An Interview With Kirsten Broadbear, Star Of Helen

Having spent the last month thinking about Helen of Troy, it seemed only natural that we should take a few moments to chat up Kirsten Broadbear, a staple of the San Francisco indy theater scene, who will be playing the title role in Helen this Valentine’s Day at SF Theater Pub.

What kind of characters are you drawn to as an actress?

I find humans fascinating, so the more complex the character, the more interesting it is to try to discover and explore what makes the character tick.

So then, what’s it like to play the most beautiful woman who ever lived?

It’s the one thing I’m trying not to focus on, actually. Of course, this molds a large part of who Helen is, but instead of trying to understand what it would feel like to be that beautiful, I’m more intrigued by what it might feel like to be a person underneath a canvas upon which strangers project their conceptions, like we do with celebrities all the time.

What did you know about Helen of Troy before you took this role?

That she caused the Trojan War and a lot of men died for her.

How about now? Has your opinion about her changed?

I think this is the first time I’ve ever even held an opinion about her; before she was just a vapid sort of pawn or catalyst for war and I didn’t attribute much of a personality or humanness to her.

We’re doing this show on Valentine’s Day for a reason. In your opinion, what does this play say about love?

Love is a funny thing. It reveals itself in unexpected ways, and lasting love isn’t always the kind that’s full of passion and romance. In the end, it’s just bloody nice to have someone who knows you, by your side, enjoying an average animal sacrifice in the morning together.

What’s your involvement with Theater Pub been like in the past?

I’ve been fortunate to have participated in quite a few of Theater Pub’s shows. Each time has been a different cast and crew, a different topic, a different concept and different presentation and use of the space, but every single time – it’s made for a great night. Theater Pub is an extremely important venue for the community; it’s accessible and relaxed without being dumbed down. And it’s truly a night to commune. No conventional stage or lights or restricted access to bathrooms enables a connection with the audience that makes everyone feel like they’re a part of the success of the event.

What keeps you coming back, both as a theater artist, and as an audience member?

I am constantly proverbially pinching myself because I’m amazed at how many incredibly intelligent, kind, and fantastically talented people there are to work with in the Bay Area. Theater Pub has a playfulness and an ability to engage with such a variety of people, equally including all those involved behind the scenes and running the bar and the patrons.

As an actress, what’s the difference between acting in a full production, vs. a reading like this show?

There are a lot of differences. But I suppose one important distinction is that a reading somehow allows for more innovation. It’s looser since sets and costumes aren’t present, and it incites the imagination more than a full production with all the spectacles laid out before you.

What else are you working on these days?

I’ll be doing a staged reading for BoxCar’s Sam Shepherd festival in March, which I’m really excited for. Then, I’m thrilled to be part of BOA again this year, working with an incredible group of talents (Megan Cohen, Jessica Holt, Sarah Moser, Siobhan Doherty, Megan Trout, among others), immediately followed by Tia Loca and Her Life of Crimes produced by the wonderful and delicious John Caldon, and performing side by side with the magnificent Matt Gunnison.

Anything you’re looking forward to seeing in the local theater scene?

As I mentioned before, there is such an amazing group of talented people in and around this town, I am constantly looking forward to seeing the magic these people create. It’s always an adventure and I feel lucky to be on the ride.

Catch Kirsten playing Helen in HELEN, this Valentine’s Day at the San Francisco Theater Pub. The show starts at 8, but we encourage you to get there around 7:30 as we can get pretty full. The event is FREE, and only happens at the Cafe Royale, 800 Post Street, San Francisco.

Director Stuart Bousel Talks About Helen of Troy: Part 3

The romantification (is that even a word?) of Helen begins with the Renaissance, specifically the poet Christopher Marlowe, who coined the term “The face that launched a thousand ships” in his play Doctor Faustus. But if Marlowe doesn’t condemn Helen, he also doesn’t do much to elevate her beyond the surface celebration of her beauty: Helen here is still a prop- a wordless image summoned by Mephistopheles, the Devil, to tempt Faustus, the wizard who would have it all. Even when she’s played by a young Elizabeth Taylor in the 1967 film version she remains essentially uninteresting aside from being beautiful. The most notable thing about Helen’s cameo in Marlowe’s play is that for the first time she is taken somewhat out of context and thus, by accident, de-fanged. Helen as a centerfold, really, which is a debatable improvement over Helen as the Anti-Christ.

