Fatal Attraction

Norma Jeane Baker of Troy BY Anne Carson. New York: New Directions. 64 pages. $13.

The cover of Norma Jeane Baker of Troy

No one could decide how to kill Helen of Troy. It’s a glaring oversight for such a crucial character. Greek tragedy is a genre that usually relishes any opportunity for a specific and harrowing death, especially for women—deaths that spill symbolism in shining pools. A woman’s way of dying is the apex of her meaningfulness: Antigone hanging herself in captivity, Clytemnestra stabbed by her own son, Polyxena sacrificed on the tomb of Achilles. It is strange, then, that Helen ends up without an ending. Not least because, according to the logic of the form, she should be the object of two whole nations’ revenge. But even after all that bad behavior, Helen remains deathless.

In Anne Carson’s new play, Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, a retelling of Euripides’s underread Helen, she is cast as Marilyn Monroe, whose suicide garnered its own mythological status. Menelaus is Arthur Miller, the possessive yet neglectful husband, and the chorus becomes Truman Capote, who based Breakfast at Tiffany’s Holly Golightly on Marilyn. As legends, the parallels between Marilyn and Helen are obvious. They are both superlative in their femininity, girl-ness at god level, with beauty that made them special and made them suffer. Marilyn never directly caused any international conflicts (despite that little JFK subplot), but she has still become a cautionary tale, although what exactly we are cautioned about is unclear. (Personal despair? Public sexuality? Tomato, tomato.) And while she eventually identified as a leftist, officially un-American, her image was often wedded to America’s wars. In fact, her entire career is owed to it: She was discovered as a model while working in a factory assembling drones during World War II, smiling wide next to heavy, morbid machinery. Her “bombshell” moniker greased the association, her name slipping between sex, death, and nation. By the time she visited the American troops in Korea in 1954, a hundred thousand soldiers came out to express their desire and, by extension, their allegiance. Like Helen, she was what they were fighting for.

Marilyn Monroe, 1952. New York Sunday News/Wikicommons
Marilyn Monroe, 1952. New York Sunday News/Wikicommons

Carson—legendary poet, classicist, heartbreaker—is known for her eviscerating ability to take myth and move it into a local hotel, without ever letting the divine implications of the story waver. Actually, Carson’s restaging only enlivens. She allows her ancient characters to stretch their legs, broaden their breath, after a long, crowded journey to the present. The dramas of imperfect gods seem much more real at the side of a highway or across the kitchen table than at the top of any clouded mountain. Carson takes on Euripides with what can only be described as a truly devotional irreverence: In 2006, she published Grief Lessons, a translation of four of his plays, and in 2009, her remarkable An Oresteia, a collection that closes with his play Orestes. They match each other in artful unpredictability. It was Euripides who established that the specifics of plot are never ironclad: He himself wrote three conflicting fates for Helen across three separate plays.

Part of Helen’s problem is the problem of all war stories, the problem of after. Many of us can recap the beginning and middle of Helen’s timeline, give or take a few details: The most beautiful woman in the world was hatched from an egg; Zeus, the god in charge—changed into a swan—raped and impregnated her human mother, Leda, as was his hobby. Helen married Menelaus, king of Sparta, in an auspicious union after extreme competition, but was carried away by Paris, becoming the catalyst for the Trojan War. (Circumstances of this carrying away are debatable: Was she kidnapped or seduced? Did she fall in love and leave her husband, or was she raped and trafficked?) Note how much sexual violence we’ve encountered, only three sentences in. As the story goes, Helen watched from a tower for years and years, weaving a tapestry of what she saw, as her husband and his country inched across the bloody field toward her. A generation of Greeks gone, to reclaim one man’s errant wife. Her beauty served both as a justification and as an unforgivable indictment. Finally, the Spartans are triumphant over the enslaved Trojans. Now what? The Greeks of all people know: Returning home is when the real story begins.

In Helen, first performed in 412 BCE, we are plunged into the almost hallucinatory aftereffects of a conflict won but never resolved. Seven years after Troy is conquered, the winners are still lost at sea, still trying to get back to Greece to enjoy their supposed victory. Menelaus washes up on the shores of Egypt, where he meets Helen, who has been waiting there for seventeen years. Wait, what? That’s Euripides’s record-scratch: The Helen who went to Troy was, as she explains, “a breathing phantom which [Hera] had moulded in my likeness from heavenly ether; and [Paris] believes he possesses me—but it is a vain belief, for he does not.” Or in Carson’s words, “the truth is, a cloud went to Troy. A cloud in the shape of Norma Jeane Baker.” In Ancient Greek, this cloud is called an eidolon (εἴδωλον), an “image, likeness, simulacrum, replica, proxy, idol,” a phantom copy of a living person made out of light. In today’s terms, we would call that cinema.

