f r a g m e n t s  o f  w i t n e s s 

‘ h e c u b a ’  



Just as Andromache and I, Hecuba, believe that we have solved our domestic disagreement and that we will part in love, with respect and good memories, Talthybius, a Greek herald, comes to claim the life of my grandson. The Greek council has decreed that Andromache’s son must die. The baby is to be hurled from the walls of Troy. They fear his revenge when he grows up. This is the most moving part of the play and the climax of all sufferings that are spilled over the stage. It is the moment that, instinctively, I avoided in my initial study of the play; it was too hard to contemplate. It is incomprehensible that somebody, anybody, in any war, could claim the life of a baby. It is incomprehensible, but it is the experience of war, and its picture remains fresh in my memory.

The endless touching by Andromache of her baby son, and S.’s profoundly truthful tears, made me weep. She sobs with a desperation that shatters her last hope for the future. The image of my own son haunted me during those moments. Though escaping the war, he spent an immeasurably sad childhood as I dealt with depression and the hidden desire to die. Can that be true? I cursed the gods, humankind, all wars in the world, and myself. The good thing about Greek gods is that you can curse them. They are vengeful, but their reprisal is explicable and humanlike, and we feel comfortable expecting the familiarity of our punishment. The moment of the child-murder is finally over, and the intensity of my suffering has passed. The wretched, lifeless Andromache leaves the scene. I revere her pain, and S., for her frankness.

D. and Ed., high school students, and I., a young man, carry the role of Talthybius. All three of them are Sarajevans, and each of them spent several dreadful years in the city under siege. After terrifying experiences, they escaped and found refuge in New York. Ed. is a gentle, shy boy, and a little withdrawn. His silky, innocent eyes open wide, he blushes as, as Talthybius, he speaks to the queen. His tremulous voice reveals the bewilderment of a soldier ordered to kill a child, even as, in his humanness, he would like to resist the order. In the ambiguous play between his moral principals and his duty, Ed.’s Talthybius is nervous and hurried, and he doesn’t look the queen in the eye.

Off-stage, D. is a serious, quiet teenager. His mother is one of the Hecubas. He is courteous to her and to all the cast. As Talthybius he is humble and polite to Andromache, asking her to understand what must be done, as he tries to persuade her to make this tragic act happen quickly, less painfully.

I don’t abhor Talthybius and I don’t view him as just killer and foe. The truth is, this is the only humane figure in that parade of greedy, vain and insensible men. There is a quality of true aristocracy in this small peasant: he shows respect and compassion and he has moral principals, characteristics that most of the noble warriors lack. Talthybius is a soldier without a choice who has faced death on the battlefield for ten long years. His is a poor plebian who, I imagine, left his helpless wife and numerous starving children in their modest stone-roofed cottage on the Mediterranean shore. His narrow field, his olive trees, his grapes, his goats and sheep are neglected. The war that he never understood or wanted has brought him nothing more than pain and uncertainty.

The anticipation of the soldier longing for his native village on the Mediterranean, for its salty fragrance, its evocative plants, its pastel colors, its muted sounds, convey me back to my past. Memories of my father’s stone house overlooking a small stretch of the Adriatic Sea; the endless blue sky and gray limestone mountains above it; the Peljesac peninsula a few tens of miles across the water; the sun-bleached, rain-washed pebbled beach shining in the sun: of all my years of the happy life spent there, surface. They are so alive, full of sound. From the terrace, I can see the small boat with my name on it, swinging about on its mooring. There are small, old-fashioned wooden fishing boats, and those of modern synthetic materials. Heavily laden commercial vessels, tourist yachts, and barges travel infrequently in the canal that stretches between Peljesac and me. It is one of the long, hot, breezeless days of an arid summer, full of a bittersweet efflorescence of oleanders, cypresses, mulberries, figs, lemons, oranges, almonds, oaks. With it blend the heavy scents of summer flowers: roses, geraniums, begonias, dahlias. Cactuses are in full bloom. At noon the surface of the Adriatic is motionless, pale blue, polished. Mornings and evenings, mild winds bring tenderly murmuring waves from the sea. Delicately, they touch the edges of the beach. Rare summer storms blow in, lasting only a few hours. Heavy surf breaks on the shore. The storms withdraw as unexpectedly as they come, leaving behind transparent air, smooth sea, intense sunshine.

