The past few vacations I’ve gone on, whenever the official tchotchke-hunting time comes up with the friends/family I’m traveling with, I’ve taken to seeking out the nearest local bookstore for my souvenir-hunting. I’ve found it to be a great alternative to buying something made of plastic that will collect dust and eventually get thrown away – instead, I purchase a book and write the bookstore name/location/date on the inside jacket, and whenever I pick up that book I can take a trip down memory lane before diving into whatever awaits me beyond the title page.
This is how I obtained Norma Jeane Baker of Troy by Anne Carson at E. Shaver Booksellers in Savannah, Georgia while on a friend’s bachelorette party trip. I’ve loved Anne Carson’s other adaptations/translations/explorations of Greek tragedies, and I was excited to find one in the bookshop, since many bookstores don’t have very fleshed out drama sections. Also, there were cats in the bookstore, so I had to buy something to support the kitties’ care and keeping. Those are just the rules I live by. This particular purchase also had the added bonus that the slim play script could fit directly into my purse, which made carrying frozen beverages up and down the waterfront much more convenient.
Anyway, this has been a bit of a digression to say that I highly recommend E. Shaver Booksellers, the city of Savannah, and frozen beverages – AND I recommend Norma Jean Baker of Troy, with some pretty major caveats.
The description on the back of the play states that it is “a meditation on the destabilizing and destructive power of beauty” and that it is a “version of Euripides’s Helen” that “draws together Helen of Troy and Marilyn Monroe.” In Baker’s other adaptations, she has often played fast and loose with language, injecting her own poetic voice in a way that makes her versions more adaptation than translations, but she has more or less hit the same plot points as the original works. In Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, there is not much plot to speak of – it’s a strange and dreamlike exploration of beauty, obsession, objectification, and violence. Norma Jeane/Helen appears in some scenes dressed like Truman Capote, or knits in some scenes, and some sections are long definitions/translations of ancient Greek words and concepts. If you are looking for a straight-forward plot and easy answers, this is not the place for it. However, like all of Carson’s pieces, there are passages that took my breath away:
is the story of Helen,
War is the context
and God is a boy”
“Sometimes I think language should cover its own eyes when it speaks”
I will also say that my knowledge of Marilyn Monroe/Norma Jeane Baker/the Golden Age of Hollywood was not quite up to snuff for some of the references, and there were certainly no easy explanations in the text – I spent a good while googling to try to find out more about the relationship between Truman Capote and Marilyn Monroe, for example. The actress Pearl Bailey is also referenced more than once, and I’m still not entirely sure how the two women relate to each other, either in the context of the play or in real life (where’s a dramaturg when you need one?!). It’s also worth noting that readers will probably have a hard time following what little plot exists unless they know the basics of The Iliad/The Odyssey/Euripides’s original play.
Adding to the complexity of reviewing Norma Jeane Baker of Troy is the fact that reading a play only ever gives you part of its story: these words are meant to be spoken, performed, communally experienced. The play was staged at The Shed in 2019, directed by Katie Mitchell and starring Renée Fleming and Ben Whishaw. Besides a few YouTube clips from The Shed’s official account, there’s not much I can find by the way of recording of this production, but I’d love to see this show up on its feet and see what new discoveries could be gleaned from seeing it live.
As a text, this is play to be puzzled over and re-read, with a highlighter and pencil in hand. I’m looking forward to continuing to wrestle with it.