By splitting Helen in two, Euripides proposes an alternate timeline, one where our protagonist is unsullied by either adultery or trauma. There has always been a pure version of this bad girl, patiently waiting to be discovered in a faraway place. You can’t say it’s not a relatable fantasy. Carson reclaims and complicates this absolution, digging her heels into the muddy tangle of femininity and its image. Norma Jeane Baker of Troy takes the permanently doubled nature of womanhood seriously, as an emotional condition rather than a narrative device. We already knew there was more than one Marilyn. Even Norma Jeane had three different last names (Mortenson, Baker, Dougherty), before she was extinguished in the phoenix-fire of Monroe. Then there’s every photograph, every screen, that transports her beyond naming. Euripides took the dominant opinion that women are not really real literally, forgiving Helen by extension. Carson sits with this imposed unreality and its consequences, refusing purity by allowing her character to exist in multiplicity without accusing her of deceit. As Norma Jeane quips in the play, “Well, in the first place, acting is not fake.” The truth is, all girls are true.

If a war was initiated upon faulty, exaggerated, or straight-up false information, does everyone who was killed in it get to come back to life? Or, as Norma Jeane imagines the Trojans asking, “We lived all those years knee-deep in death for the sake of a cloud?” In Carson’s play, Arthur Miller/Menelaus bursts into flames when he finds out Helen wasn’t herself. Norma Jeane, trapped in the Chateau Marmont, extinguishes his rage with her bathrobe. (This is myth, after all, where metaphor slides, sticky and warm, into embodied transformation, like an egg from its mother.) Helen was always the war’s MacGuffin. In the beginning of the play, a visiting Greek soldier does a double take and curses her likeness to “that WMD in the forked form of a woman.” Later in the play, the chorus, which is Norma Jeane–as–Truman Capote, tells the reunited couple, “Hell arrives. It’s as if the war was already there, waiting, the two of you poured into it like wet concrete.” Nothing is reliable here, not the shape of bodies, or the sequence of history, yet inevitabilities (the Greeks would call them fates) hover, eager to slip into open wounds. Gods pull rank; they’re movie executives. Carson is gesturing outward, almost offhandedly, the way an actor’s quick glance can demolish an entire imaginary wall. If history is slowly metamorphosing into reality TV, or a Greek tragedy, or both, who’s in the audience?

In the cuts between Norma Jeane/Marilyn/Helen’s monologues and narration, Carson has interspersed short pedagogical interludes, lessons in the “History of War.” The writing glows in these sections, wry, brutal, spacious. Each defines a Greek word: image, wound, slavery, concubine, deception, barbarian, opportunity, and finally who? as in, who is at the door? Describing “to take,” she traces how the term “comes over into Latin as rapio, rapere, raptus sum and gives us English rapture and rape—words stained with the very early blood of girls, with the very late blood of cities, with the hysteria of the end of the world. Sometimes I think language should cover its own eyes when it speaks.” That’s only Lesson 3. Language is a body, too. Or another kind of god, flaw-ridden, meddling. Translation, then, is worship, or prophecy. Words carry clanging expectations trailing after them, like cans on a wedding car. Such as “opportunity,” which in the original Greek is used to describe the rare points that can be pierced on a body clad completely in heavy bronze armor, the “mortal spots.” If you move the accent to the first syllable, the same word was “a technical term from the art of weaving to indicate the thrums of the web or, more specifically, that critical point in space and time when the weaver must thrust her thread through a gap that momentarily opens up in the warp of the cloth.” The act of killing and the representing of it are only one emphasized syllable away.

Norma Jeane knits throughout. There’s something to be said here about duration, how in Greek myth weaving is literally making (or unmaking) time, how the image of something is just as real as the thing, and how that makes women responsible, in a way that both elevates their craft and creates unfair, violent repercussions. Carson calls Helen’s tapestry a livestream. The name evokes mass surveillance, the weapon and camera merging into one object in the contemporary drone, bloodshed allowed through being there and not. But most video manages to consolidate and disguise its mortal spots, the sharp object and its collision with chance, the conditions of its making. Helen’s tapestry-of-now is more like structuralist film, exposing the mechanism behind what we are seeing as we see it. Displaying how a representation becomes itself can destabilize Hollywood moviemaking and its potential for propaganda, just as the labor of femininity itself can show us—through camp, slippage, sadness—what material conditions uphold the vision before us.

The play ends with language hardening its shell into event again. The kernel of the story that Carson wants to tell is sung early on: “Rape is the story of Helen, Persephone, Norma Jeane, Troy. War is the context and God is a boy. . . . Truth is, it’s a disaster to be a girl.” At the story’s close, an earthquake hits Los Angeles, causing a tsunami to flood the entire city: “Aristotle thought earthquakes were caused by winds trapped in subterranean caves. We’re more scientific now, we know it’s just five guys fracking the fuck out of the world while it’s still legal.” The light changes, “like morning at midnight,” and our heroine leaves the hotel for the first time, sailing on a war boat through Hollywood’s sunken ruins. Like Euripides, Carson closes the curtains on the wide, open sea. Another fantasy floats to the surface, another absolution: Norma Jeane escapes, inheriting Helen’s endlessness. The clouds watch from above, in sisterhood.

Audrey Wollen is a writer from Los Angeles who lives in New York.