Peter Sellarsís hair stands straight up, like a grassy savannah designed by Julie Taymor. Perhaps itís fertilized by the constant brain activity that goes on beneath it. The one-time Harvard wunderkind, now an internationally renowned 44-year-old director of theater and opera, never shuts down; itís as if he were the proprietor of a 24-hour cranium. And right now, whatís on the mental menu is The Children of Herakles, a 2400-year-old play by Euripides that, to hear Sellars talk about it, must have been written last week. Or perhaps the week before his spare yet marathon production of the work, which gets its US premiere at the American Repertory Theatre this week, debuted last September at the Ruhr Triennale Festival in Bottrop, Germany, from where it moved to Rome and Paris.
To call The Children of Herakles rarely performed is an understatement. According to the ART, there have been only six professional productions of the work since its first modern revival, in London, in 1781, none of them in America. Among academic caveats about the play are that it changes tone and itís missing parts. But donít tell the director The Children of Herakles is not Euripidesís greatest hit. In town in October to coordinate elements of the forum on social policy that he has built on the play, Sellars, following speedy and far-reaching remarks with bullet bursts of laughter, seemed as enthused as he was as a Harvard prodigy. And he proclaimed Euripidesís chronicle of the dead Herculesís offspring and their elderly caretakers, whoíve been hounded from their native land by a brutal dictator and are seeking asylum from the Athenians, " absolutely a masterpiece. "
" One of the most amazing strategies in the play, " Sellars asserts, " is good news. No Greek play has good news in it. And this play, over and over, makes you proud to be an Athenian. Euripides realizes that, if youíre going to talk about refugees, donít depress people. Donít make them feel guilty and horrible, because, actually, refugee stories are mostly success stories. These are survivors, people who are heroic. So donít make them pathetic. Over and over again, Euripides has the Athenians do the most amazing, generous things, and you say, ĎAll right, that is what our country stands for.í So heís working very differently from the strategies of the other tragedies. And in fact, this isnít primarily a tragedy. The most amazing things do happen and you think, ĎOh wow, that worked out.í So you have to look at this play not with the template of what you imagine Greek drama to be. Itís a little late in history to say, ĎOh my God, the playís a tragedy, but hereís a comic scene. He changes tone, how shocking.í Hello, William Shakespeare. "
Those who remember Sellars from his Boston heyday, in the 1980s, before he went off to become head of the American National Theatre at the Kennedy Center and the Los Angeles Festival, will recall King Lear in a Lincoln Continental and Handelís Orlando at Cape Canaveral. What Sellars has done with The Children of Herakles ó which is simply staged with its text projected on a large screen and with musical accompaniment by Ulzhan Baibussynova, an epic singer from Kazakhstan with whom Sellars is enraptured ó is very different.
For one thing, the play is not the half of it. Abetted by such collaborating institutions as the Carr Center for Human Rights, Physicians for Human Rights, and the International Institute of Boston, the director has envisioned a town meeting of sorts centered on refugee issues. Euripidesís play ó with a handpicked international cast and local refugee children playing the title characters ó is its catalyst and center. But the evening also includes presentations by political leaders (including US Congressmen Barney Frank and Martin Meehan) and experts on human-rights and immigration issues, who will be interviewed by broadcast journalist Christopher Lydon. Refugee testimony will also be given, varying with each performance. Then thereís coffee, followed by The Children of Herakles. After the play, there will be an informal gathering of audience, cast, and refugee participants, with " food specially prepared by area restaurants and immigrant communities, " and a film. The films, to be curated by the Harvard Film Archive, are not documentaries but what Sellars calls " artistís statements from parts of the world where refugees are being created every day. " According to the director, the evenings in Bottrop werenít over until 1 a.m. (and both the Kurdish food and the conversation were " amazing " ).
He continues, " The production is intended to be an occasion in each community for discussions that should take place to take place. The great thing is that the people who invented Western theater also invented Western democracy ó at the same time. The idea is that the theater, the arts, are this DMZ where people can put down their weapons. You can come in here and we can say things that are difficult to say in a way that nobody has to be hurt. " Sellars is speaking in particular of such hot-button issues addressed in Euripidesís play as human rights, immigration policy, and refugees in crisis. " Things are said in a context that is protected and where the pain is transmuted into understanding, which the world could use a bit of. Culture is that last thing that militates against violence, and if you remove culture from the diet of your citizens, do not be surprised that you have the most violent society in the world. "
" For the Greeks, there was no such thing as political theater. Theater was a function of the government. So it is the place where politicians must appear. Theyíre not interlopers. Itís a place where they belong and where they will be held to a different level of accountability than in the Senate. Thank God. "
Itís clear the director is incensed by the attitude of many American politicians toward the refugees in our midst ó or seeking to be. " In America, politicians attacking refugees has been a very important current, " he says, noting with bitter irony that " generation after generation of refugees are what made America great. Genuinely, these people are treated like criminals when the next Nelson Mandela may be sitting next to you on the T. Get with it! These are not criminals, these are not second-class citizens. These are heroic individuals who cannot live in their own country exactly because they tried to create democracy. " Limiting immigration, he notes, has also become an election-determining issue in the other countries where the production has played.
Euripides, however, says Sellars, " is second only to Charles Dickens in knowing how to spark your conscience. He has the children who are being discussed, whose fates are being discussed, on stage all night looking at you. And in the audience you cannot get through the night without looking into the eyes of these young people. "
Sellars adds that, in contrast to the visually striking æsthetic of your everyday ART, there will not be much else to look at. " The whole point, " explains the director, " is that if youíre a refugee, you can only bring what you can carry. You donít have anything. You lost it. So thatís why the stage is bare, because these people have lost it. Iím also trying to dispense with the virtual world and get you into just sheer human presence.
" One of the things Iím very into at the moment is image deprivation. You know, images are used all over the place and are so cheap. And the Greeks operated differently. Youíre not allowed to see Oedipus take his eyes out. That happens elsewhere. What you have to see are the consequences; what you have to see are the root causes. But you donít see the CNN image, because Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripides knew that the deepest images are the ones you form in your own mind. "
Obviously, the reason Sellars is spinning The Children of Herakles into a public forum rather than an auteurist production is its uncanny pertinence. And the reason he has brought it not to New York or Washington but to Cambridge, he says, is that, contrary to what you might think, this is where it belongs. " In Washington, " he proclaims, " I can tell you from personal experience, this would not be noticed. To do it down the street from the Kennedy School, now youíre talking, because that is the revolving door of government. This is the place where the last Secretary of the Treasury is spending his time and, meanwhile, the next Secretary of the Treasury is a student. " As for the Big Apple, Sellars sniffs: " If we did it in New York, it would just be a show. It would be part of the history of show business. And here, I think, it will be part of the history of policy discussion. "
The playís extraordinary relevance also inﬂuenced Sellarsís translation selection. " The ﬁrst translation I read, " he recalls, " is the one by William Arrowsmith, which is beautifully translated. Usually, when I do a Greek play, I hire somebody new to rewrite it. But in this case I really wanted to make the point that I wasnít changing a thing. And I chose the University of Chicago translation [by Ralph Gladstone] from 1953 because it has a very attractive Eisenhower buzz cut. It absolutely could come out of the mouth of Donald Rumsfeld. You get the Pentagon speak, and the public-policy speak is very strong. The only thing Iíve changed is the word Ďkingí to Ďpresident.í "
The Children of Herakles is presented by the American Repertory Theatre at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street in Harvard Square, January 4 through 25. Tickets are $34 to $68; call (617) 547-8300.