Aeschylus’s tragedy The Suppliant Women is a unique piece of Ancient Greek theater because the poet uses the chorus, normally reserved for a secondary role, as the protagonist of his play. The Danaides, the fifty daughters of Danaus, are refugees from Egypt where they were going to be forced into marriage with their cousins. Having chosen flight from Egypt instead of mandatory betrothal, The Danaides arrive in Argos seeking asylum. As the chorus/protagonist of this tragedy, these women tell us, with one, strong, loud, simultaneous voice, about the hardships they’ve suffered and they beg, as suppliants at the altar of Zeus, for protection.
Elfriede Jelinek adopts the narrative structure, setting and themes of Aeschylus’s Suppliant Women for her drama entitled Charges which delivers a powerful, raw, emotional depiction of the refugee crisis playing out globally. The nobel prize winning author witnesses via television and other media—she is an agoraphobe—the plight of a group of refugees from Central Asia and the Middle East who arrive in Vienna in November of 2012 and set up a camp in front of a church. The local populace engages in an intense debate about what to do with these illegal immigrants, politicians and the media get involved, and some of the refugees take shelter inside the church where they go on a prolonged hunger strike.
At the same time that this humanitarian tragedy is unfolding, a world-renowned, Russian opera singer and the daughter of Boris Yeltsin, both very wealthy with powerful political allies, are given citizenship. While the refugees from the church are shuffled off to a monastery where they can be kept out of public site these two privileged women are bestowed with the freedom and honor of asylum and naturalization. Although she uses this scenario that takes place in her hometown as the backdrop for her drama, Jelinek chooses not to mention Vienna or other specific place names in her text; she makes her themes of displacement, fear and privilege universal, ones that can be applied to any of the current refugee crises we see playing out on a daily basis in various parts of the world.
Les Danaide, by Paul Oesten, 1908
By using the chorus, in the tradition of an Ancient Greek tragedy, Jelinek is able to employ several dramatic techniques to emphatically get her point across about the desparate and sad plight of the refugees. For instance, as is common in ancient tragedy, the chorus in Charges repeat themselves, in a rhythmic way, circling back often to the same themes and topics. In addition, punctuation and connectives are dispensed with in order to give their speech a vehemence that conveys the deplorable hardships that they have suffered and continue to suffer:
We lie on the cold stone floor, but this comes hot off the press, here it is irrefutably, irreconcilably, poured into this brochure like water that instantly runs down and out instantly, like water thrown from cliff to cliff, turned into water as well, sinking like statues, almost elegantly, with raised hands, no, no, from dam to dam, into the bottomless, into the micro power plant, down, down it goes for years, we vanish, we vanish as we become more and more, funny, we still vanish, though our numbers increase, our courage does not vanish, there are ever more, though also fewer and fewer of us, may don’t even arrive, the suffering people are falling like water off the cliff, down the butte, into the chute, over the mountains, through the sea, over the sea, into the sea, always thrown, always driven…
The most striking similarity between The Suppliants and Charges is the explanation that the refugee choruses give in both plays for choosing flight from their homelands and for seeking refuge from strangers. Aeschylus’s chorus begins the play with an justification for their sea voyage to Argos: “This exile is our own decision. We have fled a despicable situation.” The words spoken by Aeschylus’s chorus more than two thousand years ago, which evoke sympathy and compassion from the audience, is equally fitting for Jelinek’s refugee chorus who, by their own choosing, have also escaped dangerous conditions in their homeland and at sea. Escape into the unknown is a theme that Jelinek’s refugees return to repeatedly in the play; they speak of family members who have been murdered and their attempts to avoid the same fate for themselves. Some of the most heartrending parts of the chorus’s speech are when they recount their griefs and their woes and the endless indignity of their misfortunes:
…We look around, but how does prosperity work? If it is that common, should we have it too? At least be able to obtain it? After those monstrous killers back home, no, that isn’t your fault, we aren’t throwing that in your face, we are throwing ourselves in front of you, after they took everything from us, we should be able to get something, anything back, no? Something should be accessible to us, we should get something, instead you call us a cursed, raging brood, brood, brood! Like animals! Brood of foreigners!
Hearing the refugees speak, in the first person, about their escape, rejection and maltreatment from other citizens of the world increases the pathos of Jelinek’s narrative. There is a point in their speech during which the tone of the narrative becomes decidedly angry; these feelings of resentment come from the fact that two prominent Russian women are given citizenship while these refugees live in squalor like beggars. The opera singer, in particular, becomes the focus for Jelinek’s outrage as the author uses parallels between this privileged refugee’s circumstances and the mythic character of Ovid’s Io.
Io was loved by Zeus and in order to protect his lover from his wife’s wrath, Zeus disguises Io by turning her into a cow. In Jelinek’s narrative the opera singer becomes that cow, traveling around the world, not suffering any consequences for her transgressions. Once this prominent woman is issued citizenship, she chooses not to live in this country but instead travels the world. Io is usually a character worthy of sympathy because of her seduction by Zeus; but in Charges the opera singer becomes a derogatory cow, the name of which animal is uttered with biting sarcasm:
How did she become a citizen?, alright then, we guarantee you no one died there, in that dump, not the daughter either, the European cow, excuse me, she turned into one only now, an official main residence has been registered here, which we don’t have, she does, but she does not live there either, you are here to stay, you have a say, you have the voters, at least on your side, you the but sponsors but no trace of those—now I don’t know myself whom I mean.
In his book The Greeks, H.D.F. Kitto argues that the Greek dramatists used myths infused with moral, religious and philosophical meaning to instruct their fellow Athenians on how to live a good life. Drama becomes “an explanation of human life and of the human soul.” Jelinek has brilliantly adopted the medium of these ancient poets in order to enlighten us about those who have been displaced from their homes and cannot return safely. The chorus of refugees in Charges, speaking in one loud, emphatic, emotional voice is distressing and tragic. We should treat them with dignity, kindness and generosity instead of with disgust and xenophobia and recognize that this has become a human rights crisis of epic proportions.
Vitvkirche, Protest of Refugees, 2012. © Bwag/Commons