What if Helen never fled to Troy?

Diane Rayor
Diane Rayor

As the legend is told, Helen of Sparta was the most beautiful woman in all of Greece. "The face that launched a thousand ships" fled to Troy with Paris, son of the Trojan king Priam, to escape her husband Menelaus. This act of treachery instigated the 10-year Trojan War.

But, what if Helen never fled to Troy? That is the question raised by ancient Greek playwright, Euripides, in his play, "Helen." The play, first produced in 412 B.C., is currently being translated for modern audiences by Diane Rayor, professor of classics at Grand Valley.

Rayor recently received a $35,000 grant from the Loeb Classical Library Foundation to complete her work. After translating Euripides' Greek writing into modern English, Rayor will use the translated text to produce a stage production of "Helen" to be performed by Grand Valley students in April 2017 and directed by Karen Libman, professor of theater.

"The passion that has driven my 35-year career is bringing classics, particularly women in ancient Greek poetry and drama, to a broader audience," Rayor said. "I work to create translations that are accurate to the Greek originals, accessible with clear, unvarnished language, and designed for performance."

In Euripides' play, Helen never went to Troy. Instead, Zeus' wife, Hera, made a fake Helen out of a cloud because of her distaste for the goddess of love, Aphrodite. The Trojan War was then fought over the fake Helen, while the real Helen was attempting to escape Egypt before being forced to marry the Egyptian king.

Rayor said that "Helen" is rarely taught because none of the available translations convey the full intricacies of the text, and it is sparingly performed on stage for lack of a solid script.

"My translations can be read aloud and performed because I revise the draft of my translations with a cast — I get to try out every line to see if it works in performance," Rayor said. "As far as I know, I'm the only Greek tragedy translator who uses this process."

Rayor added that "Helen" breaks down preconceived notions about the original tale of Helen of Troy.

"This play questions appearance and reality, as well as the destructive consequences of acting on false information, meaning the Trojan War was fought, a city destroyed, and thousands of people died for nothing," Rayor said. "Even so, a good deal of the tragedy is very funny."

As part of her translations, Rayor will also produce materials that will provide an introduction to the play and background on Helen's active life in myth.

"My ultimate goal is for the introduction, notes and translation to provide a complete package so that anyone can understand it, read it, teach it, or perform it without having a background in classics or tragedy," Rayor said.


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