I saw a performance of Troilus and Cressida the other evening, a Shakespeare play I had never seen before. In it, the army of Greeks camped outside the walls of Troy is fraying at the edges with envy, boredom, power struggles (think Israeli politics). Achilles, lying in his tent, has temporarily recused himself from battle. Dumb Ajax ends up hacking away at Hector while Troilus, the romantic hero, loses his love in a hostage trade. There are a lot of skeletons used as props-as well there should be. The love story, which is really a betrayal story (unless you’re a member of a women’s studies department, in which case you might see Cressida as a victim of sexual abuse and Helen as a depersonalized object doomed to launch a thousand ships), seems trivial compared to the mayhem of the sword-swooping warriors. Cressida’s switch of loyalties, as she whispers in the ear of the Greek captain, is nowhere near as vicious as Achilles’ smarmy killing of the noble Hector. In an early scene, the Trojans consider sending Helen back, then change their minds. They are deterred by pride and honor, pigheadedness and the inability to listen to a sensible woman just because she’s mad.
So the more things change, the more they don’t. He who knows history repeats it anyway.
What the Palestinians need is a Trojan horse. Many in Israel thought that horse was named Oslo. What the Israelis need is a leader like Hector. Instead they got a Troilus who hates well, who has a fighter’s mind, ruthless and ready to go to the end no matter how many others must die for his cause. And no matter how many wives and mothers and sisters call out for an end to the hostility, the fellows just can’t stop themselves. The Palestinians won’t be satisfied, even if they could drag Ariel Sharon’s body around the walls of Jerusalem. They have to sack the city, leave it burning. The Israelis cannot understand the other side, its memories of injury, its wounded pride, its humiliation at the hands of border guards who can blow up their homes at will. The settlers want to take Hebron and drive out the Arabs, and vice versa for the Arabs who want their towns free of Jewish settlements. And so it goes, until one day, one side or the other destroys itself and its enemy and the smell of burning bodies floats across the Red Sea, up the Galilee and over into Jordan. Miles and miles of charred buildings, souks in permanent disarray and artifacts buried under ash for other generations to find-here a TV set, there a turquoise necklace, a Pokémon toy, bent minarets, broken menorahs-all over a prize that could have been shared. And the waste of life will astonish no one.
Somehow it could be stopped-the daily killing, the stone-throwing, the guns going off. Somehow a compromise could have been reached. Couldn’t Menelaus have shared the custody of Helen with Paris? A half-year visit to each might have satisfied everyone. Was this a play about family values? About how society cannot let stand the disorder of kidnapped wives and love interrupted? How society will create mayhem in order to preserve its idea of order?
When the curtain came down on the play and Troilus, all covered in blood, vowed to keep the war going and Hector lay dead and Ulysses-a Machiavelli before his time, a Kissinger in Greek clothing-counted his advantages, my heart sank. To hell with Cressida. She adapts. She’ll make it one way or the other. But the rest of us?
The cold warriors are back in the White House. They’ve missed the action during these last years. Those fellows like to have an enemy with a face and a name and an address. They like to dig tunnels under other people’s embassies and don’t find anything inconsistent in their complaints. In their meetings, they will refuse to send Helen back or tell Paris to go find another wife. They think their cause is beloved by the gods. Both sides think that. The Greeks cannot retreat without a victory, no matter how much they lose along the way. So George W. Bush’s State Department derails the tentative steps toward peace taken in the Koreas. They march all over the world in clumsy Iliad boots.
When the lights came on and the actors gathered for their bows, I felt a kind of resigned despair, which is precisely what the Bard must have intended. We know so much more of history than he did, but his conclusions will do for the four centuries that followed. The pride and glory of the Trojans and Greeks was reenacted on the battlefields of World War I and II, and the fall of Troy repeated in the trenches and on the sidewalks of Hiroshima.
The Iliad and The Odyssey are not only primary myths; they also serve as parables or tea leaves in which our future reveals itself. They could serve as cautionary tales, but they won’t. We are helpless to prevent wars. We are at the mercy of our unmerciful leaders, who are driven by the rules of games we never agreed to-driven like Agamemnon out of tribal loyalty, false assumptions about what our gods do or do not want.
In the spring in New York, when green buckets of daffodils are waiting at the Korean grocers and Central Park is budding with white blossoms to come, a person should be able to shake off a performance of Troilus and Cressida and not let it haunt her. But this person watches the fourth-graders playing baseball in the park and wants to protect the entire city. If I could, I would hide us all under a desk. I can too easily see us as the sixth level of cities, others built layer after layer on top of us and no one remembering how it was that New York, with its magnificent buildings, its wonderful harbors, its fine commerce (hardly any wicked Internet technobusiness), got down here at the bottom with so many civilizations-none possibly as glorious as ours-built upon us.
I know I sound like Cassandra, but Cassandra had it right. I know I’m gloomy, because peace in the Mideast, which seemed at hand, is now eclipsed by bloodshed. I’m gloomy because W. is the least clever of warriors and sees no shades of irony. He will not respect history. He hasn’t read The Iliad . I know I’m gloomy because, like Cressida, my personal wishes in these public matters have been ignored.
But then I remind myself that the ocean still socks it to the sand at the beach in Amagansett, where the season awaits. My children, impossible as they are (and they are), still have plans for their futures. And whatever barbarians will one day cross the George Washington Bridge, right now all we have is out-of-towners and rush-hour traffic. I see a 2-year-old in a stroller tenderly kissing the cheek of the stuffed dog that he cradles in his arms. Time should be measured in smaller units then those offered by an archeological dig. I’m off to buy a pair of sandals.