Ever the Spoils

Two University Dramas Tackle Women After War

The Love of the Nightingale

In stature she was very tall," writes Dio Cassius, the author of Rome's history through 229 AD. He is describing Boudica, a Celtic queen who waged a two-year war against the Romans. "In appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce; a great mass of the tawniest hair fell to her hips...." Like a druidic Xena, Boudica was a take-no-prisoners kind of woman, a warrior queen who had an deep passion to protect all that was hers. Boudica's war started in 61 AD, long before the development of cheaply made but highly empowering sitcoms, and in what is now England instead of New Zealand.

The conflict starts with the Romans, who were looking to expand their empire. They held some territory on the British Isles, the most important of which was the land of the Iceni, whose territory covered a large part of East Anglia. The Iceni were relatively okay with the idea of Roman rule, due to a deal worked out with Emperor Claudius.

All good things must end, however; in 61 AD, good old King Prasutagus, Boudica's husband and father of their two daughters, went and died. The local Romans got a little ticked off by the dead king's will and chose to ignore it, seizing all the king's and nobles' estates and treasures. To quote the historian Tacitus: "Kingdom and households alike were plundered like prizes of war."

Just to make sure the grubby local Celts knew who was in charge, the Romans decided to beat the heck out of Boudica and rape her two daughters. Boudica decides she's not having any of it, and she and the nobles, who have nothing left to lose, set out to get a little -- pardon the expression -- medieval on some Roman ass.

Their trail of revenge began at the Roman-held town of Camulodunum and managed to sweep through London before the Romans called in three legions from their homeland to put down this fiery-haired banshee and her troupe of Celts. Along they way, the Queen and her warriors burned Roman temples, defaced Roman statues, and killed as many Romans as they could, leaving in each corpse's mouth its own severed genitals. Boudica is the bitch who fought back. Her story, however, doesn't have the happiest ending. She chose to kill herself just outside of London rather than be captured and tortured by the Romans. A Victorian-era statue of her atop a chariot pulled by charging stallions stands outside Parliament. She looks like rage personified. It should be empowering, but when you know her story it becomes unsettling, particularly once you realize that the options for women conquered in war are not much broader now than 1,900 years ago.

Women and their bodies have long been little but convenient spoils of war, part of the booty for the winning men to ravage, either physically or spiritually, in the same way that they conquered the land. Even the great Boudica and her daughters were unable to escape being raped or beaten as a matter of policy, a demonstration of force. This month, such pillaging is taking place on two of Austin's university stages: in The Trojan Women at the Mary Moody Northen Theatre on the St. Edward's campus and in The Love of the Nightingale in the Theatre Room at UT.

Both plays use the shrouds of myth and legend to clothe their accounts of women ravaged by the conquerors after the end of a war. Both call for an end to war, one to a literal war that had been raging for 27 years, one to a figurative war between the sexes that has been raging since the earth cooled. But these plays were written over 2,300 years apart, one for the Greek stage, one for the British.

To understand these plays, regardless of their intended audience or century, it is important to take a quick look at the myths they draw from, neither of which is quite as girl-powered as the story of little Miss Boudica.

The more depressing of the two is Euripedes' The Trojan Women, a play which features the burning of a city, an impending typhoon, a rape, and the killing of a child. The most bloody and plot-significant act of all, however, takes place before the play starts: the Trojan War. Conflicting versions of the war's origin exist, but the gist of the story seems to be that the goddesses Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite decided to have a beauty contest. Paris, the son of Hecuba, Queen of Troy, was chosen as judge, and Aphrodite promised Helen, Menelaus' wife, to Paris if he would choose Aphrodite as the most beautiful. Apparently, Helen was drop-dead gorgeous and Paris agreed. Menelaus didn't, however, and a war between the Greeks and the Trojans ensued.

For 10 years, the war dragged on, until the Greeks decided to build a big wooden horse, hide inside it, wait until the Trojans pulled it within their walls, then spill out at night and sack the city. Suffice it to say that with a little help from the gods, they succeeded; every man in Troy was killed and, as Euripides' play starts, the surviving women are waiting to be parceled off to the Greek men, no better than sheep or household chattel.

With the Trojans conquered, Hecuba really gets the raw end of this deal. All her sons are dead, including Paris, and she is about to go from Queen of Troy to slave in Greece. One of her daughters is also dead, killed on Achilles' grave, and the other's fate has been foretold by Poseidon, god of the sea:

One daughter whom the Lord Apollo loved,

yet spared her wild virginity, Cassandra,

Agamemnon, in the dark, will force upon his bed.

Later in the play, Athena, who feels she has been disrespected by the Greeks she helped, convinces Poseidon to drown the rest of the Greeks in a storm at sea. But Troy will still burn, and none of its women will be spared; some will die in the storm, some will meet their unpleasant fates in Athens. War is tough on the women who survive.

At least partially, the deaths of the Trojan War lie at Aphrodite's feet, victims of her vanity. Her whims are also subtly woven into English playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker's The Love of the Nightingale. This play deviously explodes the Phaedra myth -- another sticky situation in which Aphrodite has stuck her lovestruck hands -- to illustrate the brutal uses of power and sex.

