Cassandra: A Poetic Drama in One Act

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by Evelyn Hooven (January 2019)


Cassandra Being Dragged out of the Temple of Minerva, Antoine Rivalz, 1700

 

 

In our era, as we try to give formerly hidden or disregarded matters of assault their due, it may be worthwhile to enlarge even our broad perspective and consider some of the ancient roots in thought and legend that concern violation by the mighty of the less powerful.

 

Cassandra, in accord with her truest nature, rejects the advances of the god Apollo himself. Apollo makes cunning use of his awareness of the adolescent’s nature and combines the erotic with the gravely punitive. Beyond the social and professional worlds of which, at this time, we’re acutely aware, we enter the realm of the spirit which here is isolated and injured. The realm of legend suggests the size and gravity of the domain where we now try to seek redress and closure. Cassandra’s prophetic gift must exact a radical summoning of courage.

 

Here is my telling of the instance when Cassandra receives her prophetic gift.

 

  

(Troy before the Ten Years’ War. The marriage and ceremony of Paris and Helen. Shouts of strained festivity, intermittent and far away. The action takes place at the temple of Athena. The temple has fenced garden, a quality of shelter and quiet.

 

Enter Apollo disguised as a beggar, a kind of raffish scamp from the operatic, comic world.)

 

APOLLO
 

(Elaborately looking both ways)
 

I thought I would come to see

The interestingly unholy matrimonial.

Helen is part goddess

And, besides, I watched

Her marriage to Menelaus—

Quite a boring, drawn-out thing.

I don’t know where those Spartans

Find their priests.

I thought this time ‘round

I’d spice things up a bit,

Beg and clown until
 

(Grandiose self irony)
 

I revealed myself.

But early in the ceremony

I got tired of standing

With the rabble

All agog at hospitality

And tired of all those Trojans

Manfully ignoring unsavory facts,

Offering Helen all courtesy—

More, I thought, than her due;

And I was bored—incredibly enough—

Even with myself . . . Apollo,

I thought, how many times

Have you played this pranklet,

Isn’t there any way besides disguise,

Anything new but another you?

It’s gotten to be a routine!

Have you lost your resource,

Must you spend your (ironical sigh) eternity

In repetition?

Look, Apollo, I said,

I’m leveling with you:

Today, here and now,

Find something new.

Then I saw what seemed

Like a teenager—

Hair long, figure very lithe—

Swaying, way beyond

The ordinary fidget

In restless distress;

And, though she was with

The family party—

Held a cloak

Loosely folded and ready.

Between the crowd

And her own turning

This way and that,

I couldn’t see her face.

Interesting, not beautiful,

I guessed. A beautiful

Young girl would be poised

For the ceremony

And not fidget so.

She’d be enchanted with it all

And see herself, in time, in Helen’s place.

What does she mean, though,

Making her way, stealthy

Indecipherable

Away from this assembly?

I’ll follow her.

She moved through the roads

So quietly and quickly

I could hardly keep up

Without making noise.

I thought:

This girl,

Who doesn’t seem flirtatious,

Has gone to meet a lover

When she won’t be missed.

How clever of her to get away

During the rush and strain

Of festivities . . .

Is she headed for the temple?

Is she some hypocrite

Asking forgiveness

For the sin

She’s about to commit?

But why of Athena—

Unchaste’s not necessarily unwise,

And wisdom isn’t chastity.

She seemed,

In her long cloak and hood,

Directed straight here—

Then disappeared.

I thought: she’ll arrive,

Then her lover,

I’ll find a place to hide.

Have I made a mistake?

Has she changed her mind?

I think I’ll have

Another look around.

 

(Exit Apollo in one direction as Cassandra enters from the opposite one. She is about sixteen: potentially strong and simple, though confused right now. She is wearing a plain robe, cloak with hood, and sandals. Her demeanor is flushed, anxious and uncertain.)

 

CASSANDRA

I couldn’t stand it there!

Everyone trying to pretend

It was a perfectly normal marriage

Like Hector’s to Andromache.

How can my parents seem

So conciliatory and serene?

As they made ready,

I watched them convince themselves

That they are not dishonored,

That the female was unhappy,

Not disloyal,

And the male a rescuer,

Not a marauder.

The tyrannic festivity

Carries its own momentum,

And I’m a solitary

Dissenter, abstainer . . .

