Photo Essay: Prisoners and Slaves, Then and Now: “The Trojan Women”

Katherine Hepburn in “The Trojan Women” (1971, Michael Cacoyannis)

Euripides’s play The Trojan Women is over 2400 years old, and yet it speaks as relevantly to modern injustices as it did to suffering in ancient Greece. The play, which listens to a group of women rising from the ashes of a ruined city as they prepare themselves to become prisoners of war, has been performed during innumerable conflicts: the two World Wars, the Balkans, Iraq. It even bears resemblance to The Circle (2000), filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s contemporary depiction of female prisoners in Iran (Panahi is himself now a prisoner of an oppressive regime). Both Euripides’s tragedy and Panahi’s film move from one woman to the next, as though each isn’t permitted to carry a complete story on her own. Both show a group of women persecuted because their captors think the gods have ordered it, though religion is really a pretext for oppression. Euripides provided artists with a model for dramatizing a person’s loss of identity.

The novelist J.M. Coetzee wrote that the worst fate is not to be condemned, but to be forgotten. This is the fate that awaits the Trojan women once the play ends. Their homes have been burned down, their sons and husbands slaughtered, their property taken by the Greek army. The fate left to them is slavery, and in Michael Cacoyannis‘ 1971 film of the play, it is a condition that is nameless and faceless.

We get this impression especially from Hecuba, the film’s tragic heroine. Before the Greeks came, she was queen; now, when we see her, it’s as a piece of ragged cloth.

But then a little further in, and we see a human hand.

Then she rises, and it’s a movie star.

A strange conflict may arise within audience members, who recognize Katharine Hepburn from a 60-plus-year career. They know implicitly that she’s not really suffering; and yet, at the same time, their knowledge of her celebrity makes her performance as a fallen great one resonate more.

Hepburn’s Hecuba slips into a chorus of nameless women, played by unfamiliar actresses with vivid visages. The women may have been servants or mistresses in prior lives, but they’re all going to be slaves now. Yet because this is a film, with the power of close-ups, we get to know these unknowns. The movie’s like a lingering bubble, in which these women can register as people for the last time in their lives.

The freedom to show your face may seem small, but when you have no others it grows enormous. It makes sense, then, that these women would resent a female permitted to show more. When Helen (Irene Papas), the Greek beauty whose dalliance with Trojan prince Paris caused the war to begin with, appears, the film focuses unrelentingly on her body. First it’s glimpsed through bars—bare legs and arms, a hint of breasts.

After she leaves her cell to plead with Greek captors, the focus becomes her back.

The most striking aspect of these suggestive shots is that they seem to come from the other womens’ point of view. It doesn’t matter whether Helen’s using her body to try to get ahead, because the other characters can’t see her as anything but a sexual object. But the more you listen to her, the more it becomes apparent that she’s been blamed for a devastation one person couldn’t cause. The film’s saddest line about faces—“I wish that I could wipe out the beauty from my face and have an uglier one”—belongs to her.

The Trojan women been decimated by men, but appear most grotesquely inhuman when dealing with another woman. They seem to loathe her for doing what they no longer can: presenting herself.

Papas’s Greek accent amidst a mainly British and American cast suggests that Helen is scapegoated because she’s an outsider. But the film intrigues most when it suggests a group attacking one of its own because it lacks the power to go after the real villains. Hecuba cannot stop the Greeks from killing her grandson, abducting her daughters, or consigning her to slavery, but she can urge the Greek king to kill Helen.

Watching these scenes leads one to think about women damning other women for being whores and sluts, well before men can, in an innumerable number of social settings across history, yet also points to how oppression works best from within. Hecuba is a character, but she’s also a mouthpiece for a position, as many of the other characters are:

Stay down.

It’s obvious from film’s beginning that all hope is lost. So why watch a story whose outcome is never in doubt? Greek tragedy was intended more for its audience than for its characters—soldiers were required to watch plays like The Trojan Women so that they would better understand the human cost of battle. As the focus shifts from woman to woman, the viewer becomes the protagonist, perpetually watching through the chorus’s eyes.

The eyes have it in this particular production, an effective rendering of a text that belongs to any era. Cruelty, after all, is a historical constant.

Aaron Cutler is the co-author (with Rory O’Connor) of Shock Jocks: Hate Speech and Talk Radio. His film writings can be found

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