Dramaturg’s Statement

Posted on December 16, 2011

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Hillary: A Modern Greek Tragedy

with A (Somewhat) Happy Ending

Dramaturg’s Statement

Sexual scandals are omnipresent in the world of politics. Often these affairs are humorous, but they always have far-reaching, serious consequences on the lives of those involved, as well as their constituents. In recent months, we’ve seen the sordid sexual tales of Anthony Weiner, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Silvio Berlusconi, and Herman Cain – amongst others – spin out in the international media. They play an (unfortunately) important role in the social fabric of our nation and our identity as humans. But how can you address these important issues, which by nature of their ubiquitousness have suffered the trials and tribulations of being relegated to a form that is seen tired and overdone? Playwright Wendy Weiner set about with Hillary: A Modern Greek Tragedy with a (Somewhat) Happy Ending to tell this story in a fresh way, liberating it from cliché and celebrating its universality in a way that supersedes the seedy repulsiveness inherent in such a story of personal foibles. Instead, she raised it up as a frank and timeless investigation of the ability of the human spirit to rise above and succeed, rather than focusing on the ways in which humans continually fall down. Her play documents the journey of Hillary Rodham Clinton, within the idiomatic vocabulary of Greek tragedy, weaving amongst it strands of the extensive catalogue of Greek mythology. Ultimately, because of this bold re-interpretation of the story, it becomes the tale of a woman’s quest to succeed and achieve her dreams in a world in which the deck is stacked against her and the rules of the game thwart her at every turn.

While there are no specific references in the text, the play to Atalanta, her journey is implicit in the account of Hillary’s attempt to eschew the “typical female route” in order to rise to a place of power, where she could make the world into a place where “girls can use all the gifts given to them by the gods and become [anything they want to be]” (Weiner, 13). Just as Atalanta took an oath of virginity to Artemis, Hillary makes a pact with Athena in order to secure her assistance on the long path to greatness – and just as Atalanta is beset by centaurs that wish to rape her, Hillary, too, is tested by Aphrodite, who tries her commitment by testing her with bewitchments and ultimately, Bill Clinton. Atalanta also participates in a boar hunt and a footrace, competing against only men. Both times she comes up short – in the boar hunt, she is able to strike first, but the boar is finished off by another and in the footrace, she is waylaid by golden apples sent from Aphrodite. In the end Atalanta is denied the supremacy that she sought so hard. In a similar vein, Hillary continually struggles in the testosterone-drenched field of politics throughout the play.

The golden apple of the Atalantean story also has a potent presence in Weiner’s play. In the original Greek myth, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite fight over the apple, each claiming it as a symbol that they are the most beautiful goddess. At an impasse, Paris is chosen to judge who should receive the apple, and selects Aphrodite and it return is granted Helen as a wife, touching off the Trojan war. In Hillary, Zeus torments Athena and Aphrodite with the golden apple, telling each that the other has stolen it for themself. This causes the breakdown of their relationship and begins the epic power struggle between the two over influence in the life of Hillary Clinton. In the end, no one gets the apple, which is left to rot. This twist is a strong representation of one of the plays central themes, the idea that in power struggles and intractable conflicts no one emerges victorious. It is only through negotiation and compromise that satisfying results can arise.

Athena is constantly comparing Hillary’s quest to the other quests she has aided throughout Greek mythology. Amongst the comparisons are allusions to Perseus, who is able to outwit the three ugly, old, one-eyed soothsaying sisters, defeat Medusa, and defeat a sea monster to win the hand of Andromeda with her help. Jason plowed a field with fire=breathing oxen, fought an army spawned from dragon teeth, and tranquilized an ever-watchful dragon in order to obtain the Golden Fleece, all with the indispensible assistance of Medea, who Athena was able to connect him with. Cadmus was able to build the city of Thebes when Athena instructed him to plant a slain serpent’s teeth. The resulting warriors battled until five remained, forming the foundation of the Theban society. Finally, Athena plays a large role in the story of Odysseus, helping him in a competition against Ajax as well as his reunion with his wife, Penelope. In all of these cases, Athena is throwing her weight against the wishes of other powerful gods who have expressed displeasure or differing plans for a mortal. She gives them advice, resources, significant companions, and guides them on enriching and fulfilling tasks – which may not be an end to themselves, but serve to improve their position in the universe. In contrast, Athena expresses the belief that Hillary quest is different, stating, “Now I wonder if all those battles were preparing me for this one. For deep-rooted beliefs are a far more insidious enemy than any dragon and change is far more frightening to the human spirit than a twenty-foot women with snakes for hair” (Weiner, 14).

The other strong connection drawn with these stories is the way in which mortals eventually have to pay for Athena’s assistance. It is not a zero sum game, as shown in the case of Jason, whose wife slaughters his children after she becomes aware of his infidelity and the Greeks, who won the Trojan war, but faced a long and treacherous voyage home. Athena even makes reference to Abraham Lincoln, who paid the ultimate price after his success in abolishing slavery and reuniting the country. Hillary must pay the price of losing half her heart in order to stay in the world of politics and remain bulletproof to the pains that accompany that lifestyle as well as the damaging personal intrusions.