Why should it bother me so

That Helen is stolen

By my brother,

Her husband’s guest?

After all, her husband

Is no kin of mine.

Still, I hope no one

Noticed me gone.

I was so restless,

Wanted to thrash my way,

But inched it quietly

Past this one and that

And another one,

All the time calming

The wildness . . .
 

(Pause)
 

Helen is beautiful—

When she walks past,

No matter who you are,

You want to reach out and touch her.

Her clothes glide and sway,

The folds of her gown

Seem to blossom . . .

That won’t be me when I grow up.

I can’t go Helen’s way.
 

(Pause)
 

Or Andromache’s either—

She’s so quiet and motherly

As though she’s known

The secrets of earth

Too long to explain—
 

(Clear admiration)
 

Not letting on,

Saying yes or no

So modestly,

Yet all the time,

Wiser than anyone . . .

Except, of course, Hector.

I’m so glad it wasn’t Hector

Stole another man’s wife.
 

(Pause)
 

They wanted me to be married

Before long—a cure

For restlessness, solitude—

For everything that they say

Bothers me. I don’t want it.
 

(Realizing it for the first time. Startled, then serene)
 

I never wanted to live a long time;

I want to know my deed,

Do it and go.
 

(Begins to move slowly towards shrine of Athena)
 

If my deed isn’t Helen’s

And isn’t Andromache’s,

Then, what?
 

(Her monologue turns, with no intrusive transition, into her prayer to Athena)
 

That’s why I came to you, Athena,

Because when I asked my mother,

She smiled and said,

I see that Cassandra is self-willed

Like her brothers. No spouse

Will do but one of her own choosing;

She will not marry
 

(Cassandra registers the irony of this)
 

For family dignity

Or to bear princes—

Cassandra must be truly in love . . .

The knowing Hecuba smile

That once inspired such confidence

Chilled me, but I left it at that . . .

Queen Hecuba, I’ve no wish

To make you sorrowful,

But Cassandra’s solitude

Feels insoluble.

 

Cassandra, my father once said,

Feels strange signals

In markings on the temple;

An elaborate imaginer

Still afraid of the dark;

Let the right man arrive

And the fright will go.

Barter for shadows,

Said my mother,

The cries of the newborn;

There are cries of fright

Far different from the dry shriek

Of sacrifice or war—

 

Is there something wrong with me, Athena,

That I sense this marriage as death knell,

As—were I to dare pronouncements—a doom?
 

(Relief and fear at having said it out)
 

O, Athena, I’m lonely and need help

From you who had no mother;

More than for beauty

Love or marriage,

I feel a need for wisdom.

 

(Enter Apollo breathless from running. Cassandra, kneeling at Athena’s statue, has her back to him.  Apollo tries to get a look at Cassandra’s face. His asides are delivered straight out to audience.)

 

APOLLO

So there she is after all;

I’m not sure of her name,

Though I did meet all her family

Years ago. And even if

There should be more to her

Than meets the mere eye,

I’d like to see her face.

 

CASSANDRA
 

(To the goddess)
 

Athena, I’m bewildered.

Until the moment that she came,

I felt the soul was everything
 

(Ironic smile from Apollo)

 

And all real beauty, within,

And not only man

But woman as well

Able to have noble hopes.

 

Since she came, I find

My body too soothed by silks,

Too scratched by wool;

And I’m not at all sure

Why anyone does anything.

 

APOLLO
 

(Aside)
 

I think I’ll decide to stay.
 

(Sprawls)

 

CASSANDRA

I look at the ceremonial

And the room becomes too small.

There are messages,

There are whispers,

And I listen for a melody

Beneath the public noise.

Am I modeled wrongly,

Is Cassandra other

Than what it’s comely

To be?

 

APOLLO
 

(Aside)
 

So that’s her name!

I should have remembered . . .

 

CASSANDRA
 

Athena, I feel alone in the world,

And very much afraid.

 

APOLLO
 

(Aside)
 

These few years were a long time

For a female mortal;

She grew from some holy, silent child

To a young woman strangely compelling.

 

CASSANDRA

Sometimes it seems

That no one welcomes me.

As Helen arrives

They’re attentive and alert;

Andromache’s announced

And there’s a warm content;

When I approach,

I sense a stiffness

From behind the door,

A submerged interrogative

Or turning away . . .

