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In Book VI of Homer's Iliad - and in the terrific An Iliad at La Jolla Playhouse - Helen makes an unexpected confession to Hector, leader of the Trojans:

"My dear brother" (she says in Robert Fagels' translation) "dear to me, bitch that I am, vicious, scheming - horror to freeze the heart! Oh how I wish that first day my mother brought me into the light some black whirlwind had rushed me...into the surf where the roaring breakers crash and drag and the waves had swept me off before all this happened!"

Whoa - wait! This is Helen of Troy? She sounds more like the grim Aldonza in Man of La Mancha than the immortal beauty whose face "launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium."

In movie versions of the Iliad - Helen of Troy and Troy - Helen's mostly a mute ingenue, an object much more seen than heard. And movies, revving the romance pedal, would never have her complain about Prince Paris, who abducted her from Sparta:

"I wish I had been the wife of a better man," she tells Hector in Book VI, "someone alive to outrage, the withering scorn of men. [Paris] has no steadiness in his spirit, not now, he never will."

She asks Hector, rushing to see his wife and son, to take time out.

"Come in, rest on this seat with me, dear brother. You are the one hardest hit by the fighting...you more than all - and all for me, whore that I am, and this blind mad Paris. Oh the two of us!"

It's sometimes hard to forget that The Iliad begins in the ninth year of a 10-year war (even Homer does, on occasion). The battles and incessant deaths have worn down the legends and legends-to-be. It's almost as if, up to this point, they've been marble statutes, frozen in their reputations: Achilles, the mighty warrior; Hector, brave and faultless; Paris, Don Juan of the Aegean Sea; Helen, whose beauty rivals Aphrodite.

But when the poem begins, familiarity has bred contempt. The statues, hacked and chipped in a war zone for almost a decade, have fissured. A few even crack. Someone wrote: "no one in the poem wants to be here."

Helen maybe least of all. About her allegedly empyrean love of Paris, she tells Hector: "Zeus planted a killing doom within us both, so even for generations still unborn we will live in song."

In effect, she can't stand the guy.

In the Fagels translation (text for the playhouse production), Helen taps the seat next to her, tenderly.

She ran off with the wrong Trojan.

Hector runs off too: "Don't ask me to sit beside you here, Helen. Love me as you do, you can't persuade me now. No time for rest."

And he's off to fight a war that has lost its stated cause: the love of Helen and Paris is no more.


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