There is an unholy trinity at the center of Theresa Rebeck’s play, The Water’s Edge, making its Chicago premiere with the AstonRep Theatre Company this fall. Helen and her two adult children, Nate (27) and Erica (23), have been living for seventeen years in their house at the edge of the lake in which a third child, Lea, drowned at the age of five. They are bound together by an unholy compact: Helen assigns blame for Lea’s death to Richard, her husband and their father, nurturing resentment toward him for what the police ruled an accidental drowning. The price of family unity is paid in silence: Nate and Erica permit their mother her righteous anger and abide by an unspoken agreement never to mention Lea, her death or how it happened. The play begins with Richard’s return and chronicles how his mere presence disrupts the compact precipitating a predictable descent into violence.
Rebeck’s play is described as a modern take on the Greek tragedy Agamemnon, and so for most audiences the appearance of violence in her modern version is not a surprise. Greek tragedy is filled with violence, though it always takes place off stage, out of the audience’s view. Aeschylus and his fellow tragedians treat their audiences to bloodied clothes, hands dripping red, and monologues or choral accounts of gruesome battles and violent frenzies. Violence hovers over their characters like a bird of prey, an ever present threat from which no one is entirely exempt. Kings and peasants alike can become its victims and this arbitrariness causes the great and the small to tremble in fear. The Greek tragedies, though their plots and characters are taken from myth, reveal an all too real fear in the ancient world, that of runaway cycles of revenge violence. Agamemnon has just returned from the Trojan War, a senseless ten year bloodbath that consumed the armies of both the victor and the vanquished. A war launched by an aggrieved husband seeking revenge for his wife’s betrayal. The subject of revenge spiraling out of control until it destroys entire nations is the tragedian’s main theme.
Why does the spirit of revenge, wherever it breaks out, constitute such an intolerable menace? Perhaps because the only satisfactory revenge for spilt blood is spilling the blood of the killer; and in the blood feud there is no clear distinction between the act for which the killer is being punished and the punishment itself. Vengeance professes to be an act of reprisal, and every reprisal calls for another reprisal. (p 14)
In his preface to his translation of The Agamemnon of Aeschylus, Gilbert Murray, Regius Professor of Greek in the University of Oxford, comments on this difficulty of discerning the punishment from the crime:
The trilogy of the Oresteia, of which this play is the first part, centres on the old and everlastingly unsolved problem of “The ancient blinded vengeance and the wrong that amendeth the wrong.” Every wrong is justly punished; yet as the world goes, every punishment becomes a new wrong, calling for fresh vengeance.
But why update this play? What risk is there in our modern world of runaway cycles of revenge? This is a problem of the ancient world, not ours. In our world, punishment is meted out by judicial authorities who have such a monopoly on violence that their “violence”, that is their fines and prison sentences and death penalties, do not risk reprisals. Judicial violence brings the risk of reprisals to an end. And yet Rebeck offers us Helen, the contemporary Clytemnestra, the aggrieved wife, whose anger is barely contained and whose hatred shimmers like a reflecting pool beneath her mother’s love. The modern temptation, living as we are on this side of the invention of individual psychology, is to say that Helen has not found a healthy way to process the loss of her child or to express her grief and so she buries it inside where it festers until it and she explode in madness. So bewitched by Freud are we, that we face the same temptation in analyzing Clytemnestra’s killing of her husband Agamemnon to avenge their daughter’s death. Iphigenia was sacrificed to the gods by Agamemnon at the beginning of the Trojan War and Clytemnestra cannot forgive him. But the ancient explanation of madness or violence is not a psychological one, and I think that Rebeck’s update is meant to call that psychological explanation into doubt.
Much time and energy is spent in The Water’s Edge on the issue of who is to blame for Lea’s death. Despite much conversation and debate, the play never settles the question. We hear different perspectives – Helen’s, the police, Richard’s, Nate’s – but the end of the play is not a resolution of this problem. That is because the central problem of the play is not “Who is responsible for Lea’s death?” That’s the problem of a modern crime drama, not a Greek tragedy. It’s why crime dramas have tidy endings and tragedies end in paroxysms of blood. The tragic problem is the one Rebeck is concerned with: “Will we be able to find someone we can all blame for this death so that it does not lead to another?” In her play, as in the ancient Greek tragedies, the different perspectives we are presented with are actually different attempts at picking a scapegoat. In crime dramas we call them “suspects” and we follow the police detectives as they try to build a case to see who committed the crime. The detectives are concerned with actual guilt, but in the ancient world actual guilt was secondary. Of primary importance was unanimity – who can we all agree on to take the rap. Finding a scapegoat to blame, innocence or guilt aside, someone on whom everyone can agree is guilty, will end the risk of escalating violence as surely as a judgment passed down in a court of law. If the scapegoating fails then wrong follows wrong, every punishment becomes a new wrong which must be avenged and so death follows death.
The nuclear family of Helen, Nate and Erica was held together by using Richard as their scapegoat. It worked so well for so long for two reasons: Richard agreed to play the part of scapegoat (“She needs my guilt,” Richard says of Helen, “and I gave it to her.”) and silence was the glue that held the alliance together. This is the ancient formula for a successful remedy to revenge violence: a scapegoat is chosen and silence follows. What often escapes our notice is the ubiquitous role the scapegoat continues to play in human groups even today. At the individual level, many of us do what Helen does – we play the role of victim and sanctify our innocence over against the guilt of another, a guilt that can be real or imagined. We nurse resentment towards this person who seems to care only for him or herself and whose only desire is our suffering. In family groups the scapegoat role is more easily recognized. How often is there a black sheep in a family, becoming the center for an unholy unity formed through gossip and blame? In political scandals, a rather wily defense is to claim to be a scapegoat, a victim others are accusing in order to avoid being caught in some guilty act themselves. Political parties and nations form unity and solidarity by effectively designating scapegoats, outside enemies whom we can all unite against, effectively solidifying a spirit of national pride. Scapegoating deflects blame, solidifies our sense of ourselves as good people, and eases a community’s internal strife by focusing on an outside threat. It works as well today as it did thousands of years ago. And though the risk of revenge violence has been greatly reduced due to our judicial system, scapegoating continues to create false and unstable identities, victimize innocent people, and generate international conflicts in order to keep the peace at home. Civil wars and armed rebellions are modern signs that scapegoating by that nation’s politicians has failed.
The Water’s Edge is a cautionary tale. It opens with the scapegoat refusing to play his part. Richard arrives with a romantic vision of the lake’s beauty and a persistent rejection of culpability in his daughter’s death. His insistence that the drowning was no one’s fault contrasts sharply with Helen’s shrill command to her son to never refer to Lea’s death as an accident. As Helen’s narrative of Richard’s guilt suffers assault after assault, the seventeen year reign of peace in the house at the water’s edge collapses.
The play ends with murder and a plan in place for the next one. Nate concludes the play with a pronouncement worthy of Aeschylus, “That’s the way it is, in nature. There isn’t any justice. There’s just the thing that comes next.” Audiences leave the theater wondering where it will end.