“The clothes are contaminated. They’re covered in blood.” – The Women of Lockerbie, Deborah Brevoort
“He was about to make great sacrifice when his own herald Lichas came from home bearing your gift to him, the robe of death.” – The Women of Trachis, Sophocles
“Ritualistic action… has only one axiom: the contagious nature of the violence encountered by the warrior in battle – and only one prescription: the proper performance of ritual purification. Its sole purpose is to prevent the resurgence of violence and its spread throughout the community.” – Violence and the Sacred, René Girard
In her play about a modern tragedy, Deborah Brevoort deliberately evokes the ancient Greek dramatists. In fact, she takes them as her model for the structure of her play, employing a chorus of women, poetry, odes and even a section called “The Agon.” Agon is the root for agony and it refers to a dramatic contest between main characters vying to outdo each other. It’s the verbal equivalent of physical combat and it can be as agonizing to witness as a bloody battlefield, and the outcome just as lethal.
When terrorists blew up a plane over Lockerbie, Scotland in December 1988, violence invaded like a trespasser, transgressing the peace, disrupting the rituals of daily life. People were going about the mundane things we do without thinking much about them when the plane exploded, dropping bloodied debris and severed body parts on a small town. The characters in the play tell us that washing clothes, cooking, mopping the floor, running errands – all were contaminated by shock and horror.
Loss, grief and recovery are part of this story, and though the play has provided many opportunities for the exploration of psychological issues such as these, I do not think that they are Brevoort’s chief concern. She takes us into the deeper, cultural shock that is the scandal of violence invading our mundane lives. This is the concern of Greek tragedy and her play offers us an opportunity to bring into consciousness something that was all too present in the ancient world: the contagion of violence.
In the days of Greek tragedy, the violence played out on battlefields far from home. Warriors returned with spirits stained by blood letting. Rituals designed for decontamination were performed with care because violence is contagious, liable to spread and infect an entire community. Warriors must be cleansed, their hearts purified, and this happened around sacrificial altars. Holocausts were offered to the gods, blood was properly spilled to cauterize the soul of the warrior so that no more blood would be spilled by his hand.
But rituals meant to purify the warrior sometimes went awry. The ritual fires, if they failed to cleanse the violence and madness, could instead rouse them to a fever pitch. That danger, always hovering over the sacrificial flames, is the subject of a play by Sophocles, with a title that echoes our own, The Women of Trachis. In Sophocles’ play, the warrior Heracles performs his duty, making a sacrifice of a bull to the gods that is required of all returning warriors before they can reenter daily life and cross the threshold into their homes. Unwittingly, Heracles has been given a gift stained with the blood of a creature he killed long ago, a tunic that becomes an instrument of revenge. The sacrificial fires that were meant to cleanse him of the blood of his victims activate a victim’s blood instead and consume him in an agonizing death.
Brevoort takes great care in her drama to make us aware that there are risks involved in rituals of cleansing. The central image, one that brings Heracles’ fate to mind, is that of 11,000 pieces of contaminated clothing from the airplane that were collected as part of the recovery effort. They have been waiting for seven years on the Shelves of Sorrow, hermetically sealed like the highly contagious objects they are. Now the decision must be made whether to incinerate them, as the authorities desire, or return them to the families of the victims as the women of Lockerbie desire. Contact with the blood stained garments could open wounds or cauterize them – which will it be?
With an ancient sensibility worthy of Sophocles, Brevoort draws audiences into the search for a ritual cure to the risks posed by close proximity to violence. AstonRep has brought this remarkable play to Chicago, a long overdue opportunity for audiences here to bear witness to the fate of the Women of Lockerbie.
Image: The Women of Lockerbie
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