It hardly seems necessary to offer a spoiler alert for news that is well over two millennia old. But some news is so surprising, so contrary to everything we thought we knew, that time can do little to prepare us. Take Euripides’s play Helen. One modern translator, Richmond Lattimore, goes so far as to print his introduction after the text, so he won’t give away the game.
Reader be warned: you do not know Helen of Troy, whose face launched those thousand ships, as well as you thought you did. Fortunately, Anne Carson will enlighten you.
So what is the news? Euripides’s play begins with Helen not in Troy, but imprisoned in the house of the son of the sea-god Proteus, in Egypt. She is the Helen we know, daughter of Zeus and Leda, wife of Menelaus. But in Euripides’s version of events, Hera has spirited Helen away from her captor-lover, the Trojan Paris, and replaced her with a double, a cloud facsimile. The true Helen never ceased waiting for her husband, Menelaus, to return and rescue her; she never went to Troy at all.
Surprise! All that catastrophe and carnage was for a fake. And yet Helen, and her tragic beauty, still bear the blame for an epic’s worth of war and the bloody tradition that followed. This story, and this injustice, give Anne Carson the starting point for her new verse and prose drama, Norma Jeane Baker of Troy. She makes Euripides’s surprise her own: as Norma Jeane says, “The play is a tragedy. Watch closely now / how I save it from sorrow.”
For naturally, the Helen in Norma Jeane Baker of Troy is Norma Jeane Baker, née Norma Jeane Mortenson, who made her name in the movies as Marilyn Monroe.
Enter Norma Jeane Baker.
This is the Nile and I’m a liar.
Those are both true.
Are you confused yet?
I say “naturally” because the play expresses no surprise at its own confusion. Norma Jeane’s and Helen’s shared identity, as the woman scapegoated for her beauty, is the basic wager. Norma Jeane’s version of the Nile prison is the Chateau Marmont, the storied West Hollywood hotel where, as Carson’s play begins, she has been locked up by the German émigré director Fritz Lang to learn lines for the 1952 film Clash by Night. Her version of Menelaus is Arthur of New York and Sparta, an allusion to the playwright Arthur Miller, to whom Monroe was married from 1956 to 1961. In real life, they had met just two years before Monroe made the movie for Lang—but Carson handles her materials with the same freedom as Euripides handles his. And so Arthur takes the role of the long-lost husband, who washes up at the Chateau with his false wife in tow, and finds his true one.
False and true, illusion and reality: these are Euripides’s materials. Carson, too, seems to be preoccupied with wonder, deception, and credulity. The action of her play, which is to say Norma Jeane’s monologues, is intercut with prose lessons in the history of war’s subterfuges, including the Russian use of “decoy armaments,” inflatable tanks, and jets “of a Euripidean design.” Fake news abounds in the book, and Carson keeps an eye on the media climate of the present moment. But the recognition scene between Helen and Menelaus, the moment when the illusion is definitively broken, is displaced from the center of Carson’s play. Arthur’s epiphany is merely a sideshow. Instead, the crucial relationship is between Norma Jeane and herself, or rather, between the scenes in which she speaks “as Norma Jeane” and those in which she enters “as Mr. Truman Capote.”
Truman Capote? Aside from having a name perfectly apt for Carson’s purposes, he was a friend to Monroe: “A good friend, he told me the truth,” as Norma Jeane puts it. He was also the author of “A Beautiful Child,” an affecting remembrance in his collection of essays, Music for Chameleons, which is a source for Carson throughout. Norma Jeane recalls:
I can still hear his funny little girl voice—Truman
had a voice like a negligee, always
slipping off one bare shoulder,
just a bit.
This simile is Carson at her best: arresting, exact, at once surprising and unsurprised. It conveys a fond intimacy between Norma Jeane and Truman that keeps their characters just barely separate. Is one of them true, the other false? One a performance, the other not? The text offers no instructions for how to stage the difference. (When the play was premiered, in New York at The Shed, in April 2019, as a “spoken and sung performance,” the soprano Renée Fleming took both parts—if parts they may be called.)
Neither, for that matter, are there any instructions for how to stage the history lessons that interrupt the verse monologues. Are they spoken by Norma Jeane, or sung? As Truman, or as herself? Or perhaps by some kind of professorial chorus? Each lesson takes the form of a mock-didactic gloss on a Greek word, from εἲδωλον (image) to βάρβαρος (other), and steers the reader through an unpredictable mix of military history and classical philology. Carson sees these disciplines, these genealogies of war and of war’s vocabulary, as mutually illuminating.
Are you confused yet? I am trying to convey something of the flat candor and the obliquity, the scholarship and the gossip, that make Carson’s voice so distinctive, here and throughout her career. (Not least in 1998’s Autobiography of Red, which begins with another meditation on Helen’s guilt; the subject has been on her mind for a long time.) This fluctuation of tones animates the scene-by-scene structure of the play, as it shuttles among Norma-as-Norma and Norma-as-Truman and the intervening history lessons. It also animates the sentences. Here is Norma Jeane again, as herself, explaining that
one thing I learned from psychoanalysis is how to fake it, with men. The guy I went to, Dr. Cheeseman—one day we were talking about Arthur’s dimpled white buttocks and how I felt no sexual attraction for them or for him, which was awkward as we were newlywed … and Dr. Cheeseman went into his Lacanian riff, about how “desire full stop is always desire of the Other capital O,” which I took to mean “visualize Yves Montand when screwing Arthur” but that didn’t work for me and what did work for me, oddly enough, was when I found myself one day describing Arthur to Dr. Cheeseman as an Asian boy—Asian boys being Dr. Cheeseman’s own little problem—and so discovering Arthur to be desirable by seeing him shine back at me from Dr. Cheeseman’s eyes. Is this too weird?