No gladness

When it’s Cassandra.

 

(Cassandra continues to move her lips in prayer. Apollo’s next aside is simultaneous with this. He inches up to her, slightly histrionic.)

 

APOLLO

There is no lover.

What an odd, high-flown girl;

I hadn’t thought of it this trip,

But why not? It’ll be more

Interesting, wiser too,

That that old beggar prank.

 

CASSANDRA
 

(Barely audible)
 

Fears take root in me,

Grow and will not break;

Help me, Athena.

Something strange governs me,

And nothing is as it was.

 

APOLLO
 

(Close behind Cassandra)
 

Why so long upon your knees, Cassandra?

 

(Startled, Cassandra whirls around. Apollo stands back, solemn while he speaks aside, then resumes his rakish pose.

 

Aside, to audience)
 

She’s a lot prettier than I thought.

All those spiritual murmurs

Didn’t lead me to expect this . . .
 

(To Cassandra)
 

You have a remarkable face;

I’ve been trying to get a look at it;

I know an artist sent me out

In search of unusual faces;

He’ll make you a sketch

At a special rate.

 

CASSANDRA
 

(Composing herself with difficulty)
 

I’ve no gold or silver with me,

Not even coins . . .

Besides, this is a temple;

Try some other time.

You can ask my parents . . .

 

APOLLO
 

(Aside)
 

The lady’s very courteous

To interrupting beggars—

A princess if ever there was.
 

(To Cassandra)
 

Ask your parents?

Are you the kind

Who stays a child forever?

 

CASSANDRA
 

(Straining to be courteous)
 

I’m no child;

I’ve griefs you’d never

Understand.

 

APOLLO

To be sure—if you say so.

But, meaning no disrespect,

Has no one yet

Made a woman of you?

 

CASSANDRA
 

(Infuriated)
 

You have no right—

 

APOLLO

Give me the right, Cassandra.

If I ask a question,

You can ask me one.

 

CASSANDRA

How do you know my name?

 

APOLLO

Do you want to use up your question that way?

 

CASSANDRA

What is your question?

 

APOLLO

I asked it, already.

Why so long upon your knees, Cassandra?

 

CASSANDRA

I’ve come to ask for a kind of purification.

 

APOLLO

What a large thing to ask.

Do you wish to be set apart

Like some high princess?

Are you proud, Cassandra?

 

CASSANDRA

You’ve already used up your question.

Now it’s my turn.

 

APOLLO
 

(Aside. Enthusiastic)
 

Oh, Cassandra, if you’d only go

The ways that you renounce,

You’d be quite an adventure to know

Though, as I recall, you’re not even

Part-goddess.

 

CASSANDRA
 

(Reflectively)
 

Where did you come from?

 

APOLLO

That’s easy. The same place you did.

I watched you leave, then followed.

 

CASSANDRA

But why? And where were you before?

I’m sure I’ve never seen you.

 

APOLLO

We’re both too interrogative

To play at questions one at a time;

But it was my turn.

 

CASSANDRA

The wedding distressed me.

I needed to be alone,

And still do, if you won’t

Consider that rude.

 

APOLLO
 

(Half ignoring her)
 

Don’t be too hard on Helen.

She is part-goddess—

An enchanting woman

Whose fate will be magical.

She’s wiser than Oedipus

And much more lucky.

 

CASSANDRA

She doesn’t strike me as wise.

 

APOLLO

You needn’t be envious, Cassandra;

You’re younger than she is,

And, though not as beautiful,

There is something about you

That quite stirs me.

 

CASSANDRA

I don’t feel the same way

About you.

 

APOLLO

        Not yet.

But you will.

 

CASSANDRA

Now that I see how arrogant you are,

I ask again to be left alone;

You did intrude upon me, you know.

 

APOLLO

So speaks the humble, questing penitent;

Far be it from me to interrupt

Your falsely modest self-congratulation.

 

CASSANDRA

None of that is true.

 

APOLLO

Oh, it’s all right, Cassandra.

To err is really quite divine;

I’m a charlatan, too.

 

(Blaze of light appears and quickly fades)

 

CASSANDRA

Who are you—really?

 

APOLLO

I’m someone even higher than Hector.

 

CASSANDRA

When I asked you to go away—

 

APOLLO

I wasn’t offended.