It was post-medieval painters who popularized the idea that Helen was forcibly removed from Sparta by depicting the abduction as indisputably a rape. In these paintings, Paris is usually carrying Helen in his arms while she looks longingly backwards, reaching out towards her homeland and husband. Another interesting thing to note is that we start to get a lot of images of Helen as a blonde, even though her hair was much more likely to have been dark (provided she was a real human being at all) and usually was depicted as so in Greek paintings and pottery. Interestingly enough, her facial expression also becomes progressively more blank as Reformation and Enlightenment attitudes towards war shifted from aggrandizing military heroics, to embracing peace. Gustave Moreau famously painted an image of a Helen whose face is literally a blank canvas as she stands amidst the ruins of Troy.

German poet Goethe was the next person to give Helen’s image a new coat of paint. In the second part of his epic dramatic poem, Faust, Goethe has his adventuring medieval wizard marry the famous beauty and together they have a son, Euphorion, who eventually falls to his death when trying to climb a mountain (get it? it’s an allegory!). Helen, overcome with grief, evaporates into mist and Faust, devastated, continues on his adventures. Though symbolic of the marriage of classical and medieval aesthetics, Goethe is careful to give his lovers enough depth to make them sympathetic to his Romantic Era audience. Helen is depicted as a lovely, almost flawlessly adoring woman who becomes Faust’s wife after he saves her from being murdered by Menelaus (apparently he was over her by the time the 15th century had rolled around). A classical damsel in distress, Helen then becomes a doting mother to her spirited son, and following his death her mournful soliloquies are amongst the more heartfelt passages of Geothe’s masterpiece. While it’s hard to classify this Helen as human (she’s a little too perfect), she’s definitely a far cry from the two most common portrayals of antiquity: sad, listless pawn or sly, depraved temptress.

By the time the twentieth century rolls around we’ve started to get more complex visions of Helen, grounded in post-romantic realism that abandoned archetypes in favor of making even legendary characters believable human beings. The cult stage musical The Golden Apple (by Jerome Moross and John Latouche) reverts to a more traditional depiction of Helen, and here she’s written as a seductive housewife looking to skip town on a boring husband. Though at first glance one assumes this is business as usual for Helen, the authors go out of their way to ground her in the every day: she’s not the most beautiful woman in the world, just the most sexually aggressive in town, and her sexual aggression isn’t painted as unnatural or malicious so much as the natural conclusion of life in a dull, rural township where church and the local bake-off are the only entertainment options. Once in Troy with her new beau, Helen sings “My Picture In The Paper”, a delightfully self-important song capturing the fifteen-minutes of fame mentality and reducing Helen to pretty much every small town girl who ever tried running away to the Big City to be a showgirl. Helen isn’t exactly sympathetic in The Golden Apple, but she’s definitely someone you could know, and that hadn’t really happened before. Helen also gets the best song in the show, “Lazy Afternoon”, memorably recorded by Kaye Ballard on the original cast album. An interesting side note is how Paris is handled: he has no lines or songs, and is purely a dancing role. Personally, I think it’s a brilliant choice.

Humanizing Helen of Troy has been the goal of a number of other 20th century writers, particularly women writers. In 1961, modernist poet H.D. published the epic length Helen in Egypt, a meditation on heroism, secret messages, beauty, mortality and loss, all from Helen’s perspective. Somewhat ironically (and yet fittingly) this is hands down the most extensive attempt by any writer to get inside the head of Helen, but given H.D.’s tendency toward writing in complex code and heavy symbolism, it often serves to reinforce rather than overcome the distance and aloofness which is associated with Helen’s personality. Even in straight forward narrative Helen often comes off as indecipherable, be it in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Firebrand, where she is portrayed as an elegant and dignified yet emotionally cold woman, or Roger Zelazny’s If At Faust You Don’t Succeed, where her more spirited portrayal is still mostly relegated to a kind of slapdash feminist in-joke. In both these books, Helen is a supporting figure and we never get to really know her, so much as continue to see her through the eyes of the people whose lives she is thrust into, always against her will. Post-modern, post-feminist Helen of Troy is often still mystery and symbol than flesh and blood. But at least here we’re asked to abandon our preconceptions of her and to respect her as a woman in a tough situation. Firebrand and If At Faust You Don’t Succeed couldn’t be more different reads, but their revisionist core is the same when it comes to Helen: being the hot chick at the party has gotten exceedingly dull for her, and she’s tired of pretty much everything and everyone around her. Most importantly, she’s smart enough to articulate that, and she’s not looking to be either pitied or worshiped. She just wants to be left alone.

