(Casey Cep’s article appeared in the New Yorker,11/1; Illustration by Lilli Carré’.)
In “H of H Playbook,” the poet considers war, guilt, and the mythological strongman.
“H of H Playbook” imagines a demigod who wears overalls and steals a Corvette.
No woman could get away with it. Murdering her children is all she would ever be known for—ask Medea. Yet Herakles, often called by his Roman name, Hercules, is known for everything else: slaying the man-eating birds of the Stymphalian marsh, the multiheaded Lernaean Hydra, and the Nemean lion, with its Kevlar-strength fur; capturing the wild Erymanthian boar, the golden-antlered deer of Artemis, and the Minotaur’s father; stealing the girdle of Hippolyta, the golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides, the flesh-eating mares of Diomedes, and the red cattle of the giant Geryon; mucking the Augean stables in a single day; and kidnapping the three-headed dog Cerberus from Hades.
Those dozen labors have inspired countless playwrights, poets, and philosophers throughout the centuries, not to mention Walt Disney Pictures. In the cartoon version of the tale, from 1997, Hercules’ hardscrabble climb from the lowly farms outside Thebes where he was raised to his rightful place atop Mt. Olympus beside Zeus—who, in the myth, fathered Herakles with a mortal, Alcmene, the wife of a Theban general, Amphitryon—seems like a mashup of “Survivor” and “American Idol.” “Person of the week in every Greek opinion poll,” Disney’s Motown-style muses sing, capturing the contemporary image of the mythical figure. Neither the children’s film nor any of the other pop-culture depictions of Herakles mentions what he was famous for among the ancient Greeks: murdering his wife, Megara, a Theban princess, and their sons.
Almost everyone believed that the gods made Herakles kill his family, but exactly when he did so was the subject of some disagreement. Many people thought that his labors were punishment for his crimes, feats of strength by which the fallen hero could propitiate the gods; others claimed the labors preceded the massacre, suggesting that violence always begets violence. That’s how Euripides told the story in “Herakles,” which was first performed some twenty-four hundred years ago and which has recently been reimagined by the poet Anne Carson, in “H of H Playbook.”
Like Herakles, Carson gets away with everything in this strange and surprisingly timely book. A cross between a dramaturge’s dream journal and a madman’s diary, it features Carson’s transformed version of the Euripides play, rendered in handwritten lines and blocky paragraphs of pasted word-processor text, alongside original illustrations: marked-up maps, smears of blood-red paint, haunting sketches of human figures and tortured faces, pencil and eraser stains that resemble heaps of ash, plus the occasional glacier and lion. A facsimile of Carson’s own personal playbook, “H of H” is a performance of thought, one that speaks not only to the heroic past but to the tragic present.
Only a few dozen of the Greek tragedies remain, among them works by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. These plays were the rock concerts of their era, staged not by candlelight inside small rooms but in grand theatres in the bright light of day before some ten thousand people. For a play like “Herakles,” a large chorus would sing and dance in a circular orchestra space near the audience, at the edge of the stage. Meanwhile, on the stage itself, a troupe of three actors performed all the roles: the hero, his wife, his father, his friend, and the usurper of his throne.
Without playbills, the audience relied on dialogue to know who was who, and discerned the plot partly through conventions of staging and posture. Take the opening lines of “Herakles,” which Carson first translated fifteen years ago, publishing it along with three other plays by Euripides in a volume called “Grief Lessons.” The lines are spoken by a man sitting beside an altar, surrounded by a younger woman and her children: “Who does not know the man who shared his marriage bed / with Zeus?” Even if an audience member was too far away to catch every word of that question, the actor’s low-to-the-stage position would convey his humble situation, and the next bit makes clear that it is the cuckold Amphitryon speaking: “son of Alkaios, / grandson of Perseus, / father of Herakles, / me!”
Amphitryon’s sixty lines of woe are followed by another twenty-five or so from his daughter-in-law, Megara. Herakles has left them alone, vulnerable to the whims of the new king of Thebes, Lykos, who has sentenced the hero’s family to death. They have taken refuge at the altar of Zeus, not because he is Herakles’ father but because any mortal at the altar is to be spared harm, though Lykos announces that he is willing to burn the altar down if that’s what it takes to kill them. Herakles is off laboring; as best as anyone knows, he’s still down in the underworld playing dogcatcher with Cerberus. And so these lines establish the play’s first cliffhanger: Will he return in time to rescue his family?
But Euripides is interested not so much in heroic acts as in the origins and limits of heroism. Herakles soon arrives, reassuring his family that he will save them, and when Lykos comes to kill them Herakles kills Lykos instead. As always in Greek tragedy, the violence takes place offstage; the audience learns of the murder from the distant cries of the King, and from the celebratory song of the chorus: “The once great tyrant / turns his life toward death!” Then Iris, a messenger of the gods, and Lyssa, the goddess of madness, appear, supposedly at the behest of Hera, Zeus’ wife, who is still sore at her husband over the affair that produced Herakles. Together, Iris and Lyssa drive Herakles mad, prompting him to kill the family he has just protected. Those murders take place offstage, too, in a confusion of violence that the chorus can hardly describe. (Carson calls it a “berserker furor.”) When Amphitryon orders his son to look at the bodies, Herakles says, “I’ve become the murderer of my own beloveds.” Then, setting up the play’s second cliffhanger, he adds, “Shall I not be their avenger too?”
A family rescued only to be ruined, a hero resurrected only to threaten suicide: “Herakles” hinges on such reversals of fate. The rest of the play considers whether a man who sentences himself to death can be saved, and, if so, by whom. Ultimately, it is his friend Theseus, whom Herakles has recently rescued from Hades, who comes to his aid. Seeing “the ground covered in corpses” and learning, from Amphitryon, that Herakles is responsible, he concludes, “This agony comes from Hera.” Like Herakles, Theseus has both divine and mortal parentage, and he argues that just as the gods transgress against one another, so, too, do they transgress against humanity—but just as the gods are allowed to live despite those transgressions, so should demigods and humans be allowed to live even if they sin.