It meant my disguise

Was very effective . . .

Come now, you needn’t be

Intimidated. Is someone

Beyond Hector

So unimaginable to you?

 

CASSANDRA

Who are you?

 

APOLLO

Be patient.

Ask me a larger question first;

Anything you like . . .

 

CASSANDRA
 

(Brief pause. Tentative)
 

Do you sense

That I have any special deed

Of my own?

 

APOLLO
 

(Cagey. Testing her)
 

You will make some fine prince

A stately wife—like Andromache.

You look disappointed.

Isn’t Andromache’s fate

Good enough

For a modest and holy girl?

 

CASSANDRA

It isn’t a matter of good enough—

 

APOLLO

Then—

 

CASSANDRA

It’s a matter of—divinely ordained

Or even—appropriate.

 

APOLLO

Would having an eminent lover

Be appropriate?

Would that be a deed

Special enough

To please Cassandra?

Why do you hesitate?

Why not dance or embrace me?

 

CASSANDRA

What has a bewildered girl

To do with splendid lovers?

It’s too great an honor.

 

APOLLO

A bewildered girl

Can be a splendid lover herself.

 

CASSANDRA

Is that my special deed?

 

APOLLO

At the moment—why not?

 

CASSANDRA

And the future?

 

APOLLO
 

(Aside)
 

The future, you stupid girl!

For all I know Troy will burn

And you’ll be taken concubine,

Lose your mind and die young.
 

(To Cassandra, exasperated but feigning gallantry)
 

This is the present, Cassandra,

The extraordinary present . . .

I came to Troy disguised as a beggar,

Do you mean to make me beg in earnest?

 

CASSANDRA

If I’m to make

Some man a stately wife,

Surely there can be

No lover now.

 

APOLLO

No one need know.

I’m the sort

Who can be very discreet.

 

CASSANDRA

I’ll know. My dreams

Will turn to flesh too soon.

Need one explain

That marriage is more

Than solemnized carnality?

 

APOLLO

Solemnized carnality! How you talk. . .

Have you guessed who I am, Cassandra?

 

CASSANDRA
 

(Confused)
 

You’re—someone extraordinary—

I’m not sure.

 

(Blaze of light during which Cassandra startles mightily, tries to get away. Apollo prevents her, holds her by both wrists.)

 

APOLLO

Don’t be afraid.

You don’t even know

Just which god I am.

 

CASSANDRA

I’m—not ready for you!

 

APOLLO

What arrogance!

How could you ever be?

 

CASSANDRA

Once or twice I’ve dreamed—

 

APOLLO

Your dreams!

 

CASSANDRA

Of a true love. I don’t believe

I’m ready for it.

And—excuse me, Sir—

I don’t believe it’s you.

 

APOLLO

Cassandra, a god

Who might command you

Offers himself.

It’s a great honor.

Think of the child you might—

 

CASSANDRA

Like Helen?

 

APOLLO

What’s wrong with that?

 

CASSANDRA

Once I dreamed—

 

APOLLO
 

(Trying to contain his rage)
 

Your dreams!

Cassandra, I desire you,

Let’s be lovers.

 

CASSANDRA

I don’t mean to offend you—

I’ll make it up to you somehow;

I’ll fast, pray, tangle

My hair, wear course garments,

Walk barefoot on stones, or even coals—

 

APOLLO

Ugh! Please—nothing

So vulgar as that!

I dislike petty sacrifices.

You have offended me.

 

CASSANDRA

I’m sorry.

 

APOLLO
 

(Cajoling. Cassandra’s refusal is clearly not real to him.)
 

Though I didn’t expect

Immediate consent

From a virgin of sheltered dignity,

You are incorrigible,

Even a little priggish;

But you appeal to me

And I must have you.

I give you a few minutes more

To play out your maiden

Hesitation,

And then—the garden . . .

 

CASSANDRA
 

(Emphatic, though frightened)
 

No!

 

APOLLO

What’s the matter, Cassandra?

Am I not quite impressive?

 

CASSANDRA

I want to find my own deed

And my true love;

I don’t want to be some—

 

APOLLO
 

(Very sarcastic)
 

Plaything of a god—?

 

CASSANDRA

If you must put it that way.

 

APOLLO
 

(No longer containing his anger)
 

I thought you were proud, Cassandra.