Movies have gone the opposite direction, and all three major films about the Trojan War have, interestingly enough, shared the same starting off point: Helen’s story as pure romance. This is an approach that would probably have been inconceivable to the Greeks because it requires something that we don’t see until literally the last hundred years: the transformation of Paris from pretty boy seducer into a handsome and heroic prince. The first major version of this take on the story comes in 1956 with Robert Wise’s film, Helen of Troy, staring Rossana Podesta as the titular queen. In this version we get new archetypes for the old characters that are later repeated in the 2004 Wolfgang Petersen film Troy: first, a brutish and abusive Menelaus, second, a dashing and heroic Paris, and third, a Helen who willfully runs away to fulfill a romantic fantasy the audience is expected to share with her because 1) her husband is terrible and 2) Paris is so good looking, kind and clearly it’s “meant to be.” It’s interesting to note that in both of these films, the Gods have been entirely removed as active forces in the lives of men, thus making everyone indisputably responsible for their own actions. Hence the demonization of Menelaus: otherwise, Helen would have to carry the stigma of being a cheating wife. In typical Hollywood shorthand, escaping a bad marriage absolves one of adultery, particularly if the husband is unattractive and older, and the lover is a young hottie.

John Kent Harrison’s 2003 version, Helen of Troy, continues in this vein with two interesting twists: his Menelaus (played quite well by James Callis) is not a brute but a well-intentioned if uninspiring weakling, and unlike the other two films, Helen’s decisions are still cast as short-sighted and destructive, despite being romantic and somewhat justified by a loveless married life in Sparta. The Gods are also present in this version, albeit in the background, but as a result there is no question that Paris and Helen are intended for one another and Menelaus has only ended up in the way by chance (he literally wins Helen in a lottery). It’s also interesting to note that the screenplay in this instance is written by a woman, Ronni Kern. One can’t help but wonder if that’s why virtually all the characters are sympathetically portrayed as people caught up in something bigger than themselves: women have spent most of history confined by social structures that probably feel a bit like “destiny.”

Without denying the film’s flaws (produced for television, it suffers from some shoddiness on the production and acting front), I actually find this version of the story, and Helen’s  character, the most interesting of the cinematic incarnations. Played by Sienna Guillory, who channels a kind of delicate, ethereal beauty at once womanly and girlish, the Helen of this film is more pro-active than other Helens.  She rescues Paris from an assassination attempt early in the film (the murder is planned by Menelaus and Agamemnon, thus ensuring Paris comes off as an acceptable romantic hero) and convinces him to leave without her, only at the last moment choosing to join him (literally, she swims out to his departing boat). She later gives herself up to the Greeks in an attempt to end the war. At the same time, her status as an object to be used and abused as men wish is underlined at various points. Her teenage abduction by Theseus (Stellan Skarsgaard) is dramatized and helps create a context for her as someone who the world takes liberties with and never apologizes to. When her husband makes her stand naked in the center of his feasting hall, as a way of asserting his power over everyone, Helen agrees to do it rather than cause trouble in her home. At the conclusion of the film she is raped by Agamemnon in an interesting twist that Rufus Sewell’s performance actually justifies; a horrified Menelaus looks on and, it’s implied by the end, recognizes how he’s played a part in bringing this about.

