Guy Cassiers directed “Triptiek van de macht”, a trilogy where he focuses on the complex relationship between art, politics and power. Tom Lanoye wrote the first piece in this series, “Mefisto for ever”, based on the novel “Mephisto” by Klaus Mann. The piece is about an artist who slowly allows himself to be seduced by power and ultimately makes so many concessions that he can only conclude that he is personally and morally bankrupt.
The second piece was written by Guy Cassiers in collaboration with Jeroen Olyslaegers. The piece is called “Wolfskers” and is based on three film scenarios by the Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov about Lenin, Hitler and Hirohito. The story shows these three rulers at the moment when their absolute power is tipping over.
The last piece in the series is “Atropa. Revenge of Peace” by Tom Lanoye (after the Latin name of the belladonna – atropa belladonna). The play looks at power from the point of view of the victims, starting from the Greek tragedies of the Trojan War. So in this trilogy, Cassiers wants to show power in different stages: the (devilish) seduction by power, the poisoning by power and ultimately the death throes of power.
Atropa, Revenge of Peace
The story that preceded this piece of theatre: the Greek beauty Helena has fled to Troy with the Trojan prince Paris. The Greeks send out a military expedition, led by Agamemnon. The enormous Greek fleet is moored in the bay of Aulis, but cannot set sail because there is no wind (wrath of the gods). Dissatisfaction and doubt are growing among the soldiers. Agamemon learns from an oracle that he must sacrifice his daughter Ifiginea. He lures her to Aulis with a trick – a marriage to the Greek hero Achilles.
In this piece Atropa, the Greek fleet is ready to sail against Troy. The cause of the conflict is the stealing of the Greek beauty Helena by the Trojan prince Paris. Agamemnon heads one of the greatest war machines of antiquity. But the wind to sail to Troy remains absent. The gods demand a prepayment for the destruction of Troy: Agamemnon must sacrifice his daughter for favourable winds. The confrontation that follows with his wife Clytemnestra and daughter Ifiginea is terrible. His doubt about the correctness of his choice is the last human thing we see of him.
Every tragedy is a family tragedy. Greek tragedy is at the intersection of private and public, of family and politics. This is taken to an extreme; not only in the Greek triangle of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and Ifiginea, but also among the Trojan women, the mothers, daughters and wives of the conquered. The destruction of Troy is total. Even Astyanax, the newborn son of the Trojan hero Hector, is torn from the hands of his mother Andromache by Agamemnon and thrown from the tower. This is, in Agamemnon’s eyes, another sacrifice that must be made to maintain future peace between the peoples. He also kills Polyxene, daughter of Hekabe (on the grave of Achilles, as his bride), and takes her other daughter Kassandra as a booty of war.
Ifiginea takes on the sacrifice and therefore becomes a kind of ‘suicide bomber’: “I offer our country my life. I sacrifice myself so that the enemy may be destroyed – that will be my family, my child, my husband, my monument. The Greek must rule over the barbarians, and not barbarians over the Greek.” Before she sacrifices her life, she also sacrifices her humanity. Her rhetoric ultimately becomes her father’s rhetoric, as a final attempt to give meaning to her senseless death.
Tom Lanoye wrote a surprising ending. In an absurd and desperate attempt to rebuild something and regain some of his humanity, Agamemnon wants to marry his war booty Kassandra. He wants to create a family again, after single-handedly and bloodily referring his own family and so many other families. It is difficult to portray the powerless power in a more poignant and paradoxical way. Military violence destroys the community but cannot create new ones. The captured Trojan women prefer death to a life of slavery. Their self-chosen death is Agamemnon’s ultimate moral bankruptcy. It is the destroyer of the last humanist veils with which it tries to justify its violence. His last words are a vain and powerless attempt to construct a ‘we’, a community, a political collectivity amid a mountain of corpses. The death of the women has stripped that ‘we’ of all meaning and meaning. Their deaths reveal Agamemnon as a criminal; the protector of the law and values has become its rapist.