Now I see you’re too humble;

You’ve set your sights

Much lower than a god.

All you want is assurance

That you’re not outclassed

By your distinguished

Sisters-in-law.

Some simpering Trojan warrior

Will remind you

Of your virtuous brother . . .

Would you like me to strike

Andromache dead

So Hector can be your mate

Or—true love, as you

So quaintly put it?

 

CASSANDRA

God though you are,

Please go out of this temple

And leave me to myself.

 

APOLLO

Cassandra!
 

(Pause)
 

I like your courage.

It moves me to offer you

One more chance.

Cassandra, you are just

At the brink of womanhood

And have the makings

Of a remarkable creature.

Be my bride this hour.

 

CASSANDRA

How many brides for an hour

Has your godship had?

 

APOLLO

Many.

 

CASSANDRA

And will have many more.

What does one less matter?

 

APOLLO

Very well. I wanted you.

More than I expected.

You are not the sort

One overcomes by force,

And I feel a certain deference

For your age. I’m leaving,

Let me kiss you before I go.

 

(Cassandra is relieved. An embrace)

 

I give you a gift,

Cassandra.

Since you are concerned

With dreams

And the future—

Have them.

 

Have the future

Before you all the time:

You are now a prophetess.

 

(What follows must be done in a clearly improvisatory way. No god-like omniscience or preconception. He is furiously angry and is making up as he goes along the worst retaliations he can think of.)

 

To the first gift I add another.

One that will guarantee

Your purity

And privacy.

You asked me to leave you

To yourself. I will,

And so will everyone else!

 

CASSANDRA
 

(Slow. Trying to take all this in)
 

You mean that people will be afraid?

 

APOLLO

Yes. I grant you

Perpetual loneliness

And incessant dreams.

Cassandra, I really wanted you.
 

(Holding his ground)
 

Extraordinary dreams;

Haunted secrets

That are also

Plain facts.
 

(Very improvisatory)
 

Purified you will be,

And severely wronged, always.

You will not have a moment’s peace.

Dream the truth

Tell all the truth

And no one will ever

Believe you.

Live with your visions only,

They will hurt you.

They’ll be true,

But no one will ever

Believe you.

 

(Drops disguise—cloak, matted wig, etc. A real blaze of light. Hold. He is splendid, Michelangelesque.)

 

CASSANDRA
 

(Real terror)
 

Apollo!

 

APOLLO
 

(Moves downstage. Aside.)
 

I went a bit far,

But she had several chances.

And because of her

I felt something akin

To—were I human—

I would call it pain.

She took retribution

A bit too stoically.

If she had wept, got down

On her knees, wrung my hands

A bit, I might have thought

It over—put a time limit—

Something like that—

But—she stood there and took it.

Besides, it’s gotten too complex

To think about. Adventure

Can get complex.

 

(EXIT. Blaze of light remains)

 

CASSANDRA
 

(Distraught. To the place where Apollo last stood)
 

I’m only young, Apollo,

You have forever to live;

Please, reconsider,

Apollo!

This was only a visit for you,

But it’s all the life I have . . .

 

(Straightens up. All plaintiveness and pleading stop. It is apparent that she sees something terrible. She whirls about, eyes moving from walls to ceiling. She puts hands on eyes, hands on head. Is changed, more adult, speaks with authority and great dignity as well as submerged horror.)

 

Send Helen away.

Send the stranger

Who is no brother at all.

His name is P A R I S,

He—who—is—wed—with—ghastly—death.

 

(Blackout)

 

 



 

____________________________

Evelyn Hooven graduated from Mount Holyoke College and received her M.A. from Yale University, where she also studied at The Yale School of Drama. A member of the Dramatists’ Guild, she has had presentations of her verse dramas at several theatrical venues, including The Maxwell Anderson Playwrights Series in Greenwich, CT (after a state-wide competition) and The Poet’s Theatre in Cambridge, MA (result of a national competition). Her poems and translations from the French have appeared in ART TIMES, Chelsea, The Literary Review, THE SHOp: A Magazine of Poetry (in Ireland), The Tribeca Poetry Review, Vallum (in Montreal), and other journals, and her literary criticism in Oxford University’s Essays in Criticism.

Follow NER on Twitter @NERIconoclast

 

 

 

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