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Harrison, Herakles, and Wailing Women: ‘Labourers’ at Delphi

  • Carol Chillington Rutter

As well as being a widely published poet, Tony Harrison is well known as a dramatist for his reworkings of classical materials, from ancient Greek to medieval. When he was invited to contribute a play for the eighth International Meeting on Ancient Greek Drama, on the theme of ‘Crossing Millennia’, to be held at the European Cultural Centre of Delphi in August 1995, he chose to present a version of The Labourers of Herakles set on a building site – a building site the Greek sponsors specially ‘constructed’ for the event. In describing the single performance of the play, Carol Chillington Rutter, who teaches in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick, vividly evokes the theatrical forcefulness of the occasion: but she questions what she considers the ambivalence of Harrison's theatre work in its presentation and treatment of women – of which the decision to visualize the chorus of women in Labourers as cement mixers was most strikingly emblematic.

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Notes and References

1. The Oresteia was first produced by the National Theatre in November 1981 and performed at the ancient theatre of Epidauros in July 1982. It is reprinted in Harrison, Tony, Dramatic Verse 1973–1985 (Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 1985). Trackers was written for the E.C.C.D. International Meeting in 1988 and was revised for a limited run at the National Theatre in 1990. The Delphi text is published by Faber and Faber (London, 1990).

2. Directed by Tony Harrison; designed by Jocelyn Herbert; music by Richard Blackford; sound by Glen Keiles. The Labourers were Lawrence Evans, Fraser Marlow, Conrad Nelson, Barrie Rutter, and Tim Wright. The project was supported by the Royal National Theatre Studio and sponsored by Heracles General Cement Co. The first (and only) performance was on 23 August 1995.

3. Originally written for the National Theatre, The Common Chorus has yet to be professionally performed. The text is published by Faber and Faber (London, 1992). For a discussion of the play, see Rutter, Carol Chillington, ‘The Poet and the Geldshark’, in Howard, Tony and John, Stokes, eds., Acts of War: the Representation of Military Conflict on the British Stage and TV since 1945 (London: Scolar Press, 1996). I am very grateful to Tony Howard for reading revised versions of this paper and offering his wisdom.

4. Quoted by Tony Harrison in programme notes.

5. Herakles is, of course, presenting a radically skewed version of this history (but then, ‘history’ is grist to the playwright's mill). For another account, see Hammond, N. G. L., A History of Greece (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), p. 204–7. ‘Appeasers’ (like ‘genocide’ later) is a misleading term given the shape of politics in the region in 494 BC. Most of ‘Ionia’ – that is, western Turkey and the off-shore islands including Miletos – had, by 494 BC, already been ruled from Persia for one or two generations. Before that, the area had been more loosely under the control of the kingdom of Lydia (southwest Turkey).

Greek city-states existed, and often thrived, over all the Mediterranean in seaboard territories notionally ruled from elsewhere. There was no political sense of ‘Greek-ness’ nor even of ‘Hellenism’: where ‘appeasers’ implies some duty by the standards of which the Athenians (or some of them) failed, there was no duty – no defensive treaty, and nothing like a League of Nations. On the contrary, Greek states made alliances with Greek and non-Greek states to compete with and balance each other's power. Most importantly, the Persians were not Hitler (neither were they Gandhi). In terms of comfort, trade, even arguably mental life and religious freedom, someone in the eastern Mediterranean in 494 BC might well have preferred the remote rule of the very tolerant Persians (who, it should be remembered, encouraged the renewal of Jewish Temple worship) to being at the mercy of the much closer-to-hand inter-Greek city-state politics which took a heavy toll of life in those same off-shore islands late in the fifth century BC.

Harrison's pro-Hellenism – if it duplicates Herakles' – reflects an unthinking racism. As for Phrynichos' play, according to Herodotus, ‘The Athenians … showed their profound distress at the loss of Miletos in a number of ways, but in none more clearly than in their reception of Phrynichos’ play; for when Phrynichos produced his Capture of Miletus the audience in the theatre burst into tears, and the author was fined a thousand drachmas for reminding them of a disaster which touched them so closely. A law was subsequently passed forbidding anybody ever to put the play on the stage again' (The Histories (London: Penguin, 1972), p. 395).

