Theater of the Home Front: Gendered Trauma in Greek Tragedy

Erika Weiberg

  Weiberg, Erika. "Theater of the Home Front: Gendered Trauma in Greek Tragedy." CHS Research Bulletin 8 (2020). http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:WeibergE.Theater_of_the_Home_Front.2020.



Abstract

In plays about war and homecoming, male and female characters are both traumatized by the extreme events that disrupt their lives, but structural forces, including gender and class hierarchies, shape their pain in different ways, affecting how these characters react to and express their pain, trauma, and grief in performance. These same structural forces also determine how other characters – and the external audience – respond to their expressions of emotional pain. My book project examines one particular category of gendered pain – the pain of wives during and after their husband’s deployment – and the ways in which tragic characters and their audiences (both internal and external) express and work through it.


Before Orestes kills Clytemnestra in Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers, mother and son debate about the experiences of husband and wife during the husband’s time fighting at Troy (Libation Bearers 918-921). Orestes views his mother’s experiences at home as passive “sitting inside” (Libation Bearers 919, 921), but his father’s experiences at war as active, painful toil (Libation Bearers 919, 921). Speaking suddenly for all women, Clytemnestra objects that wives, separated from their husbands, also experience pain (920). Like Orestes, many readers of Greek tragedy have privileged the struggles of men at war over the struggles of women at home. Greek tragedy, however, stages both perspectives, giving voice to the soldier’s experiences of combat and combat trauma alongside what Clytemnestra describes, the pain of wives separated from their husbands because of war and the problems wives confront when their husbands return from combat.

Tragic wives’ experiences of trauma during and after war form the topic of my current book project, Theater of the Home Front: Wives of Returning Soldiers and War Trauma in Greek Tragedy, which I have spent my term as a CHS fellow revising. In my book, I make the case that the expression of emotional trauma in tragedy is gendered. In plays about war and homecoming, both male and female characters are traumatized by the extreme events that disrupt their lives, but structural forces, including gender and class hierarchies, shape their pain in different ways, affecting how these characters react to and express their pain, trauma, and grief in performance. These same structural forces also determine how other characters – and the external audience – respond to their expressions of emotional pain. My book examines one particular category of gendered pain – the pain of wives during and after their husband’s deployment – and the ways in which tragic characters and their audiences (both internal and external) express and work through it.

To understand wives’ experience of trauma in tragedy, we need to move beyond the Freudian concept of trauma that has shaped many contemporary investigations of trauma in Greek literature.[1] Although we tend to talk about trauma as a one-time event that shatters a person’s understanding of self and connections with others, this concept of trauma describes only certain types of traumatic experience: the soldier who loses a close friend in battle, the woman violently assaulted by someone she had previously trusted. These experiences are marked by sudden and intense feelings of fear and helplessness. The spouse’s experience of waiting at home during her husband’s absence at war contains these types of sudden, world-shattering experiences, in addition to those that do not fit the narrow definition of trauma found in modern psychiatric manuals. Tragedies about homecoming explore, for instance, the chronic pain of waiting and uncertainty, which can also fracture one’s sense of self and connections with others. 

Professor of Family Social Science and psychotherapist Pauline Boss coined the term “ambiguous loss” in the 1970s to describe the particular kind of grief that families experience when loved ones go missing in action. She defines ambiguous loss as an ongoing traumatizing situation in which the loved one is perceived by family members as physically absent but psychologically present. Families who are uncertain whether absent loved ones are dead or alive experience persistent stress, mixed emotions, and frozen grief. After Operation Homecoming in 1973, in which 591 American prisoners of war held by North Vietnam were returned to the United States, families of soldiers who remained missing confronted the knowledge that their loved ones were probably never coming home. Many spouses of MIA soldiers remarried and moved on with their lives, but never closed the door completely on their grief. In a 1983 interview, a missing soldier’s wife, who subsequently remarried, reflects on the lack of resolution to the story of her grief:

I’ve come to realize that his remains have not been returned so there is no finality to it. Also, all the news in the papers recently [about the possibility of American POWs still being held in Southeast Asia after the war ended] has upset me. I didn’t know I was still vulnerable. […] What if he were still there? I can’t even think about it! […] Looking at this thing 10 years later, I feel less removed now than I did, say, seven years after Homecoming.”[2]