The other women in the story treat Helen with a mix of pity and disdain: Hecuba (Maryan D’Abo) barely glances at her; Clytemnestra (Katie Blake) is clearly jealous of her and threatened by her, but in the end acts to avenge and protect her sister; Cassandra (Emilia Fox) spits on her and demands her expulsion from Troy, but ultimately gives her the only counsel and comfort that’s worth anything. In the movie’s best scene, following the death of Paris, Helen begs to know why Paris was killed even though Helen gave herself up. Cassandra’s response, “You gave yourself up… but you didn’t surrender,” is chilling, especially when a few scenes later Helen is raped by one brother, and then left to follow the other wherever he will take her. He takes her back to Sparta, of course, but the beginning of their journey is a quiet, unsettling moment: Helen offers him her head to be cut off, and he declines; he in turn offers her shelter and she accepts, on the condition he recognizes she will never love him. He, in turn, accepts. Kern’s Helen, like Hesiod’s Helen, is Helen as Everywoman, but where as Hesiod’s Helen exists to destroy men willfully and maliciously, Kern’s Helen seems to exist to be broken by men, and yet in the breaking of her they break themselves.

In the end, Helen of Troy remains a tough figure to love or relate to. Even her most sympathetic portrayals fail to make her admirable so much as pitiable, and even when we’re asked to respect her it’s as an object of pity. Her name is synonymous with the dangers of being beautiful and its doubtful that she’ll ever be free of that taint- in part because that would require our society changing its perception of beauty and while fads and fashions do change, the general consensus that beautiful people are to be both adored and reviled seems pretty permanent. The truth is, our love-hate relationship with beauty is fundamentally tied in with a human desire to put people on pedestals- partly to worship them, but partly to knock them down when the right moment arrives. Helen of Troy, temptress and scapegoat, victim and war criminal, epitomizes the rise and fall of a symbol no matter what your take on that symbol is, and her legend is an unsettling reminder of that element within all of us that longs for beauty and fears beauty and revels in tearing beauty down.

Don’t miss SF Theater Pub’s dramatic reading of Helen by Euripedes, one night only, this Valentine’s Day at the Cafe Royale, 800 Post Street, San Francisco. The show starts at 8 PM and is a free event. Get there early to ensure seating!

Director Stuart Bousel Talks About Helen of Troy: Part Two

Conflicting ideas about Helen of Troy, and her level of culpability in the end of the Age of Heroes, begins with her birth.

Though Leda is considered by the majority of poets and scholars to have been her mother, there is another tradition that Leda was, in fact, a foster mother who raised a little girl dropped in her lap one morning by a large and mysterious swan. In this version, Helen was the daughter of Zeus and the goddess Nemesis, the embodiment of divine retribution for those whose excessive pride had led them to raise themselves above the order of things. Older than Zeus, Nemesis was one of those early goddesses of mysterious origins (her mother was usually cited as Nyx, the fathomless night) and incredible, unquestionable power. The most pervasive myth about her was that she wandered the earth, winged and carrying a sword, and that the day she left the earth to return to heaven would mark the beginning of the end of the world. Thus, in versions of the Trojan saga where Nemesis is the mother of Helen, it is not Zeus who visits Leda as a swan, but Leda’s perception of Nemesis as she takes flight, abandoning her newborn daughter, the vehicle through which disaster of epic proportions will be unleashed on the kingdoms of men.

If we accept this story it’s actually kind of hard to hold Helen’s role as the Greek anti-Christ against her: clearly it’s what’s intended from the start by forces not only more powerful than her, but more powerful than Zeus himself- which is interesting to think about in light of the tradition that Zeus generally disapproves of the Trojan War, favors the Trojans an account of their high level of civilization, and only upholds the Greeks “winning” the war because it’s decreed by Fate, who even Zeus can not over-rule. Even without the double whammy of being the daughter of Nemesis, the earliest depictions we get of Helen, via The Iliad (where she is Leda’s daughter), depict her as a reluctant prop- the question is really just whose prop. Her husband’s? Her lover’s? Or something far more powerful and sinister?

