H of H Playbook

Review by Lucia Marchini.

The myth of Heracles, his heroic strength and ability to meet seemingly insurmountable challenges, has proven an enduringly popular one. Emperors and kings made use of his mighty image, and he was even the subject of an animated Disney musical in 1997. Such adoptions of this figure celebrate his accomplishments, the Labours, his mythical feats against all manner of creatures – invincible lions, venomous hydra, flesh-eating horses, a multi-headed dog guarding the gates to the underworld.

But there is a darker side to the story. The hero is driven mad and kills his wife Megara and their children. In one version, as told by Euripides in his tragedy Herakles, first performed in the City Dionysia of Athens in 416 BC, the protagonist is away from his home in Thebes, dealing with Cerberus in the underworld, when Lycus, tyrant of Thebes, threatens his family. Heracles returns, kills Lycus, and – driven mad by Iris, the messenger of gods, and by Lyssa, divine personification of madness – kills his own family.

The Euripidean play forms the backbone of a new version by poet, playwright, and translator Anne Carson. Carson has translated and adapted Greek tragedies before, including four of the lesser-known plays of Euripides – Herakles, Hekabe, Hippolytos, and Alkesis – in Grief Lessons (2006). She returns to this Athenian again for H of H Playbook, a highly visual book that provides us with a bold, effective interpretation of the Greek play. The conflict-weary and beleaguered state of mind of the hero (always ‘H of H’ even when addressed by his wife, never named in full) is brought to the fore. He is addicted to wrath, which ‘hooks you up to an ECT / you can’t turn off. In the moment of the / volts you feel immaculate and twenty / seconds later you need to feel / immaculate again.’

As this reference to electroconvulsive therapy indicates, this is not the ancient Greece of Euripides. In H of H Playbook, Carson moves the action to an Airstream trailer in Thebes, the chorus critiques Jane Austen and quotes contemporary artist Anselm Kiefer, and Heracles uses GPS to track his targets. Repeated references to the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl heighten the harrowing nature of the play, though it is not without occasional touches of humour.

The book is a beautiful one, thoughtfully produced, with the appearance of word-processor text printed out, cut into blocks of varying sizes, and stuck into the pages, sometimes very sparsely arranged, and a few lines written in pencil here and there. There are occasionally obscured words, deliberately torn pages, and pencil and pen drawings. And the bold, bloody red paint makes a powerful impact, evoking the violent outcome of the play.

H of H Playbook, Anne Carson, Jonathan Cape, Hardback, £20, ISBN 978-1787333796.