Arsinée Khanjian (photo credit: Bruce Zinger)
by Atom Egoyan
(republished by permission of Canadian Stage, Photo of Atom Egoyan by Bruce Zinger)
It's striking that one of the first dramas to deal with the subject of marriage takes such a radical approach in its presentation. In writing Trachiniae, Sophocles tells the story of the great warrior Heracles and his wife Deianeira. What makes the structure of his play unusual is that these two protagonists never meet on stage. It’s a love story of absence and longing, of distraction and pain, of substitution and remorse.
In creating his brilliant adaptation of Sophocles’ play, Martin Crimp has reduced these complex and competing emotions to two words. Cruel and Tender. Perhaps these are the most essential terms of the marriage we are witnessing on stage in this show. It may be possible to have a marriage without cruelty – a marriage in which partners never doubt they have made the right choice, a marriage without any moments of recrimination or longing for another life – but this is not the territory which Sophocles and Crimp are exploring.
While aspects of the play seem ripped from today’s headlines, Cruel and Tender is also a powerful study of contemporary marriage.
In the past year, the world has witnessed the deposition of many cruel rulers, and Crimp’s extraordinary drama is particularly timely in its examination of the intricacies of this political process. We see regime change happening before our very eyes; this is certainly one of the play’s most topical aspects. But before the machinations of deposition are presented in this drama, there is a more delicate and personal usurpation of a wife being replaced in her own house.
While aspects of the play seem ripped from today’s headlines, Cruel and Tender is also a powerful study of contemporary marriage. It looks at the web of relationships – between children, friends, professional associates, even past lovers – that swirl around any marriage, while providing an astute and critical study of contemporary warfare. The richness of the narrative and its characters is a testament to the playwright’s sensitivity and intelligence.
A central theme of Greek tragedy is the concept of the great man fallen, and we certainly witness Heracles – called ‘The General’ in this version – topple from his mythological role of massive strength committed to endless warfare. Yet in the original play, it is Deianeira who emerges as one of Sophocles’ most complete and complex characters. Crimp accentuates this idea through his creation of Amelia, a woman who suffers the devastating effects of neglect and loneliness. She becomes both a symbol of wifely devotion and a victim of her own denial; a denial compounded by the fact that, in her own words, it is not a part she is willing to play.