Search View Archive

Excerpts from: Divine Fire: Eight Contemporary Plays inspired by the Greeks edited

There is no such thing as an original play. None of the classical Greek plays are original—they are all based on earlier plays or poems or myths. And none of Shakespeare’s plays is original—they are all taken from earlier work. As You Like It is taken from a novel by Thomas Lodge published just ten years before Shakespeare put on his play without attribution or acknowledgement. Chunks of Antony and Cleopatra are taken verbatim, and, to be sure, without apology, from a contemporary translation of Plutarch’s Lives. Brecht’s Caucasion Chalk Circle is taken from a play by Klabund, on which Brecht served as dramaturg in 1926; and Klabund had taken his play from an early Chinese play. Sometimes playwrights steal stories, conversations, and dreams and intimate revelations from their friends and lovers and call this original…


So here is a collection of plays in which the playwrights openly own up to what they have done. It is refreshingly honest of them. Some of them will have stayed “closer” to the “original” than others—as though any of us had any idea what the original experience of a Greek play might have been. Some have departed quite a distance from what the 19th-century academics have handed down to us as the authentic Greek experience. All of them have produced work tantalizingly bound and liberated by respect and love and impatience and disgust and admiration and ill will and euphoria and loathing for our common past and present.


From Philoktetes by John Jesurun


Note: Philoktetes is the guardian of Heracles’ magic bow and arrows. On the way to Troy, he is bitten by a snake on the island of Lemnos. The wound on his foot was so painful and debilitating that his military colleagues including his friend Odysseus abandon him on the deserted island. Ten years pass and the Greeks have no progress against Troy. An oracle tells them that they can defeat Troy only if they have the magic bow of Heracles. Odysseus and Neoptolemus, son of dead Achilles, journey to Lemnos to find the bow. The play begins at this point.



PHILOKTETES  Listen to me, I’m telling you something.
So that you’ll learn the value of suffering,
The joy of sacrifice and patience, murder and
So that you’ll learn to speak the language of
the dead.
Once again it’s time for you to shut up.
Belly up to the buzzsaw.
Gravitational collapse, Blackleg, Yankee pot roast.
Stop crying. You should be happy.
Listen to me, I’m telling you something.
You tell someone else and they’ll tell someone else.
This is what Philoktetes told me.
This is his suicide note, his poison-pen letter.
First, I’ll give the clue, then the story, then
the real story.
First what they saw, then what was seen,
Then what was.
The cadaver will direct the autopsy,
A talking corpse narrating,
A dead horse talking, a dead foot walking.
Philoktetes is dead. I was looking at him outside.
He had one fly on him. But that fly was tiny,

ODYSSEUS You have been found neither guilty nor innocent but
you have been found.

PHILOKTETES Stop crying.

NEOPTOLEMUS What’s that dripping ?
Blood, urine, pieces of marijuana,
Carbon monoxide.
I’m sorry that he’s dead, all right ?
Once again it’s time for you to shut up.

NEOPTOLEMUS What’s that moving ?

PHILOKTETES A salamander come to eat the turnips.
I had wanted to tell you about my deep and
unrelenting and unequivocal disbelief and unbelief
in everything.
But now I have changed my mind.

Do you understand that ?

What’s that dripping ?

PHILOKTETES Crocodile tears. I’d like to read a nice book now and
then with a story in the middle that goes nowhere
Don’t you understand ?
He’s been murdered, killed.
His head hit a bullet.
Habeas corpus, a talking corpse.

NEOPTOLEMUS You were lost but now you’re found. I found you.

PHILOKTETES He’s pulverized, a smoke signal, a cat dream, a molly maguire.

NEOPTOLEMUS I don’t hear anything.

PHILOKTETES You’re fuckin’brain dead, that’s why.
A pack of flies is riding around in his head. That fly was tiny,
triumphant. I promise.
This is my island. It’s beautiful. It’s always beautiful.
I love it.
At night it gets so dark you don’t know where you are.
In the day it’s hell, but at night, when everything else is
asleep, it’s heaven.

NEOPTOLEMUS I don’t want to stay here.

I’ll leave the bow here with you.
You can use it if you want.
But wait for one night and you won’t want to use it.
In the day you’ll feel like using it but at night you won’t.
Philoktetes loved it here.
Mushrooms grow here at night and you can eat them.
You’ll see so many things on this island, you won’t want to leave it.
You’ll be married to it.
You won’t be able to tell where the island begins and you end.
Let me see your hand. It’s afraid.
Don’t you like it here ?

NEOPTOLEMUS What’s that smell ?