I can hear the familiar voices of my friends of decades, joking and debating in the yard of a small, old limestone inn with a rusty anchor on the outside wall. The cobbled yard overlooks the lustrous beach. A trellis dense with grapes makes a canopy over the open area, providing cool refuge. There are a few very old olive-oil amphoras, no longer used, and a heavy, white, stone wheel that belonged to the olive press. The yard is a favorite place that holds only a small number of guests. It looks like a stage from antiquity and, in its natural dÈcor, perfectly matches the backdrop of mountains above and the sea a few meters below. It could suit any Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. A villager owns this charming tavern; at least a third of my friends have some more or less close family ties to him.

In this intimate atmosphere, my friends and I spent every available day of summer for decades, talking, joking, singing, playing guitars, eating, and drinking the good, cold house red wine. We came from all over Yugoslavia: Split, Zagreb, Bjelovar, Belgrade, Sarajevo, Banja Luka, Mostar. We did not know each other’s nationality or religion, and nobody asked. Epicurus and Bacchus were our guides into bohemian life, the enjoyment of good food and drink, sophisticated talk and endless debate, and immense love for the splendor of the Adriatic Sea.

At the main port in the center of the town, in the early evening, retired mariners with their sun-bronzed, wind-scarred faces, gather to talk about their glorious days of sailing. Their wives and sisters, in the short break after an exhausting day of hard labor, gossip under the arches of their houses. Their almond-eyed, long-haired, olive-skinned, tanned, slender, lanky daughters are heading to meet their fiancÈs, beautiful as gods, in the whispering intimacy of dusky corners. Those dates are secrets known to their parents and brothers, and all villagers, and it stays this way until the first budding of the girls’ bellies announces weddings to come.

The delightful summers always end. My friends and I dutifully part, to return to our jobs as lawyers, doctors, engineers, artists, clerks, merchants, teachers. Only seldom, with the kind of luck that only unpredictable fate could cast, I would spent a week or two of autumn there, picking grapes and olives with the villagers. I stayed with my ‘aunt,’ a native woman who had long ago embraced my family and me as relatives. She always dressed in plain black, in endless mourning for her late husband. Hours before dawn, we would set out to dig potatoes in the steep hills of the Velebit mountain above her house. With her donkey we climbed cautiously in the dark, among the wild roses and blackberries. Just before dawn, we reached her little terrace of stingy soil, and she began to dig sweet organic vegetables that we would devour at dinner. By six-thirty, she would stop working – I was not skillful enough to help – and we would eat our simple breakfast of goat cheese and whole-wheat bread. A half-hour’s rest would bring on a divine state of mind, one of those senses of eternity that overcomes our souls and bodies only exceptionally, if we are fortunate enough – something hovering between dream and reality.

Overwhelmed by tiredness, stroked by the sweetness of sleep, in perfect touch with pure nature, in deep isolation, I desire to float in this half-conscious state forever. When my aunt awakens me, we tend her vineyard for while. As the sun starts its slow trip to the zenith, at the moment that life starts for the other commoners, we head down toward the village. In those days with ‘aunt’ Jelisava – that was her real name; for me, a sacred name – I would pick ripe, dark-brown, juicy olives in the late afternoons, protected by the generous shade of the olive-trees. We tended her goats, sheep, and chickens. In September, I helped her bring the animals to the deserted beach, where she would bathe them in the smooth, nearly-white sea. We would spend time talking in the wooden pantry with its ancient, smoky fireplace: she would cook in blackened pots. At the table, we would eat the best prosciutto, the freshest seafood, the newest green beans, the tastiest olives; we would drink a glass of her home-made, faintly-pungent wine. On Sundays, this deeply pious Catholic woman would bring me to the church, crowded mostly with elderly villagers in dark clothes. In the coolness and silence of the stone shrine, I prayed with the passion of the sinner distant from, yet longing for, salvation.