The claim that Phrynichos was the first to use female masks in the theatre is traced to a short sentence in the Suda, a frequently inaccurate Byzantine encyclopedia of the tenth century AD, which does not elaborate the statement. It says nothing about a female chorus lamenting the loss of Miletos. The Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta yields nothing of what it calls the Miletou Halosis besides its title: no fragments; no clue about its content. I am grateful to my colleagues, Rowland Cotterill and Derek Hughes, for reading drafts of this paper and for directing me to the information contained in this note.

6. The Milesians, says Rowland Cotterill, died because they rebelled, not because they were Greek. ‘Genocide’ involves a world of nations: this is not the world of Greece in the fifth century BC. Neither is it Phrynichos' language. A hostile viewer might be inclined to suspect Harrison, in using the emotive term ‘genocide’, of trying to get ideology on the cheap.

7. See Harrison, Tony, ‘The Inkwell of Dr. Agrippa’, in Astley, Neil, ed., Tony Harrison: Bloodaxe Critical Anthologies 1 (Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 1991), p. 32–5. It is of course the case that Herakles' wrestling with Death – to which the sole surviving line of Phrynichos' Herakles tetralogy seems to refer – occurs when he brings Alcestis back from the dead. Is this, asks Derek Hughes of Harrison's use of the Herakles myth, ‘a relevant counterbalance to Herakles the misogynist destroyer? Is a point about gender being made here?’ The answer to these questions in terms of Harrison's work must wait for his version of the Alcestis, currently in progress.

8. This opera, commissioned by the New York Metropolitan Opera, remains unperformed, but is published in Harrison, Tony, Dramatic Works 1973–1985 (Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 1985).

9. I am grateful to Oliver Taplin for reading and commenting on parts of this paper and in particular for the lively debates we have had over the cement mixers. I want to state very clearly that he does not support my interpretation of The Labourers of Herakles nor the central argument of this paper.

10. What I am seeing here may be a progressive shift. In Harrison's version of The Oresteia, Clytemnestra, like her original, made good her plot and wielded the man-axe. In The Common Chorus, Lysistrata, unlike her original, did not make good her plot: in Aristophanes, she ends the war; in Harrison, she gets busted. In The Kaisers of Carnuntum, the ‘woman's part’ is played by Commodus who appears as Herakles in drag. In Labourers, I am suggesting, the ‘woman's part’ is given to the cement mixers. Harrison has had one experience as a playwright and director of reversing his usual practice of writing for an all-male (or nearly all-male) company, as in The Oresteia or Trackers. He wrote Square Rounds for an all-female company at the National Theatre in 1992. It was an unhappy experience for director – as Harrison willingly admits – and company alike (one of the actors told me she was ‘still trying to recover’).

11. I do not mean to argue that Harrison is a hypocrite. What I am describing is a (common) process by which Harrison at once idealizes and exiles women, while concealing from himself this contradiction and also concealing the process of concealment. That is, I have described an ideology. And ‘ideologies’, which affect us all, make any clear-cut surface/reality distinction hard to draw.

12. Quoted in Fanshawe, Simon, ‘Women Will Not Be Written Off’, Sunday Times, ‘Culture’ section, 14 01 1996, p. 89. Subtitled ‘Why women in the theatre have nothing to cry about’, Fanshawe's feature surveys a theatre that, despite those ‘sub-Tarantinoesque longings’, is strong on women, strong in opposition to male retreat into fantasy and misogyny. ‘If you look carefully at the scene, it is clear that a talented regiment of women was producing substantial work last year, both on and offstage. Not only that, they were mining a far wider seam than [the] boys did.’ If women actors, directors, and playwrights ‘have nothing to cry about’, maybe women spectators – me, for one – can stop wailing too as women's work increasingly makes it onto the stage.

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New Theatre Quarterly
  • ISSN: 0266-464X
  • EISSN: 1474-0613
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