Author: Simon Armitage
Publisher: Faber and Faber Ltd
Published: Sept 2000
Mr Heracles. The original 'Heracles' is shocking and strange. It begins in defeat and despair, soars into triumph, waver's on a razor's edge of dramatic uncertainty, then plunges into carnage and horror of the darkest kind.
What is the greatest atrocity a man can commit? What do we mean by hero? Who can apportion blame to the workings of the human mind, and who has the power to forgive? These are questions thrown up by Euripedes' Heracles and tackled by Armitage in language that brings the play's contemporaneity sharply into focus, without diminishing its historical portent.
Mister Heracles was commissioned by the West Yorkshire Playhouse. This volume includes an introduction by the author including a discussion of the 'translation' process and commentary on the thinking behind the project.
What do we mean by hero? What is the greatest atrocity a man can commit? Who can apportion blame to the workings of the human mind, and who has the power to forgive? These are the questions that face any reworking of the Heracles fable.
In the modern Western World we race toawrds the future. Logical, economical, sophisticated, comfortable, virtual sometimes, double-glazed, air-conditioned, centrally heated...the real and the vital gets left behind, and the greater the distance the bigger the calamity when collision occurs. It's like the noise when lightening strikes, when the thunder we hear is air rushing in to fill the burnt-out gash in the sky.
There are many reminders of ourselves: dreams, intuition, appetite, lust, language, but violence is one of the most potent, opening a direct channel between what we have become and what we originally were. Heracles is a master of violence, and also a slave to it.
Euripedes' Heracles or The Madness of Heracles, is shocking and strange. It begins in defeat and despair, soars into triumph, wavers on a razor's edge of dramatic uncertainty, then plunges into carnage and horror of the darkest kind, before playing out in bewilderment. At some midpoint in the story, a line is crossed or a switch is thrown; some short-circuit occurs in the mind of the conquering hero, and after an episode of uncontrollable fury, Heracles finds himself amid the bodies of his wife and children with their blood on his hands. Stupefied, he shuffles away in the arms of his friend, still carrying his weapons of murder. As the play comes to an end, the audience is left in the same mood as Heracles himself, puzzling over an extreme act of brutality against loved ones, the cause and effect of which demand an explanation and resolution. The play's structure is typically classical, but it's contemporary relevance is not in doubt, its issues no less pressing than they were four hundred years before the birth of Christ. Euripedes, the last of the great Athenian playwrights, seemd to suspect that the gods on Olympus were no more than metaphors for the urges and impulses of a man's mind, and that Fate, if it existed, was a minor deity compared with the supreme beings of Choice and Chance. The messengers that break into the original plot to plant the seed of madness might be portrayed as supernatural henchmen acting out a vendetta or employed on a mission of revenge. But crucial to the argument of the play are the implications of heracles' heroic past, the extent of his guilt and blame, and his human response to this most horrific predicament. How can Heracles live with himself from this moment on?
There are several translations of Heracles, all of them important and more or less faithful in a literary, textual sense. I have written the play again with a view to production, as a piece for the modern theatre, although I didn't simply want to contemporise this ancient drama in the way that some translations of the classics have made the golden fleece a pair of Nike trainers or the Trojan horse a nuclear submarine. What has been translated here is not so much the language as the sentiment and the setting, and the main research tool has been an encyclopaedia rather than a dictionary or thesaurus. It is probably more useful to think that the play has not only been interpreted from Ancient Greek into English, but that it has been inferred, across time. In paying due respect to the original, it is equally worth remembering that Heracles never actually existed, and if that sounds like a sacrilegious statement when put so bluntly, it has proved a useful notion when deciding how much latitude might be taken without the accusation of irreverence.
Although the original lineation has hardly been altered, virtually all stage instructions have been omitted in this version and there are no indications as to when a character should enter or exit the stage; this seems to me to be a production issue, and I didn't want to restrict the dramatic possibilities or try to direct the play from behind the typewriter. The one exception is the opening up of the house following the slaying of Lycus and Heracles' family. The implication is that the murders must not be seen, only described, and this seems to me to be imperative to the value of the drama. That isn't to say, though, that the killings couldn't be witnessed or represented through some other device.
As with most plays, each characters idiolect is at least as important to the strategy of the drama as the story-line itself. In Mister Heracles, the old family are locked into a rhetoric of blank verse and grand imagery, with Amphitryon even quoting himself from a previous translation at one point. Imposters, intruders and visitors seem able to express themselves more freely, crudely even. And the chorus buzz around the place using a variety of voices and means of expression, from cheap one-liners to chants and songs. The role or function of the chorus in the play is entirely a matter of discretion, interpretation and, hopefully, possibility, but it is their presence more than anything else which conveys the atmosphere of original Greek tragedy, and their contribution to the tone of the play cannot be over-emphasised.
In Mister Heracles, it is as if the whole family history has occurred within the lifespan of one family. Atomic weapons and spears are spoken of in the same sentence, quantum physics and spinning wheels considered in the same thought. It is probably the cardinal sin of any treatment of Greek drama to include within it a reference to a Roman Caesar, but no cultural or historical co-ordinates were beyond possibility using this full-spectrum approach. Today Heracles travels at the speed of light - it seems only yesterday he was hitching a team of horses to his chariot. Of further relevance is the fact that Zeus is dead. When the gods die, they leave man in control of his own moral identity, and after experiencing his gravest tragedy, Heracles must confront his greatest challenge. We observe the agonising creation of the new kind of superman: one who takes responsibility for his actions.
Mister Heracles was commissioned by the West Yorkshire Playhouse for performance in the year 2000. I am grateful for their support in this project, especially to Natasha Betteridge, and to the many actors who tried and tested the play over two separate weeks of workshopping and rehearsal. The development of the text would not have been possible without their involvement. Initially, it is a uncomfortable experience to hand over material written in private to a group of total strangers, who then set about it with their minds, voices and bodies, pulling it, stretching it, and on occasion tearing it to pieces. but through a process that included small running repairs on the one hand, to a complete re-threading of plot-lines on the other, I'm sure a more cohesive and comprehensive piece of work has been produced. It is a pity that the same kinds of external quality-control mechanisms are not made available to more writers, poets and novelists included.
More specifically I am grateful to Simon Godwin, who suggested the project in the first place, and who contributed a great deal to the theory and thinking that underpins this interpretation. Having been spooked by the play for a number of years, it was his enthusiasm for that haunting which lured me into the Heracles myth and Euripides' treatment of it. From that starting point, the intention has been to re-present the play in the here and now, combining what we might think of as the eternal, universal issues with the undeniable changes that have taken place in the last two and a half thousand years, both materially and philosophically. Hopefully, there is something of tomorrow in Mister Heracles as well, reflecting not just the relative velocity of modern living - the pace of life compared with that of Ancient Greece - but its astonishing acceleration towards the future and the unknown.