Homer’s Helen, as she appears in Book III of The Iliad,  is a lonely, sad woman full of self-hate who is shunned by the majority of Trojans, particularly the women, and feels helpless, adrift in a sea of conflicting interests, none of which are her own. At one point she openly admits that she has no real love for Paris, but only left Menelaus on account of the machinations of Aphrodite, who uses threats and magic to keep Helen in Paris’ bed. But anyone who knows anything about Greek mythology knows that the gods, particularly the Olympian gods, aren’t stand alone beings whimsically using their super powers to toy with human beings, but rather manifestations of the forces inside of us, representing just how powerful- and whimsical- our own personalities can be. Claiming that “Aphrodite made me do it!” is akin to crying, “The Devil made me do it!” and was really a poetic way of shirking responsibility. Maybe the Devil did make you do it, but the question of who let the Devil in remains on the table and implies that the sins of the transgressor cannot be wholly placed upon external intervention. Even the most literal reading of the gods of Ancient Greece will usually find that human beings often take the first step, and usually the second and third as well, of their own free will: the gods rarely act or intervene so much as indirectly help out or hinder- or in the case of sins, provide the temptations. When Helen tries to resist Aphrodite it’s frightening and you feel sorry for her, but it’s hard not to also recognize the person Helen is really fighting with is herself and not so much her attraction to Paris, as her desire to control him and benefit from the place in Trojan society conveyed by her marriage to him. Not that Helen considered herself worse off with Menelaus- in Book III she readily considers returning to him and ultimately they do end up together and (irony of all ironies) more or less happy (certainly they end their days much more peacefully than most of the other major players in the Trojan War). What Helen doesn’t consider is any life outside of being a kept woman to a king or prince who can provide her with the jewels and luxuries she rushes to pack when it looks like she might be heading back to Greece. The implication is that ultimately Helen, though complicated and mortal, is still fundamentally a weak willed woman who values status, wealth and other facets of her own vanity over doing “the right thing.”

Of course, it might be hard to know what the right thing to do is when you live in a society where traditional concepts of good and evil don’t really exist and the value system of war, honor and retribution tends to trump that of peace, forgiveness and generosity. For this reason, famously pacifist Euripedes often uses Helen as the symbol of the war-mongering mentality he saw as man’s worst personality flaw- an outgrowth of unchecked vanity and delusion which tied in nicely with the myth of Helen. Where as mysoginist Hesiod used Helen as the ultimate embodiment of the evils women created, Euripedes often took a novel (and to some extent, progressive) approach of making Helen the symbol of man’s ultimate evils, usually by contrasting her, negatively, with other women of her era, for whom Euripedes seems to have felt tremendous sympathy. This is particularly notable in The Trojan Women, where Helen is sharply contrasted with Andromache, Cassandra and Hecuba, presented as noble sufferers whose spirits somehow remain unbroken, while Helen flounces around the stage like the vacuous slut the chorus (also women) accuses her of being. In another Euripedean tragedy, Andromache, Helen’s daughter Hermoine conducts herself in a fashion that the chorus readily recognizes as “like mother, like daughter”. Eventually she runs off and marries Orestes, her cousin, further cementing the idea of the Houses of Sparta and Argos as the classical equivalent of white trash. Contrast this with Euripedes’ love affair with Andromache, Helen’s Trojan foil, the devoted wife and widow of Hector whose infant son is brutally murdered and yet somehow Andromache is able to keep it together, survive a decade of slavery to the son of her husband’s killer, and eventually ends up married to Helenus, one of the last surviving princes of Troy who has somehow managed to eke out a small and peaceful kingdom. Andromache’s ultimate happiness is one of the hardest earned happy endings in Greek mythology, but it establishes her as a bonafide heroine- a shining example of everything Helen doesn’t embody- namely strength of character, will power to endure the brutality of men and gods alike, and integrity and honor comparable to her husband’s legendary example.

And yet a more interesting, and perhaps less obvious comparison, is between Helen and Medea. Where as we know Andromache will ultimately end up better and certainly more reveared than Helen because that’s how most stories work, it’s shocking when one realizes that Medea arguably also comes to a better end. While she isn’t responsible for starting a war, Medea is certainly on par with Clytemnestra and the daughters of Danaus, famous villainesses of Greek myth. Her racked up body count includes an old man, his twin daughters, her own brother, and her own children. Yet at the end of her mythic cycle, Medea steps onto a chariot led by dragons and ascends into the heavens and, ostensibly, immortality. Helen, even in the most forgiving tales, only manages a spot in Elysium, the VIP section of the Underworld. Why does one lethal beauty end up a goddess while another more or less fades into obscurity? In the end, it’s all conjecture, but my theory can be summed up in one sentence: because Medea is a bad-ass and Helen is just a pretty face.