During the seasons, I weeded Jelisava’s beans, lettuce, cabbage gardens, and flowers around her two stone houses. I washed her dishes, wiped her floors, and cleaned her patio whenever she asked me to. But the most enchanting time was in those autumns when I had her to myself. Then, relaxed and free of guests, she would ask for all the news of my life, commenting on whatever I would say with smiling approval or gentle blame. Honest and unpretentious, she held my heart in her hand.

There on this scrap of Croatian coast I experienced the most lyric and also the most turbulent seasons. How can I then condemn Talthybius, who is longing to return to the familiar and tradition-bound patch of his own universe? I can’t, and I don’t. And Hecuba, I’m sure, doesn’t, either. I hear the queen’s resigned voice, desperately confident of Talthybius’s compassion, as she pleads to let Andromache be alone with her son for the few remaining moments of the child’s life. Now, when he has escaped the death on the battlefield, when this all-too-human being seeks finally to go home to everything he longs for, this Talthybius must commit the crime of child-murder. Caught in inevitability, he must choose. This is, as I observe, a simple choice between life and death. If he, a soldier, doesn’t comply with his superior’s commands, he must die.

The price that this poor, painstaking, powerless soldier must pay is tremendous. The cost is the murder that he can’t bear to commit. All his humanity – his piousness, his fatherhood, and his custom of worshipping royalty – rebels against this act. But he is only a pawn caught in the world of warriors. After this murder, he is never going to be himself again, and anything, even a perfectly arranged and decorated future, is empty scenery. I know that. As I’ve heard, everything now is different in my little village on the seashore, for the people who do not go there anymore, and those who go, but are changed. They say it is a saddened landscape without the human souls that animated it.

When the child is murdered, Talthybius brings him back on the shield of Hector. Solemnly, he washes the infant’s body and digs the grave to bury it in. Isn’t that a nobility of grandeur so often peculiar to the commoner in life?

D., Ed., and I., suggesting the victim and murderer bound up in one body, are so natural. Their Talthybius is my favorite character in the play, all apparent contradiction and simple complexity. We, the actresses and actors from former Yugoslavia, have played in a drama that by itself condemned war. The play was meant to reflect the absurdity of the war that afflicted all of us. It brought us away from our families, friends, careers, cultural milieux, affections, the graves of our ancestors. No matter which side of the conflict each of us stood on, none of us wanted this. We all were wounded and deprived of the wholeness that constituted our personalities before.

Any piece played about a war revives painful memories of any of human butchery, whenever and wherever it happened. As I write these lines, the news of contemporary events in Kosovo comes from every medium. The mass execution of men, the rape and killing of women, the slaughtered children, depopulation, burned villages, rivers of refugees leaving their homeland are reported. Women, children, men are crying out from our screens and the photos in newspapers. They are fainting of hunger and exhaustion and dying in front of cameras. Masked men, the same ones that operated in Bosnia in the first half of this decade, are conducting their bloody business now in 1999. NATO keeps bombing Serbian strategic targets for weeks. The world speaks the language of violence.

As I write, it looks as if the war is escalating. Mobilization of American reservists, more than thirty-thousand, is said to be possible. How much more of this will satisfy the madman in Belgrade who understands only the language of violence? This is the same man who killed my soul, my eyes, my ears when he dismembered Yugoslavia and committed genocide on the Bosnian people.

I ask myself: how many wars will happen before it is understood that they are designed to kill and destroy us. No one is ever made happy, neither killer nor victim. Eventually, all of us lose our hearts and dignity. Once more I do not want to see many of the Yugoslavs who take part in the play, especially those from Serbia. I cannot help taking sides in the newest war: I support the bombing of Belgrade. My human nature prevents me from forgetting Sarajevo. I do not know what my Serbian fellow cast-members feel now. If they perceive this war in Milosevic’s “Yugoslavia” differently than I, I don’t blame them. It even can be normal; what’s normal in the stirring Balkans nobody knows. Whatever it is, I do not want to meet or discuss these new events with the Serbian players. I do not want to feel angry or guilty. But, it’s apparent that the madman from Belgrade has succeeded in his goal: I have finally parted from the people that once I loved deeply. In my torment, I accepted that the hatred could be an option or a solution, and God knows I didn’t want this, ever. That was his goal: Rip up everything that was Yugoslavia, and, ironically, portray himself as its savior.


