This essay examines Carson’s The Trojan Women: A Comic, a 2021 translation of Euripides illustrated by Rosanna Bruno. Carson’s subtitle, through the intersection of classical and modern senses of “the comic” as a genre, demands that the reader ask of her book: What is the place of comedy in a comic about one of the bleakest plays in the Western canon? The comic elements of The Trojan Women reframe Euripides’ narrative and underscore, in a bitter irony, the disastrous impact on the Greeks of the reconciliation of the gods Athena and Poseidon.

“You’re such a goofball!” Sam Anderson remarked to Anne Carson as a way of kicking off a public discussion of H of H Playbook at the New York Public Library in 2022.1 Anderson’s comment immediately fell flat with the author, perhaps because he presumed too quick an intimacy with his interviewee, or perhaps because his comment demeaned the seriousness of what is, after all, a translation of Euripides’ fifth-century BCE play about the fall of a great hero, Herakles. Anderson tried to recover his composure as moderator by turning to the theater critic Hilton Als and asking: “Is Anne Carson a goofball?” Als, who would later share reading duties with Carson, responded coolly that he is “preprogrammed to run to a lady’s defense” and he dismissed Anderson’s flippant charge. Anderson doubled down on his assertion by citing absurdly anachronistic lines from H of H Playbook, such as, “Capitalism farts cruelty like gas from a lawnmower.”2 Als countered that Carson’s diction and allusions range widely because she has “style” in Marianne Moore’s sense of style as the “radiograph of the soul.” Carson happily intervened at this point to endorse Als’ interpretation and to put an end to Anderson’s line of inquiry. However, Anderson’s maladroit question raises issues that I wish to pursue with reference to Carson’s other translation of Euripides from 2021, The Trojan Women: A Comic, illustrated by Rosanna Bruno.3 Carson’s subtitle, through the punning intersection of classical and modern senses of “the comic” as a genre, demands that the reader ask of her book: What is the place of comedy in a comic about one of the bleakest plays in the classical canon?

Critics and reviewers of Carson’s work always emphasize her erudition, but very little gets said about Carson’s mischievous sense of humour or the literary functions of her playful wit. For example, Carson’s status as a female classicist seems to make most journalists, such as Mary Gannon, assume that Carson will be intimidating and “humorless.”4 Sandra Martin addresses this trepidation by compiling answers to the question, “Who’s afraid of Anne Carson?”5 However, much like the eccentric details of mismatched earrings that intrigue Gannon when she looks more closely at Carson, or the fingernails “painted different iridescent colours” that change the dour first impression of Sarah Hampson, there are playful and witty sides to Carson’s writing behind the intimidating array of literary allusions.6 Hence the poet and critic Gillian Sze reacts to the Gannon interview by arguing that Carson, in her writing, “is at once serious and stately while a closer look reveals that she is also eccentric and playful.”7 Fittingly, among Carson’s book reviewers, Sam Anderson is one of the few to emphasize the humorous elements. In a review of Red Doc> (2013), Anderson notes that Autobiography of Red (1998) is “strange and sweet and funny, and the remoteness of the ancient myth crossed with the familiarity of the modern setting creates a particularly Carsonian effect: the paradox of distant closeness.”8 Nathan Huffstutter pushes the argument further in a review of Red Doc>, where he asserts that “Carson is funny—Lorrie Moore funny, Grace Paley funny—and Red Doc> courses with a wit shot through with intelligence and humility.”9 These assessments of Carson’s Geryon stories are fair enough, but how could she possibly manifest such humor and playfulness in translations of Euripides?

In her preface to Grief Lesson: Four Plays by Euripides (2006), Carson argues that the life and art of Euripides were shaped by the travesties of war: “The Peloponnesian War began 431 BC and lasted beyond Euripides’ death. It brought corruption, distortion, decay and despair to society and to individual hearts. He uses myths and legends connected with the Trojan War to refract his observations of this woe.”10 Indeed, The Trojan Women is part of a tetralogy in which Euripides offered a sustained analysis of the ruined city’s downfall, as David Grene and Richmond Lattimore observe: “External evidence indicates that The Trojan Women was most likely produced in 415 BCE, as the third play of a tetralogy with Alexander, Palamedes, and the satyr-play Sisyphus (all lost). Unusually for Euripides, all three tragedies were thus drawn from the same body of mythic material involving the Trojan War.”11The Trojan Women represents an important development in adaptations of this foundational myth because it dramatizes the woeful aftermath of the ten-year war, with all the excitement of battle removed. The Trojan soldiers are dead and all that remains is the ignoble abuse of women and children. The play culminates in the slaying of Hector’s infant son Astyanax as part of the Greeks’ extermination of the Trojan race, ordered by the Greek hero Odysseus. This cold-blooded murder, which appalls even the Greek herald Talthybios, pushes the mythic story beyond the calamities of war and into the territory of genocide. To accentuate this horror, Euripides constructs the play around the perspectives of the enslaved women who bear witness to the slaughter of their husbands, fathers, daughters, and sons.

