supremely confident and equally spoiled Helen (Roxana Ortega) -- is taken away, Kimberly Wilday as a coke-snorting Cassandra, Malcolm Brownson and Michael Asberry as Hector and Ulysses, and Sarah Maslin as pigtailed Polyxene. Dooley's staging (the neutral set design, the tape of historical personages crying out their war songs) is designed expressly to indicate that all war is the same. But is it? Giraudoux faced the prospect of life under German rule; are we bombing the heck out of Afghanistan because we're afraid they will overrun us? While the outcomes are all distressingly similar -- the devastation, the misery -- all wars are not the same.
The genius of this play lies in this and the other questions Giraudoux raises, as when Ajax threatens to take Andromache, and Hector is torn between his desire to defend his wife and his commitment to preventing a war with Greece. Will his passion overwhelm his hard-won pacifism? When do we raise our hand and when do we stand by, and how will we justify whatever decision we have made? As Sabrina Klein has pointed out, there has been a real paucity of public debate about the war in Afghanistan; I think audiences will find that Shotgun's production will give them a chance to hear some of their own fears and questions voiced publicly.
What the Fork - July 22, 2:39 PM
What the Fork - July 22, 10:19 AM
Culture Spy - July 22, 6:58 AM
What the Fork - July 20, 5:28 PM
Culture Spy - July 20, 3:57 PM