The narrative consequences of ambiguous loss are a story with “no finality to it,” a sense of immobility and frozen grief that characterizes the first part of many nostos plays. Although the missing husbands of the wives in the homecoming plays that I analyze do eventually return home, their family members nonetheless struggle with the uncertainty of their loss – is their absence temporary or will their story be a story with no closure, marked by uncertainty? Wives’ expressions of ambiguous loss create narrative suspense for their husband’s impending return in homecoming plays, while also giving voice to a feeling that many women probably had in Athens during the lengthier deployments of the fifth century BCE.

In addition, feminist interventions have politicized the study of trauma by emphasizing how traumatic events occur within a broader social context of power and domination.[3] Women’s subordinate position in fifth-century Athenian society was reinforced in part through the ideological representation of women in popular media like Greek tragedy and mythology. This subordinate position within society affects women’s exposure to and experience of trauma, in addition to the reception of that trauma by their wider community. Tragedy provides a fascinating and complex lens through which to view gendered experiences of trauma, since it both imagines women’s pain and some of the structural dynamics that make women’s experience of pain particularly acute, while also contributing to ideologies that reinforce women’s subordinate position. Brought about by structural forces in Greek society such as patrilocal traditions of marriage and the ideal of female seclusion, for instance, women’s isolation in tragedy makes them particularly susceptible to fear and feelings of helplessness. Yet these same plays identify women’s inherent lack of self-control as the problem, not the structural forces that conspire against them. Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, for instance, names some of these conditions of women’s exposure to and experience of trauma, only to discredit them by representing Clytemnestra as possessing an almost superhuman power and destructiveness.

Other plays, such as Sophocles’ Women of Trachis, explore the complexities that a community faces when bearing witness to the trauma of a disempowered member of society, such as Deianeira. Although Heracles goes to the grave blaming his wife and rejecting her experience of pain, Hyllus and the Chorus are far more sympathetic and vow to remember her side of the story. Euripides’ plays are particularly interested in detailing women’s experience of trauma, from episodes of domestic violence (Heracles) to the pervasive sexual violence against women and children that was a condition of ancient warfare (Trojan Women, Helen). As I show in close readings of these plays, the social conditions of power and domination in Athenian society determine the response of characters within the drama to female character’s expression of their pain.

Although sadly cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, my time at the Center for Hellenic Studies provided both resources and community support that sharpened my understanding of my book project and its contribution to Classics and the humanities. Both interdisciplinary and comparative, my book project amplifies the potential use of ancient drama to critique endless war and to destigmatize the difficulty of reintegration and reunion for veterans and their families. As a result of my formative time at the CHS, I hope to offer a compelling new narrative of wives’ emotional experiences of war and its aftermath as represented in Greek tragedy.

Select Bibliography

Boss, Pauline. 1980. “The Relationship of Psychological Father Presence, Wife’s Personal Qualities and Wife/Family Dysfunction in Families of Missing Fathers.” Journal of Marriage and Family 42(3):541–49.

———. 1999. Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief. Cambridge, MA.

Caruth, Cathy. 1996. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore.

Herman, Judith. 1992. Trauma and Recovery. New York.

Hunter, E. J. 1988. “Long-Term Effects of Parental Wartime Captivity on Children of POW and MIA Servicemen.” Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy 18:312-328.

Meineck, P., and D. Konstan, eds. 2014. Combat Trauma and the Ancient Greeks. New York.

Shay, J. 1994. Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character. New York.

———. 2002. Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming. New York.


[1] See, for instance, Shay 1994 and 2002 and the contributions in Meineck and Konstan 2014. For the Freudian model of literary trauma theory, see Caruth 1996.

[2] Quoted by Hunter 1988, 323.

[3] For an overview, see Griffiths 2018. Herman (1992) is among the most important contributions to feminist trauma studies, and one of the first to trace the relationship between modern trauma research and feminist social justice movements.




We're trying out a new look. 🎉 Let us know what you think! Hide.