Euripides: Helen (of Egypt)
I remember a friend once commenting, “The truth is I’m unnaturally beautiful.” It’s one of those comments that sounds pretty terrible coming from most people; in her case, it was forgivable because she was, in fact, unnaturally beautiful, and her tone of voice was fairly resigned and frustrated, as if she was accepting that a stain was simply not coming out of her favorite white dress. Let’s be honest- fill a room with 1,000 women and you won’t find one who’s not beautiful; but the truly gorgeous- those at the Marilyn Monroe end of the spectrum- are as rare, and thus as disorienting, even deranging, as any other wonder of nature. Being a natural wonder, though, can be a pain in the ass.
Helen, the daughter of Leda and Zeus, was dazzlingly beautiful. We know this from the scene in the Iliad, one of the greatest scenes in world literature, in which she first enters the city of Troy and the old men of the town, knowing that her arrival makes certain future bloodshed and warfare, take one look at her and decide she’s worth it. I don’t know if cinema has ever captured the power of beauty in this way, although it’s often tried; Hitchcock came pretty damn close to defining the word ‘stunning’ in regards to feminine beauty in these few minutes of Vertigo, an entrance to rival Helen’s.
Whether it was her face that launched a thousand ships, or some other part of her anatomy, Homer makes clear that her splendor sets Helen apart from her society and makes her, in some sense, alien. He wants us to understand, of course, that for Menelaus, launching a decade-long war to get back his unfaithful wife was also worth it. In the Odyssey, we learn that they patched things up afterwards.
So was she a wriggling voluptuary or a good girl maligned? Sappho claimed Helen was in love and didn’t give her husband or daughter a second thought, while Homer makes clear that Helen’s “betrayal” was caused solely by Aphrodite clouding her mind and delivering her helplessly to Paris, pimping her out by controlling her desires. Herodotus went further, claiming that Helen never even made it to Troy, Hermes having replaced her with a look-alike phantom made of clouds- no doubt a serious disappointment when Paris finally took her to bed- and depositing the real Helen in Egypt for the duration of the war. This is the story that Euripides works with, depicting Helen stranded in Egypt awaiting a forced marriage to the king Theoclymenus, mourning the assumed loss of her husband, reviled in Greece and blamed for all the destruction of the Trojan War. Again, being stunningly beautiful can be a real pain in the ass.
By Euripes’s account Helen has remained faithful all this time, despite being reknowned by the Greeks as a treacherous slut, and bears her beauty as a burden. Then, into the picture staggers her husband, filthy and near death after years of wandering. When they are reunited, the true story comes out and both are overcome with joy at finding their love intact and unspoiled. Euripides is competing in some sense with the reunion scene in the Odyssey, which is a high bar to reach, but he does okay. He’s also very sympathetic to Helen’s plight and, in general, has a great deal of empathy for his female characters, setting his drama somewhat apart from his predecessors. Admittedly, Homer’s take on the couple reunited was a bit more interesting; but, in both accounts, the salient fact is their love has survived the most terrible separation imaginable. Anyone who has ever felt bound to another by fate can relate to Helen and Menelaus.
In something of a change of pace for Greek drama, the play is bouyantly optimistic. The lovebirds need only trick Theoclymenus to escape and do so with the help of his seer sister Theonoe (there’s a mild critique of seers here) and his own ignorance of Greek burial practices. Menelaus is ‘dead’ you see and Helen must give his funeral rites at sea with the help of his sailor who just happens to look a lot like Menelaus himself. She’ll be right back, dear. (Meep! Meep!) There aren’t a lot of happy endings in Greek drama and Euripides more than makes up for the lack. Even Theoclymenus will be rewarded after death for checking his anger, watching as his lovely bride sails into the sunset. At this point, you can imagine cartoon birds and cursive lettering spelling, “The End”.
And why not? A woman’s beauty might seem supernatural, but so can her love.