Something we often forget is that ancient Greek morality was very different from the Judeo-Christian morality that influences our modern concepts of right or wrong. Being a terrible person (i.e. Medea) was a lot more acceptable if you were pro-actively terrible. If you really embraced the darkness of your soul you might end up condemned to eternal torture in Tartarus- but you also had a decent shot at being elevated to divine status if, frankly, even the gods were impressed (and probably somewhat frightened of you). That, however, would require more work than Helen ever puts into anything, and so once more her defining feature (aside from her beauty) appears to be her passiveness. She lacks the personal drive to be either a heroine or a villain, and because she more or less ends peacefully, she’s even denied the noble victimhood/martyr status of figures like Cassandra or Iphegenia. Her only significant child, Hermoine, isn’t terribly significant at all so Helen doesn’t even have the dubious distinction of being the mother of a hero, a la Denae, Aethra or even Cassiopeia. Even Helen of Troy’s name hints that her only value is in relation to the society whose destruction her passivity brings about; without it, she’s just a pretty face. Which, since beauty ultimately fades (and even Helen ends up in the Underworld) means that in reality, Helen is arguably the most famous cipher in literature.

Euripedes sources his play about Helen from this idea: that behind the attractive façade, there’s actually nothing there- Helen is a giant zero. First suggested by the ancient historian Herodotus, the crux of the argument is that Helen herself never actually went to Troy, but it was a decoy created by Aphrodite (a la Pandora) who Paris stole and the real Helen awoke to find herself in Egypt, one of the few civilized nations to abstain entirely from the Trojan War. For ten years Helen remained in this place until by chance, on his return voyage from Troy, Menelaus and his crew landed near the temple where she sought sanctuary and only then does Menelaus realize that the Helen in his ship is a phantom, and that the war he has spent the prime of his life fighting and which has killed countless men and women and children, was fought in the name of something that was never really there. Euripedes takes this variant a few steps farther, implying that the phantom Helen was the ultimate punishment of the Gods- or perhaps, the ultimate gambit in their attempt to reveal to mankind their true nature, as no less than Athena (the goddess of wisdom) is credited with the creation of the phantom Helen (though Hera apparently comes up with the idea). Helen was written at a time when there was a great  tremendous questioning of traditional values, and it’s hard to miss the poet’s statement about the worthlessness of trophies (be they beautiful queens or glorious reputations), the pointlessness of war, the destructiveness of honor at all costs, and that man’s foolish and violent nature is the problem, not Fate, not the gods, and certainly not an errant woman. As Menelaus and Helen escape to freedom and ostensible domestic bliss (that was apparently never in question, just interrupted), the happy ending isn’t entirely satisfying because it’s impossible to ignore the sheer wastefulness of everything that has provided for it. Even when Helen is finally given her redemption, she leaves a bitter taste in your mouth and you can never quite shake the nagging thought that femme fatale or tragic pawn, she just wasn’t worth it.

But as Janine Garofolo’s character points out in the climactic scene of the 1996 film The Truth About Cats And Dogs, when has that knowledge ever stopped men from throwing it all away for a pretty face?

Check back next week for the conclusion of Stuart Bousel’s exploration of Helen of Troy, and don’t miss Helen at the San Francisco Theater Pub, one night only, this Valentine’s Day, at the Cafe Royale (800 Post Street, San Francisco), 8 PM, Free!

Director Stuart Bousel Talks About Helen of Troy: Part 1

Few figures from Greek mythology are as famous, or controversial, as Helen of Troy, and this has been true since ancient times.