The final chapter of the play involves a trip to the Underworld to recover a harp that holds special importance with Athena. Along the way, she encounters Hades and Persephone, seeing in their relationship, founded on Hades’s abduction of her, a powerful parable of warning. She sees immediately how imperative it is for her not to be imprisoned by the circumstances of her husband’s infidelity to her, and is ultimately able to, with the help of Eleanor Roosevelt, reclaim her own life and shape it in a way that allows to prosper and flourish according to her dreams.

While the play is told with a very specific Greek vocabulary, it is very much a contemporary story and remains faithful to the truths of that identity. Punctuated by brief, punchline-laden, broad, and physical scenes that operate much like tightly woven sketches on a late night comedy show that is in keeping with the way much of America digests the information they accrue on subjects in the political arena – through forums like Saturday Night Live, or more lately, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Despite a pervasive deprecation and sense of levity, the play does not play fast and loose with the events of the Clintons’ lives and presidency. There are a few places of departure from reality for embellishment or dramatic purpose, but by and large, the facts are presented fairly straightforwardly. Weiner vividly imagines Hillary’s emotional responses to the events of her life in ways that are realistic and believable, but impossible to corroborate given her intense privateness and perpetual poker face. These dramatic musings and leaps of creativity are not jarring, however, because they provide the whole affair with a level of realism, intent, and consistency that transforms what could become a predictable, cliffs-notes 90-minute re-telling of the greatest hits of the Clintons into a very purposed and genuine examination of the current state of women in politics. In that vein, it is essential to note when this play premiered. In November 2008, when it opened Off-Broadway, Barack Obama had just been elected President of the United States after a long campaign that had begun over a year and a half earlier. Hillary Clinton, in the beginning the front-runner, had stayed pretty much neck-and-neck with Obama until conceding just 5 months prior. She had come so close to shattering the glass ceiling for women in presidential politics just a decade after being publicly humiliated by the dalliances of his husband. The end of the play, likely by virtue of being written in the midst of the campaign, rather than in the days following, when the result was clear to all, is set just before Hillary announces her bid for the 2008 Democratic nomination, which allows the conclusion to maintain an air of optimism, hope, and the possibility of redemption (all of which remains to an extent, as she is free to run again) while subtly acknowledging that not only did she lose the nomination, but – despite placing second – was denied the Vice Presidential slot on the Democratic ticket, a continued manifestation of just how intensely the deck is stacked against her, as she continues to fight to get to the top.

Wendy Weiner, a youngish female playwright and performer, achieved a level success with Hillary that she had not experienced previously in her career of small-scale performances in New York and San Francisco. But despite commendable reviews of the premiere production, most notably in the New York Times – the show has had very little life beyond New Georges, “a play and artist development organization providing essential resources to a community of venturesome artists.” Its only other online presence includes a handful of small regional and community theatre productions, mostly in the Midwest. The play marked a dramatic departure in style and form for Weiner, whose previous work had been largely solo pieces produced at fringe venues. Since Hillary, she has transitioned to the more lucrative field of television, where she is co-writing a TV movie for the Disney Channel, called Frenemies. She is also however, in the early stages of developing a new play.

The play, as is somewhat clear from its title, deftly explores the interplay between comedy and tragedy – the levity of deeply painful situations mixed with an honest and candid look at the emotions and heartbreak that are wrapped up in the process of trying to succeed against all odds and being let down by those closest to you. In no way does it sugarcoat the gender politics of — politics. As aforementioned it relies heavily on an episodic, sketch-like style that melds a documentary-esque realism – some sections of dialogue are lifted directly from interviews, speeches, and depositions, with fantastical elements that are at once awesome and over-powering, broad and farcical, and darkly manipulative in a way that makes you question how much free will we have to effect change in our lives. While the play bears many similarities to the kind of satire found in Saturday Night Live, there is a level of honesty and truth, if not real development and depth, to these characters that raises them above mere caricatures, and more often than not we are laughing because of an identification with them versus the kind of non-realistic gag invariably found in such entertainment. But as much as there is a strong sense of realism, we are constantly reminded of the theatrical nature of the event, with an omnipresent chorus that comments on the action as well taking on the roles of a host of different minor characters that come and go, lending a more intimate, compact feel to what in reality was something of an epic saga. In scaling it down and distilling it to the most basic essence, Hillary has something powerful to say about the human spirit. Something that is (somewhat) true and (somewhat) optimistic.

 

 

Works Cited

Weiner, Wendy. “Hillary: A Modern Greek Tragedy with a (Somewhat) Happy Ending.” Dramatists Play Service, Inc., 2009.

The Encyclopedia Mythica. http://www.pantheon.org/

“Wendy Weiner.” The Playwrights Union – a network of Los Angeles theater artists writing for stage, tv, and film. http://www.playwrightsunion.com/

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