So, while guzzling gin and having a small nosh, I read the last four pages of the most recent play for this blog, Tiger at the Gates by Jean Giradeaux in Translation by Christopher Fry. It is included in a book called Twenty Best European Play on the American Stage edited by John Gassner. The text is that used in the acclaimed production by Harold Clurman in both a London and Broadway run in 1955 with Michael Redgrave in the role of Hector.
Full Disclosure: I was in a production of this play in high school (I know, heady stuff for high school but it's one of the reasons I am who I am and the actor I am) playing the part of Priam. The play is a retelling of the beginning of the Trojan War in that grand French style of Racine and others. Neo-classical it is called. I am not sure if we used this translation, High school being so long ago. This production however gave me one of my most profound and long lasting acting lessons of my life.
The play, whose original French title is La Guerre de Troie n'aura pas lieu or The Trojan War Will Not Take Place, is an anti-war plea. My character Priam is very pro-war. I was and am very anti-war. I did not want to be perceived as pro-war by the audience and in order to do so conceived of a very convoluted motivation where Priam was saying all the pro-war stuff in order to stay in favor with the masses, while at the same time manipulating his son, Hector to stop the war. It was a very pointless, confusing and horribly muddled performance. When my beloved director and theatre teacher, Robin Wood, pointed this out to me, I had an epiphany: I am not the character and I must be true to the character's motivations even if they seem to reflect on me. They do not. A pro-war character must be played as pro-war, a stupid character must be played as stupid, an evil character must be played as evil, etc., etc. If people believe me to be evil based solely on the performance, so much the better. I have convinced them and conveyed the character faithfully. It has helped me immeasurably. I played an amoral, child killing monster, and even a pedophilic stepfather to great effect because of this.
Anyway, the play is brilliant. It is witty and mercilessly satiric. It has moving, poignant social commentary and stinging polemics. It is truly Neo-classical in this sense. It is a play of ideas, beautifully written and presented.
The plot is simple. Hector, Prince of Troy, returns from a war happy to finally be at peace, only to find that his brother, Paris, has abducted Helen, the wife of Menelaus, a Greek king. Unless she is returned there will be war. Paris is reluctant to give her up, as are all the elder men of Troy, including King Priam, Hector and Paris' father. Hector is insistent and Helen is consulted. She is fascinatingly conceived and may be the best thing in this play. I love the arguments and language in this play. Hector eventually has a parley with Ulysses in another great and fantastically written scene. It all ends with an inevitability that is at once known and frustrating.
I am very curious to read other translations of this play. To modern ears this play would likely seem bloated and talky. Perhaps it is only this translation. I am curious to know. Also knowing the story of The Iliad helps to
drive the desperation and irony of the play. I really liked this play. Next one sooner.