For those who have somehow never heard of her, Helen of Troy was born Helen of Sparta, the daughter of the mortal queen, Leda, and the king of the gods, Zeus. The principal legend (of course there are several and we’ll get into that later) is that Zeus came to Leda as a swan, made love to her (for all intents and purposes, Leda appears to have been a very willing participant in her seduction in addition to being adventurous on the bestiality front), either shortly before or shortly after her own husband, Tyndareus, had done the same (sans swan form, one hopes). Nine months later, Leda gave birth to a pair of eggs, each containing a boy and a girl infant. The first contained Tyndareus’ children, the mortal Clytemnestra and Castor; the second contained Zeus’ children, the immortal demi-gods Helen and Pollux. You would think this miraculous birth would have been pegged for the end of times sign it was, but Leda and Tyndareus apparently took this in stride and raised their four chicks (get it?) relatively without incident until Helen hit puberty.

That’s when she was abducted for the first time, by no less than Theseus, the king of Athens and famed killer of the Minotaur. Castro and Pollux manage to get her back, but it’s not a good sign of what’s to come and Tyndareus, knowing this, decides to marry her off as quickly as possible. The problem is, Helen is so beautiful EVERYBODY wants to marry her and virtually every king in the known world shows up, or sends his sons, and all of them bring friends. Tyndareus is so worried he will offend somebody that he defers making his decision for as long as possible (in some versions, years) until he can finally come up with a plan. The most popular legend is that everybody’s favorite smart guy, Odysseus, shows up, though already happily married, basically to watch the fun and Tyndareus  asks him for advice. Odysseus, of course, has a plan, and first gets all the kings and princes courting Helen to agree to accept whoever is declared Helen’s husband and uphold the sanctity of their marriage, and then, in a novel move for the time, lets Helen pick her own husband, so as to remove all blame from her father. Helen picks Menelaus, the younger and not particularly distinguished brother of Agamemnon, king of Argos, who is already betrothed to Clytemnestra, Helen’s sister. Her choice is pretty much the one NOBODY expected and so the various suitors accept it almost immediately, figuring there must be something wrong with Helen to go for the runt of the liter. The truth is, Helen probably just picked the man she knew would be easiest for her to control (modern interpretation) or she may have even genuinely loved him, probably because he’s a more sensitive guy than the average Greek tyrant (the romantic interpretation). Either way, they are wed, and Tyndareus abdicates so that Menelaus and Helen can rule Sparta. Agamemnon marries Clytemnestra, so the brothers and the sisters become Greece’s biggest celebrity monarchs over night. For a while, it looks like everything will be okay.

And then a Trojan prince named Paris comes to town and everything falls apart. Ostensibly on a diplomatic mission, Paris falls in love with and either seduces or kidnaps Helen, taking her back to Troy and breaking pretty much every rule of hospitality (enormously sacred to the Greeks and the Trojans). To some extent, Paris feels justified in doing this- he had been promised Helen as a bride by the goddess Aphrodite, after he awarded her a golden apple that the goddess Eris had deigned worthy of only “the fairest” goddess on Olympus. Since Aphrodite is one of the protector goddesses of Troy, this probably accounts for why Priam, king of Troy, agrees to shelter the miscreant couple, and essentially tells the Greeks they can accept Helen’s weight in gold or they can accept nothing at all, but what they won’t be getting back is Helen. Menelaus, of course, wants her back, as by now Helen has not only mothered at least one daughter by him (Hermoine), but she’s grown into the most beautiful woman alive and let’s not forget her status as a daughter of Zeus. Additionally, Troy has been controlling the entrance to the Black Sea for years and so any excuse for a war is a good one as the Greeks have grown tired of paying passage taxes on the trade routes. Menelaus invokes the oath that Tyndareus and Odysseus struck with all the suitors and the Greeks declare war on Troy, with Agamemnon in the lead (who, considering he wasn’t part of the oath of Tyndareus, is most definitely there for ulterior motives). It takes two years for the troops of the various city-states to amass, and once the fleets of the Argives hit shore on enemy territory the war lasts another ten years. By the time it ends, two of the most powerful and advanced cultures of the world are decimated and in ruins and the dead are numberless.