Phaedra's story goes like this: Crete's king Minos had two daughters, Phaedra and Ariadne. Young hero Theseus sails into town to kill the minotaur, who just happens to be the result of Minos' wife's affair with a bull that she thought was Poseidon. He succeeds in killing the beast with the help of Ariadne, and she sails back to Athens with him. Rather, she plans to sail back to Athens with him, but he abandons her on the island on Naxos.

After his return to Athens and the death of his father, Theseus marries the queen of the Amazons who bears him a son, Hippolytus. The queen dies, Theseus marries Phaedra, and the couple settles on Cypress, birthplace of Aphrodite, who is irked because a former tryst with Poseidon left the goddess forever bitter, and she vows revenge on all that is his. Unfortunately, Theseus is one of the many sons of Poseidon, and his son Hippolytus refuses to worship the love goddess. She subtly causes Phaedra to fall in love with her husband's son and it all, needless to say, ends poorly. And you thought Melrose Place was full of intrigue.

Wertenbaker's cautionary tale mirrors this myth, both in plot and in a play within the play, à la Hamlet. Young stud Tereus has just helped save Athenian king Pandion's bacon, sailing in from Thrace to protect Athens from invaders. In return, the king offers anything in his kingdom to Tereus. He chooses the king's eldest daughter Procne, and the king, after much wringing of hands, gives her over. Unfortunately, while the whole band is watching a production of Phaedra, Tereus gets it into his head that he is Theseus reborn and can have the younger sister Philomene as well. Again, it all ends poorly, although in a slightly more uplifting way as both women are delivered from their misery. Procne, the sister whose love of Tereus was betrayed, is turned into a swallow. Philomene, the sister left without a voice by Tereus' acts, is transformed into a nightingale and able to tell her story to all who will listen to her sing.

There is at least one striking similarity among the stories of Boudica, Hecuba, and the sisters. In all of them, the women become nothing but prizes to be won by the man or men with the strongest will, regardless of the women's consent. Boudica's daughters are raped because the Romans want Boudica's land. Cassandra is raped because the Greeks are stronger than the Trojans, and Philomene is raped because a young man thinks he's entitled to her since he saved her city.

Tereus: Your darkness and your sadness make you all the more beautiful.

Philomene: I have to consent.

Tereus: It would be better, but no, you do not have to. Does the god ask permission?

Philomene: Help. Help me. Someone. Niobe! (her chaperone)

Tereus: So, you are afraid. I know fear well. Fear is consent. You see the god and you accept.

Philomene: Niobe!

Tereus: I will have you in your fear. Trembling limbs to my fire.

So, you say to yourself, these are just stories. Just myths. Just plays. But a good play or a good myth -- and these are very, very good plays -- only amplifies a problem that already exists. If it did not, the audience would have nothing with which to identify or into which project their feelings. There has to be a point of reference, or it's like watching the drama of an alien society for which you have no cultural knowledge. It's fascinating that these two plays have sprung up in Austin at the same time. Cooler heads might suggest that there is something going on just beneath the surface that is preparing to erupt.

Last June, a United Nations tribunal investigated rapes in 80 cities and villages in Bosnia. Muslim women from 13 to 60 had been herded into camps to be assaulted by their Serb captors, told by these soldiers, "I'm going to rape you. I'm going to make [in] you a Chetnik or Serb baby." Apparently, the most attractive women were chosen first, under the guise of ethnic cleansing. It is hard to say whether this is the impetus of these productions or simply an unrelated cultural reflection. Regardless, solutions to the problem of women being treated as spoils of war are few.

Killing and castrating the men who use your body and those of your children as nothing but fertile ground for their seed feels like a satisfying approach at first, the whole "eye for an eye" thing. While their bodies were defiled, their lives were spared. But when you get right down to it, Boudica's spree can no more be justified than the Romans' decision to make a political statement about their power. The Old Testament "eye for an eye" world is not the best place to build a better society. Should violence be the only recourse for violence?

So women speak out, let the crimes against their bodies be known, talk to the press, write books, scream at the top of their lungs, only to be asked what they were wearing when the assault occurred. Told to get over it and accept the way the world works. Called irritating feminazis. Boys will be boys, especially when the rules of society are temporarily called off and they're asked to kill on sight, forced to lose the trapping of civilization to win the battle. Who can blame someone for taking advantage of a lull in the rules of behavior?

Quiet acceptance of these actions is not any better an option. The Trojan women, all of them, lie down before the sword and allow themselves to be taken. Wertenbaker's Philomene is stripped of her voice because she tries to speak out. Procne doubts her sister's experiences, unwilling to believe that her sweet husband would be capable of such acts, while the community of women around her knows the truth but is too afraid to speak out. Is silence the best solution?

Three stories: one a reality that has taken on the level of myth, two that are used to teach about reality. They prompt lots of questions but give us no real answers, no path that leads to a solution, only more turns that further muddle our thoughts, while we limp about in circles decrying the situation but helpless before it. Still, there is a purpose to these stories, to retelling them whenever war threatens: They give us a distant perspective on the immediate problem. Theirs are the only voices that can be heard when the ears around us are struggling to survive or deaf from all the screaming.

The Trojan Women runs through Nov. 23, at the Mary Moody Northen Theatre, St. Edward's University campus. Call 448-8484 for info.
The Love of the Nightingale runs through Nov. 23, in the Theatre Room, Winship Drama Bldg., UT campus. Call 471-1444 for info.

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