Helen never went to Troy… says Euripides. She was whisked away by the gods to Egypt. And so our story follows her…
This play is a big, FUN surprise for the audience – and was originally so, too, in ancient Athens. Euripides’ telling of the story of Helen of Troy from the odd perspective of Helen caught in Egypt while her phantom is fought over at Troy–and then needing to rescue herself and her shipwrecked husband from the new King of Egypt who is in love with her–breathed life into a character, Helen, whose agency had never yet been foregrounded in stories in and about Troy, except in a completely negative way, as a traitor to her husband and home culture of Greece, and a seductive adulteress.
Helen in this play is youthful, thoughtful, tactful, bright, utterly loyal to her husband (whom she at first suspects of being dead), and a smart tactician who not only garners the support of the King’s sister, a prophetess who out of sympathy does not tell the King of the arrival of Menelaus alive, but also creates a believable smokescreen designed to get her and her husband out of Egypt safely and with a minimum of violence.
Helen is a resourceful, faithful, married woman who prefers to use her brains and regrets her own beauty’s tragic outcome; she expresses sorrow for the casualties of the war on both sides, and is deeply saddened by the effect of false innuendo and rumor about her on her family. At its heart, this is a story about claiming one’s identity, countering stereotypes and projections of others (the phantom Helen), and rescuing oneself and one’s love–in fact, a story about two older lovers who rediscover one another. It is also a story about women’s solidarity: other women in the play (the priestess, the doorkeeper, the chorus) take risks to help Helen.