The main adjustments Tom Lanoye makes are in the nature of transmotivation. The intrigue is adjusted, because the entire ending suddenly turns out differently. Instead of the women all being murdered or married off, they end up together in Greece. Clytemnestra forgives her sister Helen and kills her. She also kills Hekabe, queen of Troy and her daughter Kassandra and makes Andromache commit suicide. She herself runs away, leaving Agamemnon alone. The transmotivation is also visible in Helena’s motives and the beginning of the Trojan War. Helena is not kidnapped by Paris, but she follows him out of love. She leaves her homeland and her nationality for a new one, that of Troy.
An important addition to the story, especially to better understand the characters’ motivations, is the previous scene where Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigeneia and how Clytemnestra reacts to it. He also omits characters and events that are not immediately relevant to the play. For example, Orestes is briefly mentioned, but only as the brother of Ifigeneia. That’s all we need to know about him to understand the piece. Too much information and characters would also make the story unnecessarily complicated.
This transmotivation also leads to translocation. The story still takes place during the Trojan War, but because the motifs have changed, we can recognise many contemporary things in it, and the story can therefore be given a topical value. In an unexpected way, Lanoye will link the Mother of All Wars to a very important war of today, namely that of America against terror and Iraq. The destruction of Troy, the City of Towers, can be compared to the bombing in Manhattan and the collapse of the WTC towers.
Another thing that struck me was the comparison of Troy with the moon. At the time of Euripides, people did not yet know what the moon looked like, let alone compare the destroyed Troy with the craters on the moon. This is an addition by Lanoye himself to indicate that one can certainly compare the story with the present. In this way he modernises the story a bit.
Also the reason why the Trojan War started is similar to the reason why the war between America and Iraq started. In ancient Greece, there was already a version of the story in which Helena was not in Troy at all, but stayed somewhere in Egypt and the Trojan War therefore started due to: a shadow. Just like the one in Iraq was started because America thought there might be weapons of mass destruction in the country. Both wars really revolved around the same principle: power for power, conquest for conquest.
This is also indicated in Agamemnon’s arguments and speeches, which contain literal quotes from speeches by Rumsfeld and Bush, two American politicians. With this, Lanoye shows that the ‘logique de guerre’ is timeless. Agamemnon’s statements are rational and at the same time passionate for the homeland.
We can also speak of transfocalisation here, because the well-known story of the Trojan War is viewed here from the point of view of the women who suffered from it. This is also the case in one of the source texts that Tom Lanoye also uses (Euripides – Troades), but is further developed in the character of Clytemnestra.
The ending is drastically changed. For example, Andromache commits suicide (she throws herself twice on the razor-sharp axe), while she is married off by Euripides to Neoptolemus, son of Achilles. He is also the one who originally throws her son Astyanax from the towers, but as I said some characters have been left out for clarity. Agamemnon is the one who kills Astyanax in Lanoye’s version, as a kind of quid pro quo for having to sacrifice his own daughter as well.
Hekabe, mother-in-law of Andromache and ex-queen of Troy, becomes a slave of the Greek commander-in-chief Agamemnon and spends her days at his court. Lanoye briefly indicates the same thing (after all, Clytemnestra can choose a slave from the 4 women), but it turns out differently, because she is murdered by Clytemnestra after all her children have died.
Kassandra, daughter of Hekabe, is taken from Euripides by Agamemnon to Mycenae as spoils of war. Apollo gave her the gift of fortune telling and the curse that no one will believe her. She predicts Agamemnon’s death at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra, but he does not believe her. He dies and a little later Kassandra is also killed by the same axe. Tom Lanoye is crueler in Kassandra’s fate. She is not just the spoils of war, but a way for Agamemnon to justify himself. He wants to start a new family with her to try to make everything right. Kassandra becomes his concubine. She convinces Clytemnestra in a speech to kill her and spare her a cruel fate, and this happens.
Helena’s fate is also very different. Helena was not kidnapped by Paris and taken to Troy at all, but stayed in Egypt. After the war, Menelaus wanders around and after years he meets his real wife again. The make-believe Helena then vanishes into thin air and he realises that she was not adulterous at all. Together they then devise a ruse to return to Sparta. This older story is the basis of Euripides’ tragedy “Helena”. This story of a virtuous Helen was created so as not to offend her worshippers.
With Tom Lanoye, however, she does not stay in Egypt, but out of true love she went with Paris to Troy and gave up everything for him. In the end she receives forgiveness from her sister and instead of returning to her husband whom she did not love, she asks for death and she gets it from Clytemnestra.