On Veterans Day: Joe Sacco, ‘Song of the Dodo’ and ‘Hecuba’

A new book by Joe Sacco on the Battle of the Somme leads to thoughts on Tragedy

Today is Veterans Day, a day about which I couldn’t be more conflicted. I honor the Americans who served and fell in our wars, of course. I just hate the policies that led to many of those wars and fallen soldiers, especially the set of American empire wars since World War II. And I’m permanently stunned that, as Joe Sacco says,  humans make war their highest endeavor. So, yes, I’m conflicted.

I bring up Joe Sacco this Veterans Day, because W.W. Norton has just published his most recent book, “The Great War,” which is about the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916, as World War I entered its bloodiest phase. As Sacco says, the British lost 10,000 men in the first hour of the first day of the Battle of the Somme.  “The Great War” isn’t exactly a book. It’s a 24-foot foldout panorama, a piece of art more than a commentary. And that’s what Sacco says in the NPR interview he gave about it, that he looked at the battle “less as a journalist and more as an artist.”

I might argue with him a little about that formulation, just because I think artists often function as “engaged” journalists, telling us about their world, inner or exterior. What I’ve liked about Sacco’s work over the years is his ability to merge the two, to give us the reporting sensibility of the journalist with the probing into the Unknowable of the artist.

From 'Song of the Dodo'/Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble

From ‘Song of the Dodo’/Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble

Last night, I saw “Song of the Dodo,” an original play created by the Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble. It starts with a comic interpretation of three dodo birds, before it slides inexorably toward darker terrain, because, yeah, we all know what happens to the dodos. And then it artfully morphs into a scene from Euripides’ “Hecuba.” That tragedy starts at the end of the greatest war of ancient times, the Trojan War, with one of its survivors, Hecuba, the queen of Troy’s King Priam, and her grief as her last daughter is chosen for sacrifice to the gods by the Greeks, praying for better winds, and then her last son is found dead on the beach, with his throat cut. I’ll talk about this production more later, but it’s on my mind as I contemplate Veterans Day and the Battle of the Somme. War is all about grief. This is from the very beginning of “Song of the Dodo”: “Why does Tragedy exist?” the narrator asks. “Because you are full of rage…Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.”

As “Song of the Dodo” suggests, Aristotle had the theory that Tragedy, the enactment of this cycle of rage and grief on stage, leads to catharsis in the audience, and perhaps our release from this cycle. On the other hand, Greeks kept going to war after the invention of Tragedy and the idea of catharsis. The jumps from the fate of British troops at the Somme to the fate of the dodo on Mauritius to the fate of Hecuba on the shores of Troy are impossible without the ideas of grief, fear, war. On this Veterans Day, I’m grieving because we have devoted so much more of our energy to waging war than dealing  with grief. At least Euripides tried…

 

 

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