The rest, as they say, is history… or mythology. Even in their own times, the Greeks weren’t sure how much of the saga of the Trojan War was truth, and how much was legend. What they all agreed on, though, is that it marked the end of the Age of Heroes, that time in Greece when the gods roamed the land, monsters and magic were pervasive, and heroes rose up to make the world a better place. In typical Greek style, the end of the world didn’t come with floods or fires or plagues of Biblical proportion, but rather with just plain old social chaos after virtually every significant leader of the known world is killed in the Trojan War, and the ones who survive make it home only to discover everything in various arrays of disorder, from angry housewives (Clytemnestra, for instance, most famously murders Agamemnon the day he gets back) to entire kingdoms lost to occupying armies, pirates or other external forces. Only a handful of regions survive relatively unscathed or are able to rebuild themselves. One of them is Egypt, something which we’ll talk about more later.

The fascination and controversy surrounding Helen starts with her “abduction”, and essentially revolves around the classic question of any cuckolded husband whose world view is, shall we say “old fashioned” (read: misogynist): did she go of her own free will, or was she raped? The difference being, of course, that Helen’s own willful participation in her ill-fated second marriage casts her as either a victim or a villain. Either way, she’s still a scapegoat, occupying a place in Greek mythology held only by one other person: the first woman, Pandora, who is the classical world’s equivalent to the Judeo-Christian figure of Eve. Like Pandora, Helen is a divine emissary, and can be seen as essentially a trap dressed up pretty by the gods, a time bomb with a smile that is intended to make humanity suffer. Some poets, like the famously anti-woman Hesiod, used both Pandora and Helen as examples to uphold a widely accepted belief that women were a curse upon humanity- especially if they were pretty- and best off subjugated by men, who could only come to grief through loving them. But Hesiod’s opinion was hardly indicative of all Greek perspective, and just as Greek women were held in different regards depending on the region or era, portrayals of Helen ranged from sympathetic to damning long before she was romanticized by Renaissance writers and painters like Marlowe (who coined the famous phrase “the face that launched a thousand ships” when Helen makes a cameo in his play, Dr. Faustus). In our age, Helen has been reclaimed (and re-written) by modern feminists such as Marion Zimmer Bradley and Margaret Atwood, turned into the ultimate woman “cursed” by her own desirability.  Euripedes himself painted several different portraits of Helen, using her as a canvas to express his rage over the treatment of women, the futility of war, and the dangers of vanity and self-absorption. Over the next few weeks, as we get closer to Theater Pub’s reading of his play, Helen, I’ll explore some of the different masks this famous face has worn.

Check in next week for another segment of Stuart Bousel’s ruminations on Helen of Troy, and don’t miss Theater Pub’s free dramatic reading of Helen on Tuesday, February 14th, Valentine’s Day, at 8 PM at the Cafe Royale!

Join SFTP this Valentine’s Day for a Classic Rom Com!

Join San Francisco Theater Pub this Valentine’s Day for a classic story of boy meets girl, boy loses girl to sexy foreigner, boy declares war on foreigner’s homeland, boy destroys foreigner’s homeland, boy gets girl back only to lose girl again and discover he may have never lost her (or had her) to begin with. Euripides’ HELEN is considered by many to be the first dramatic romance, an adult play (in the maturity sense, not the rated X sense) about middle aged lovers learning what it means to be married and committed, not just hot enough to die for. It’s comic, it’s bizarre, it’s full of massive plot gaps and leaps of logic, and more than one genuine nugget of beauty and wisdom on the evasive nature of true romance.

If you’re single, what better place to come launch a thousand ships with that sexy smile? If you’re paired off, bring your beloved and learn from the Great Poet while you’re still sober enough to absorb something useful, then get drunk with us afterwards and screw it all up during the trip home!

Starring Tonyanna Borkovi, Kirsten Broadbear, Nick Dickson, Maura Halloran, James Kierstead, Dan Kurtz, Theresa Miller, Tonya Narvaez, Karen Offereins, Leer Relleum, Marissa Skudlarek, Aaron Tworek and directed by Stuart Bousel, this will be a classic Theater Pub dramatic reading, complete with sexy actors in sheets and perhaps a Valentine’s Day Treat or two.

Admission is FREE with a suggested five dollar donation. No Reservations necessary, but we encourage early arrivals to get the best seating. The show begins at 8 PM!