This is an argument, of a sort, about triangular desire. The play is full of arguments, even philosophical arguments, and paradoxes: “This is the Nile and I’m a liar.” But the logic is always twisting away from itself as deductions become associations, discrete terms merge together, and identities hive off. Meanwhile, Norma Jeane keeps talking at us in her matter-of-fact way, in short lines, simple sentences. She is almost ditzy, the dumb blond who cannot stay on topic—but how could anyone get where she is going by a straight path? Carson enjoys lining up her own voice with that of her free-associating, post-traumatic ingenue. There are other ways to use logic than to follow its rules, just as there are other ways to use philology than to shore up a tradition.
The crucial relationship is between Norma Jeane and herself, or rather, between the scenes in which she speaks “as Norma Jeane” and those in which she enters “as Mr. Truman Capote.”
Carson depends on Euripides throughout, but pushes him further than he was prepared to go. The original work has been described as a play against the conflict of nations: all that fighting for a false Helen! It was first performed around 412 BCE, immediately after the Athenians’ failed Sicilian campaign, near the bitter, exhausted end of the Peloponnesian War. But Euripides’s heroine still urges on the slaughter of her captors at the play’s end with the cry, “Where is the glory of Troy?” The play has likewise been described as a work of proto-feminism, rescuing Helen from the calumnies of the epic tradition. But the true Helen was exonerated only because the blame could be shifted to a false Helen, equally beautiful and, in the eyes of history, equally blameworthy. “Nice try, Euripides,” one hears Carson saying. Her own procedure is different.
Norma Jeane Baker of Troy does not rely on shifting blame, but on calling the dynamics of blame, and the split self, into question. When Norma Jeane rows away from her Hollywood prison, accompanied by Arthur and (naturally) by Pearl Bailey, who once rescued Truman Capote from a sticky situation in a California airport, she announces, “Enter Norma Jeane as Mr. Truman Capote to join Norma Jeane as Norma Jeane.”
Surprise! This never happens in Euripides: the two on stage together. The false Helen is never seen, and a short speech sends her back to the clouds halfway through. It does happen in a few Shakespeare plays, when the doubles that vex the plot are brought together in full view before being safely married off to different people. Carson gives us something else again. It is unclear whether both friends, the beautiful captive and the journalist with the negligee voice, are on stage or not, whether they are one person or two (or more), whether a personality has been unified or a fantasy dispelled.
If you want to know, or if you think you can know, this play is not for you—or perhaps it is especially for you, though you may not like it. It is out to confuse you into feeling what Norma Jeane Baker of Troy felt. The long tradition within and against which Carson writes has no better account to offer, and has not often paused to ask for one. But why take my word for it? This is the internet and I am lying.
A brief coda on the subject of prison, since Norma Jeane has just escaped hers. Last fall, I taught a poetry course at East Jersey State Prison (EJSP) to a mixed group of college undergraduates, who came in a van each week, and inmates, who were waiting for us in the classroom when we got through security. EJSP is a minimum-medium-maximum facility, and houses many men serving 25 years to life. The men in our seminar, whose sentences we did not know, were all working toward a BA degree at Rutgers Camden.
Everything we read, everything we carried in through the metal detectors and pat-downs, had to be screened in advance by the Department of Corrections. The deadlines for course planning were sudden and arbitrary, like a lot of prison life. My co-teacher, Matt, and I had found ourselves making some hasty decisions, among them putting Float, which Carson published in 2016, on the syllabus. It was a problematic choice from the start, because the book is actually a collection of 22 individually bound pamphlets packaged in a case of hard, clear plastic, shards of which, we were advised, might be turned to weapons. We obediently rebound it, and Float was approved.
Preparing in the days before class, though, the case seemed the least of our worries. The poems, like Norma Jeane, are difficult and densely allusive, with roots sunk deep in Ancient Greek literature and the Bible. Their edges are sharp, their surfaces cool, their voice detached. They are not obviously about anything very close to the experience of a 55-year-old from Newark or a 19-year-old from Boston.
It turned out to be the best class we had together. Best, that is, in the seriousness with which students talked about the poems, and also about themselves. Life at EJSP was always in the background, but that day a couple of men spoke, with feeling, about what it had been like to grow up in prison: coming into the system as a crazy teenager, passing through years of bewilderment, finding some footing, later, in their studies. The younger students, five of the six of them women, a couple with family members in the criminal justice system, had stories of their own to tell.
On the drive back to campus, Matt and I wondered why Carson’s voice had opened the group up so much. Something about the tone, we agreed. Over her long career she has maintained a stoic evenness, a quasi-comic deadpan, that conducts shocks of diction without betraying much reaction, nor extorting it from the reader. It is a voice that has passed through pain, and speculates about its sources and consequences, but will not dramatize them—even, as Norma Jeane shows, in a drama. That day at EJSP, everyone trusted her restraint, a restraint that could almost be mistaken for a numbness if it were not so preternaturally observant. Her poems make no false promises of revelation, let alone liberation. But they stubbornly feel their way toward the surprise of feeling.
This article was commissioned by Eleanor Johnson.