Lost selves found in symbol.
Fadi Abou-Rihan upon reading the entry about Gwendolyn MacEwen’s translation of the Yannis Ritsos poem “Helen” suggested the play by Carole Fréchette Helen’s Necklace. The play has been translated by John Murrell. As the back cover to the Playwrights Canada Press edition indicates “Helen’s world is irrevocably changed by her search for a trinket.” I like how the emphasis is not on loss but upon search.
The play is set in an unnamed Arabic city devastated by war. The play is built upon Helen’s search for a lost necklace. In that search she encounters others who have lost far more: homes and children. Through these encounters she becomes more self-aware and eventually finds an appropriate symbol giving her more than what she has lost.
One important stage in this quest, is the exchange of names. In this process, Helen references her namesake of Troy.
Helen: Your name? My name is Helen.
Helen: No, Helen, like the woman who caused the war. You understand?
Nabil: The war?
Helen: Some people say she was just a plaything of the gods, that it wasn’t really her fault, but others say she was guilty, and that she was just a responsible for what happened as if she had wanted it to happen. Helen of Troy. You understand?
Nabil: You are “Helen of Troy,” yes?
Helen: No. Just Helen. Helen of the North. Helen who didn’t cause a war. Helen who doesn’t know anything about war. And you are? … Mounir? Walid? Youssef?
Helen who must learn about the aftermath of war if she is to recover that which she has lost if only in a symbolic fashion. She eventually finds her way to the sea’s edge and there as footprints vanish in the wet sand she comes to this realization:
On the frothy crest of a wave, all of a sudden I see my necklace appear for a moment, something ridiculously small and delicate which boils up for a moment and evaporates just as quickly. I reach out to grab it. Ridiculous. My arm is much too short. I close my hand around emptiness, like that. I open my fist. Nothing.
This is not the end of the play but is the end of misprision. Around this kernel of nothing springs greater understanding.
Fréchette’s play reminds me of a Heine poem “Das Meer hat seine Perlen” to be found in German and various translations including English ones at LiederNet. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow turned his hand at a version and his begins:
The sea hath its pearls,
The heaven hath its stars;
Heine’s poem ends in a moment of plenitude akin to a dissolution. See it here rendered by Emma Lazarus
My heart, and the sea, and the heavens
Are melting away with love.
A fate similar to the pearls of Helen’s Necklace.
And so for day 1185