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!