The original performance context of The Trojan Women would have underscored this genocidal horror:

A few months before the date on which, according to most scholars, the play was produced, the Athenians had captured the small Greek island of Melos and slaughtered all the adult men and enslaved all the women and children. Under the circumstances, it is difficult not to see Euripides’ play, with its extended reflection on the piteous fate of a defeated city and its people, as being colored by that recent event.12

This performance made it clear that the tragic fate of the Trojans was also the fate of the Greeks, both in the sense of the mythic subjects of Athena’s rage on the return voyage from Troy and in the more contemporaneous sense of the subjects of Athenian cruelty on Melos. Moreover, Euripides forced the audience of the play to occupy the position of the Trojan women as witnesses to the tortures of defeat. Although the initial reception of the play was cool in a city state where theatrical commentary on contemporary politics was forbidden, The Trojan Women quickly became a canonical play.13 No doubt, all subsequent audiences have found it difficult to distance their own tenuous civilizations from “ill-starred Troy,”14 or their children from Astyanax, brought on stage as a bloody corpse.

Tragedy would seem to be the correct response to these dire circumstances. In “Tragedy: A Curious Artform,” Carson’s preface to Grief Lessons, she succinctly identifies the emotional underpinnings of the ancient genre: “Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief. . . . Grief and rage—you need to contain that, to put a frame around it, where it can play itself out without you or your kin having to die.”15 For Carson the scholar of ancient Greek, then, Euripidean tragedy is the sublimation of grief and rage into dramatic form.

For Carson the poet, the additional frames of the comic strips in The Trojan Women are an extension of the impulse toward self-preservation. This point offers one insight into the method behind the apparent madness of using comic strip panels and thought bubbles to plumb the depths of despair in the most vulnerable victims of the Trojan War, as Bruno observes:

With The Trojan Women, the only way I could handle the incredibly dark and tragic story was to push the images far away from what is plausible. This was mainly because the process of drawing the tragedy in the human/plausible realm would’ve been unbearable for me emotionally and artistically. I find that when I push something to an uncomfortable place, it often becomes very clear. I was also responding to Anne’s text, which is always full of surprises! It gave me permission to go anywhere, and I did. Another element in my work is always humor, which is a great tool to shake things up and it also brings things into sharp focus.16

Flashes of humor, then, are means of providing comic relief in a tragic and somewhat plotless tale that consists, as Bruno observes, mostly of a series of laments.

Carson and Bruno’s framing devices also mark a structural change in the oft-told story. Their comic strip format, with its irregular grid pattern, is a means of shaking up Euripides’ canonical tragedy to produce a new kind of focus, as Bruno acknowledges: “I also think of it as a way of going against what is expected and not accepting the outline of something but [pushing] the edges and see[ing] if you can’t make another form.”17 The extent of Carson’s generic alterations of Euripides’ text is evident in the Library of Congress subject identifiers at the back of The Trojan Women, which list seven categories for comic strips, one for graphic novel, and only one for tragedy. Carson thus makes an odd genre decision to unsettle an unsettling story that may have become ossified by convention over time.

Given that many readers will associate comic strips with childhood, one consequence of Carson’s formal maneuver in The Trojan Women is that readers will suffer the infanticide in an intimate fashion that they would not have experienced in another format. As Anastasia-Erasmia Peponi argues, Carson’s “overall approach to literature as a medium is profoundly visual, with repeated emphasis . . . on what she claims to be the broader psychological consequences of the graphic depiction of language.”18 Ekphrastic treatment of high art is Carson’s preferred mode, but in the case of The Trojan Women the comic strip format is effective because it summons the reader’s lost youth to generate sympathy for the Trojans’ lost youths. Carson makes use of a similarly playful but disquieting strategy in the title H of H Playbook, which is simultaneously a book containing a play with notes for performance; a book describing the series of moves available to the athletic hero, Herakles, within the generic confines of his tragic story; and a book evoking a children’s collection of activities and puzzles through its appearance as a scrapbook of cut-and-pasted drawings and snippets of text. These playful invocations of children’s compositional practices in H of H, so very different from Carson’s more conventional translation of Herakles in Grief Lessons, produces a new means of charging the shock of Herakles’ slaughter of his beloved family when he is driven mad by the gods.19