PHILOKTETES Sour mash, camphor, apple rotting, bull blood.
Why are you here ?

NEOPTOLEMUS To find Philoktetes.

PHILOKTETES Why don’t you get out of here ? Philoktetes is
not here.
Let me tell you honestly, he isn’t here.

He’s dead, I told you.
But I have a bow and we can share it.


Excerpt from: Troy Women by Karen Hartman

Note: The play opens in Troy. The city has been sacked, the plunder divided, the women violated, and the men killed. Only a few women remain, and they wait to be told which men have chosen them as mistresses and slaves. Cassandra is a prophet, and daughter to Hecuba, defeated Queen of Troy. 2 is a girl, daughter to Hecuba’s attendant. In this excerpt, Cassandra is about to be claimed by Agamemnon.

Hecuba Your mind is random as ever, inappropriate to our plight.
I forgive you because you’re crazy
but hand over the torch.

Cassandra Crown me! King me!

Ask me why…



Cassandra Because Cassandra is a deadlier bride than Helen.
Why tell you about the hatchet
that will hack first me then Agamemnon
the hatchet in the hands of his wife?
Or the son who slaughters his mother
who slaughtered her king
over me?
Or the collapse of a mighty and corrupt world power
due to a series of scandals
over me?

I have a god’s gift for prophecy, but if you don’t believe that
believe this:
Troy will look good next to Greece.

If Helen wanted Menelaus, she would have stayed home.

Don’t spit. We fought for our country.
They invaded, desecrated, destroyed and died
to make her love him
which no army can do.
Agamemnon killed his daughter
(to 2)
innocent as you
for Helen.

What happened when a Greek fell? Did his widow come to wrap him,
did children sing lamentations
make offerings
close his life in grace?
Corpses fester on our ground.
Unburied, forgotten, rotting. While back in Greece, wives die in wait.
Fathers who hoped for heroes grow old alone
longing for sons.

The men of Troy fought to protect us and what we love.
When one failed, his woman lay healing hands upon the wound.
When that failed, she dressed his body for burial

deep in the earth of Troy.

Our survivors returned each day to the Greeks’ most distant dream,
to eat with children
to sleep holding a woman’s belly
to come home.

Unlucky Hector? He was born a prince.
Growing up we bickered over games and sweets.
He found something larger before he died.
Without the Greeks he might have remained
petty and soft
like the rest of us.

Even Paris had Helen all those years Zeus’s daughter
the most ravishing woman in the world.
There is a kind of fame in that.

Nobody wants a war. But that’s how you make
a war hero.

So keep your tears, Mother. This marriage means revenge.


From The Elektra Fugues by Ruth Margraff


Note: Clytemnestra speaks to her daughters, Elektra and Iphiginea/Chrysothemis, a fused character whose throat has been slit as a sacrifice by their father, Agamemnon. (In history, Clytemnestra will go on to kill both Agamemnon and Cassandra; see previous excerpt.)

CLYTEMNESTRA (a threat) What are we chattering about to day girl friends. Oh god the poor girl has no breasts which one of them was it, or did I get them from a test tube. Answer me. I can’t remember. Is it the younger one or not. The one standing slightly behind the other…foreground.. hm, in life span? Size of..? So you both got taller, get up and go to school…daddy’s coloring ah hah well that’s between the lines, eenie meany… Count to ten I’ll suckle your milk, see how you feel. Kidding! Kids! Do not believe your ears. I thought I had a boy, what happened to him when he played with matches, guns and jagged objects, told him not to run that fast, stay out of the traffic. I’ll get you implants when you graduate, both of you. I can’t tell you apart when you stand that close together. How can I play favorites when I’m seeing double are you twins, answer me or I’ll start menstruating backwards, are we regular, girls, what else is there to tell each other but we all have wombs, is there a problem here. I’m telling you Why whisper? It’s your father tapping all the phones and shuddering the chandeliers beyond the borders.


Divine Fire: Eight Contemporary Plays Inspired by the Greeks

edited by Caridad Svich with a foreword by Charles L. Mee
(New York: BackStage Books, an imprint of Watson-Guptill 2005)

US paperback list price $19.95, ISBN# 0-8230-8851-0.

Plays in the volume are: Troy Women by Karen Hartman, Philoktetes by John Jesurun, Phaedra by Matthew Maguire, The Elektra Fugues by Ruth Margraff, True Love by Charles L. Mee, Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl, Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell That Was Once Her Heart (a rave fable) by Caridad Svich, and Phaedra in Delirium by Susan Yankowitz. With an Afterword by Colin Teevan.

The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2005

All Issues