An introduction to a classic play
Helen is not the most famous of Euripides’ plays, but it is one of the most curious – and it deserves close analysis and study. The play was first performed in 412 BC at that year’s City Dionysia. In summary, the plot of Helen turns on an old conspiracy theory first put forward by the ancient historian Herodotus: that ‘Helen of Troy’ was a mere phantom conjured by Hera, and that the real wife of Menelaus spent the duration of the Trojan War in Egypt, having been taken there by Hermes and kept safe out of harm’s way. (This is the basis of H. D.’s modernist epic poem Helen in Egypt (New Directions Books).) The Greeks and the Trojans both go to war over what is, effectively, an illusion. The goddess Hera is responsible for the phantom Helen and, therefore, the cause of the Trojan War: she’s seeking revenge on mortals over something called the Judgement of Paris.
Helen lives out seventeen long years in Egypt, chastely and loyally waiting for her husband Menelaus to come and fetch her. Like Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey, she refuses to accept that her husband is definitely dead and rejects the offer of marriage from the new king of Egypt, Theoclymenus. But he won’t wait forever.
Helen hears that Menelaus was shipwrecked while returning from the Trojan War, and is dead. Or at least, that’s the rumour she is told by a Greek, Teucer, who has been fighting in the Trojan War. Believing this news at first, Helen resolves to kill herself rather than take the alternative option – to marry the wealthy but odious Theoclymenus. But then the Chorus makes a suggestion. In order to find out the fate of her husband, Helen of Egypt (as we should perhaps, after H. D., call her) should consult the oracle.
She does so, and the oracle confirms that Menelaus is, in fact, alive. Sure enough, he turns up shortly after this. But because he is wearing rags rather than regal attire, he isn’t recognised as a king when he shows up, and even Helen, after all these years, doesn’t recognise him or accept that he is her husband.
For his part, Menelaus doubts that this woman is the Helen whom he left behind all those years ago and went to war for. However, they eventually become reconciled and manage to escape out of Egypt and back to Sparta, thanks to the assistance of Theonoe, the sister of Theoclymenus and a prophetess who, having consulted the gods, sees that it is the right thing to reconcile Helen with her rightful husband and to deceive her own brother by aiding Helen and Menelaus in their escape.
But this plot summary misses out one of the most important agents in the play: Helen herself. One of the most striking things about Euripides’ play is his development of the character of Helen. Far from being simply Menelaus’ dutiful and devoted wife, Euripides’ Helen is – again, like Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey – the paragon of resourcefulness and cunning. Penelope wove the funeral shroud for her husband’s father, vowing that upon its completion she would give up her absent husband for dead and marry one of the importunate suitors hanging around the house; but by night she unpicked what she had woven by day.
Similarly, Helen in Euripides’ play pretends to mourn for her dead husband, even when she has learned the truth that he is still alive. She then manages to trick the importunate Egyptian king, Theoclymenus, into unwittingly facilitating her and her husband’s escape, by keeping up the pretence that Menelaus is a mere vagrant and requesting help in getting to the shore so she and her tattered companion can carry out the funeral rites for the (presumed) dead Menelaus.
Another of Euripides’ women, Medea, is often held up as an example of a complex female character from Greek theatre, but Helen offers something similarly interesting to analyse: a woman whose pluck and ability to think on her feet helps her to save not only her own life, but that of her husband. (Menelaus’ best plan for reclaiming Helen is to kill Theocylmenus in combat – an idea that Helen immediately rejects, claiming that her husband would stand no chance against the Egyptian king.)
Many critics see Helen as a sort of warning to the Athenians: be wary of going to war for an illusion. The Greeks were involved in the Peloponnesian War with Sparta at the time, and had just returned from a crushing defeat in the Sicilian expedition, shortly before Euripides wrote Helen. Michael Billington, in his The 101 Greatest Plays: From Antiquity to the Present, notes that a production of Euripides’ Helen enjoyed success in the wake of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 – another war that was founded on an illusory premise.
Billington also suggests that, with Helen, Euripides effectively invented a new genre: tragicomedy. Is Helen a tragedy or a comedy? Euripides is celebrated as a great Greek tragedian, but Helen ends, not with death and isolation, but with reunion and a happy resolution. Yet Helen herself, as well as Menelaus, are accorded the dignity and respect associated with high tragedy. This is another reason why Helen is such an intriguing play and worth reading and discussing: it seems to represent a new development in theatre, in combining elements of the tragic and comic.
Helen is included in Medea and Other Plays (Oxford World’s Classics), along with three other classic Euripides plays.