Note, however, that in The Trojan Women Carson uses humor to offset and accentuate tragic grandeur, not to reduce suffering to absurdity or despondency. Consider that the conventional tenor of Euripides’ play, as in Lattimore’s translation, is analogous to the deposed Queen Hekabe’s lament for her “crazed, passionate” daughter Kassandra: “Your fate is intemperate as you are, always. There is no relief for you.”20 Likewise, Hekabe sets the dramatic tone when she remarks to Andromache, her slain Hector’s faultless wife: “Infinitely / misfortune comes to outrace misfortune known before.”21 Yet Carson’s version of The Trojan Women alters Euripides’ relentlessly sorrowful outlook by framing the encounter between Hekabe and Kassandra cited above with sardonic quips. As Talthybios spots what he suspects are rebels setting fire to the camp and Kassandra enters the scene bearing torches, Hekabe, drawn by Bruno as an emaciated dog, barks: “Calm down, Talthybios, there’s no fire. It’s just crazy Kassandra.”22 The chorus, slightly more perturbed by Kassandra, whose mistreatment at the hands of the Greeks is the cause of Athena’s rage, cries: “Stop her, Queen. She’s in one of her ooh-la-la moods.”23 Yet this belittling humour at Kassandra’s expense is overwhelmed by the “somewhat exalted” appearance of the priestess, torches blazing at her side, as she occupies an entire oversized page of the comic book with a single portrait and seemingly sets fire to the adjacent page with her torches.24 She is dazzlingly beautiful in her bridal array, fit material for the cover of Trojan Bride Magazine, but also a lucid agent of revenge.25 There are no male heirs left to avenge the destruction of Troy, so Kassandra is eager for her fated union with Agamemnon because it will hasten his demise at the hands of his abandoned wife Clytemnestra.

Hence the apparently playful format of the comic strip facilitates a more serious shift in focus on Euripides’ canonical tale, one attuned to the pathetic situation of the captive women, but also resistant to a narrative of pure victimhood. For example, Carson and Bruno’s depiction of Helen of Troy as, alternately, a silver fox and a hand mirror gives reign to Carson’s longstanding interest in cunning intelligence and its symbols, as well as the different ways that men and women deploy that intelligence.26 The genocidal commands of the wily Odysseus, inventor of the wooden horse that wins the Trojan War, destroy his reputation for posterity. Hence Andromache, in the Lattimore translation, can exclaim: “Greeks! Your Greek cleverness is simple barbarity.”27 Carson, for her part, glamorizes the subversive cunning of Helen as she argues her way out of immediate execution at the hands of her jilted husband Menelaus and talks circles around Hekabe, who requests that Helen be allowed to speak in her own defense. Although Hekabe’s considerable powers of perception and articulation buoy the entire play, she is mistaken in the belief that Helen will “be sentenced to death out of her own mouth.”28 Instead, Helen turns the tables of accusation against her husband, who left her alone in his house with Paris, and deflects Hekabe’s criticisms by laying blame at the feet of the gods, whom no mortals dare defy.

Whether morally bankrupt or not, Helen touches upon a point crucial to the last third of The Trojan Women, one that seems empowering (Helen momentarily escapes death) but ultimately proves to be disempowering (no mortal escapes the gods). As Theseus wisely counsels Herakles in H of H Playbook: “you call them gods, they call you walking ash.”29 This ashen fate befalls the majestic city of Troy and Hekabe, in one of her last extended speeches, contemplates throwing herself into the flames of her godforsaken city. She appeals to the gods for aid but instantly recognizes the futility of this act: “Gods! O gods! / But why call out to gods? / I tried that before, they didn’t listen.”30 The Trojan chorus, likewise, feels betrayed by Zeus and voices its indignation: “Gone / our offerings, our choirs, our echoing voices, / our celebrations of you all night in the dark.”31 The lack of supernatural aid forces the chorus to confront its “deepest fear,” that none of its worship “matters to you at all / or ever did.”32 Not only did “the temple, the altar, the offerings” fail to win the gods’ favor, but the human characters are slowly beginning to realize that their bodies are the offerings to be converted into “fragrant smoke” by Athena’s thunderbolts or the burning towers of Troy.33

At this point, Carson’s zoomorphism turns from humorous comic device (talking animals) to a deadly serious economy of life and death. The defeated Trojan women have been reduced to a bestial condition by the Greeks. In the Lattimore translation, Andromache recognizes her affinity to a “brute and speechless beast of burden” but insists that the mare in question is, by virtue of her limited intelligence, “lower far in nature’s scale.”34 Carson collapses this distinction. In place of the wailing women captive behind the walls of ruined Troy in Lattimore’s translation, Carson and Bruno depict the “prisoners of war, / leftover females” as a “mob of dogs and cows” behind barbed wire, herded like farm animals.35 No longer are the Trojans associated, as in Homer, with the noble horse, nor even, as in Euripides’ early simile, with a flock of distressed birds.36 Carson’s nameless cattle are particularly poignant because, throughout the Homeric account of the Trojan War, heaps of oxen get immolated in sacrifices to curry favor with the gods. The talking cows and dogs in The Trojan Women become trapped in this logic of ritual sacrifice. They are next on the pyre and, despite their vaunted human intelligence, the slaves will “never get to use their brains again.”37

By the end of Carson’s narrative, the effect of the comic book format is anything but comic in the classical sense: there is no happy ending here, no banquet of reconciliation, no wedding between warring families to put an end to ancient enmities. Instead, families are torn apart, spouses vent their mutual hatred, children die or are herded into sexual slavery, and a fabled city lies in ruin. This kind of dissolution produces effects antithetical to classical New Comedy which, N. J. Lowe argues, is “the only major Western narrative form to pander in such an extreme way to our narrative appetite for systemic closure.”38 Lowe explains that the classical comic plots are strongly “rule-bound” and programmatic:39

Plots are construed in terms of transactions, normally in persons, between households. . . . Unlike in tragedy, there are global genre rules to distinguish permitted and forbidden gamestates, so that any such transaction will be recognized as stable (adoption, purchase, marriage) or unstable (abduction, embezzlement, rape). All unstable transactions must finally be replaced by stable ones, in which the consent of all parties is willingly given to a legally binding and permanent final configuration.40

Consent, legality, and even mere stability have been stripped from the lives of the Trojan women, but the bitter irony built into Euripides’ play is that the story is a comedy for the gods. Athena and Poseidon, long enemies on the Greek and Trojan sides of the war and supporters, respectively, of the house of Atreus and the house of Priam, begin The Trojan Women by reconciling their longstanding feud, by recalling their shared kinship, and by joining forces in a plan to ruin the Greek homecoming. Their accord exhibits unity of purpose: turning the Greek victory into tragedy. In this perverse comedy, the happiness of the gods grows in proportion to human misery. By the end of the story, Trojans, Greeks, and contemporary readers of Carson’s book feel acutely, and in a new way, the ancient tragic sentiment that we are the playthings of the gods, that they destroy us for their sport, that they cut us down, cut us up, and discard us with childish tempestuousness.

And yet Carson’s sense of humor, at once sprightly and macabre, never completely vanishes from the accounts of the Trojan women. Errancy is at the heart of Carson’s literary craft, both as a poet and a critic, and errant things occur in the act of translating ancient Greek into contemporary, North American English.41 As Cassandra Csencsitz notes, a reading of Carson’s work on a multi-authored Oresteia cycle in 2008 got a surprising reception:

[E]ven Carson didn’t know how funny her renditions—based on Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, Sophocles’ Electra and bad-boy Euripides’ Orestes—were until she saw early readings of the work in Classic Stage’s First Look Festival this past spring. The audience roared with laughter in between devastating moments of rapt silence as the prototypically dysfunctional family went about destroying itself, giving the tragedies a more immediate aliveness than is usually attributed to them. Carson is not sure how she feels about the humor of the plays, saying she has not added any jokes to the text and is giving us exactly what the Greek says. “It’s the shallowness and velocity of English as a language that perhaps makes the humor jut out more,” she theorizes. This happy accident of language provides an emotional contrast and catharsis, simultaneously closer to home and more powerful. Classical gravitas combined with contemporary flip can make for a surprisingly harmonious voice with a poet’s touch.42

Carson goes for laughs more overtly in The Trojan Women, as when Hekabe is designated “top bitch” in kingless Troy.43 Carson and Bruno also make liberal use of anachronisms to signal that the 2021 translation is not entirely “serious”: Bruno depicts, for example, “Troy Towers” as a modern apartment block serviced by automobiles.44 Yet the overall emotional force of the book derives from the insightful manner in which Carson uses the conventions of classical comedy and the modern comic to animate the counterposed tensions that structure Euripides’ tragedy.

2.

Carson 2021 (not paginated).

7.

Sze 2021: 63.

16.

Bruno as interviewed by G. P. Lilly; see below, p.00.

17.

Bruno as interviewed by Lilly, below, p.00.

18.

Peponi 2021: 58.

19.

Carson 2006: 21–84.

38.

Lowe 2000: 191.

39.

Lowe 2000: 190.

40.

Lowe 2000: 191.

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