The night before the first performance is suffocating. Sleep doesn’t come, and unbearable fear tears up my hard-won, still-fragile confidence in acting. I believe that something unknown and horrible must happen while I perform, that would leave an everlasting mark of shame on me and that I simply couldn’t survive, as if I would immediately die on the stage. The director has decided that we must use our scripts and read our lines from them, as often as possible, to gain more self-assurance on the stage. I do not care for the effect that reading can have on the audience anymore, but the prospect of help from the script doesn’t comfort me, either. The only thought I have is, how to survive the following three nights of performance. Some disgraceful voice inside me advises me to escape without taking part in the play. Another, loyal to the director and the cast, strongly orders me to stay with the project till the end. Both suggestions are terrifying, but I know I won’t give up. Only, I do not know how to handle my body and my soul in the theatre. I feel I am dissolving.

Suddenly, sleep comes, only to be interrupted in the next moment by my piercing cry. In my dream, my Serb Orthodox great-grandmother, clad in her black robe, small, slim, 84 years old the last time I saw her, is strangling me. I remember my great-grandmother as a martyr of loyalty to her deceased husband, my great-grandfather, a Serb Orthodox priest and intellectual of his time, to whom she bore fourteen children. He died in the First World War, and my great-grandmother, in her everlasting mourning, never again wore any color but black. The rest of her life was dedicated only to her children and her household. To live that way was the duty of the priest’s widow, and she quietly complied. As a young child I would visit her with my parents on the holy days of her confession. In the old-fashioned manner, my mother would make me kiss my great grandmother’s dry hand, ropy with veins, smelling of mold, and I didn’t like it. However, the abundance of delicacies served at her house – some of them specialties only served at the Orthodox holidays, that I truly miss now, such as cooked wheat mixed with ground oats and sugar – attracted me. I was only six or seven, and in Bosnia we were not rich. There was always a shortage of food then.

I enjoyed these clan-like gatherings of my great-grandmother’s children, their spouses, their children, and grandchildren, all of them descendants of a once highly- regarded Serb family from Eastern Herzegovina. This wing of my relatives had had the centuries’-old tradition of living in common extended households, before they emigrated to Sarajevo. As a law student, later, I even learned about these relatives from a scholarly book in my program. The text discussed them as an example of people organized historically in family units known as zadruga, in which all male members across several generations, with their wives and children, stayed to live and work together, helping each other. At our gatherings, stories were told about the resistance my relatives had shown in the past, first against the Turks, then against the Austrians. These stories fascinated me.

Now under the new government of Bosnia, certain officials and citizens so often criticize these fighters from our history as enemies of the state. I will never understand how the intruders and occupiers, as the Turks and Austrians in reality were, no matter to what extent they improved my homeland, could be treated as friends; and those who in the history fought against them, as enemies. No matter what they say, I will always be proud of these my ancestors. Yet certainly, after the war in my homeland, I remain confused about the historical facts, their accuracy, their political and ethical evaluation, and the constant, sudden shifts in their interpretation.

Now, in my dream, my great-grandmother is strangling me. She comes smiling from behind my back, tightening her dry hands, cold as the frost, around my neck. I awake sweating and weeping. Does it mean that my Serb tradition is haunting me and I collapse in my guilt? Or this is an immature and unfinished Hecuba in me – a dark wailing silhouette – disguised in the mask and garments of my great-grandparent who appears to punish me for my dilettantism? Most likely, both of these are so.

The first performance has begun, with the scene of the sleeping queen and women lying around her, also in sleep. I am sitting in the middle of the stage, but I don’t know how I’ve got there. I do not want to know if anybody I invited is in the audience. The girls in the chorus have started to speak their dreams about Troy’s beauty, one by one, smoothly; but I do not hear them. My heartbeat is louder than their voices. Four times I interrupt, correctly, their lines, in a trembling voice. This is all right. Hecuba should tremble.

Poseidon in his two person enters and stands above Hecuba, and speaks tenderly to her, with sorrow and compassion. He is sorry for the city, his favorite, and for its queen. Briefly, he touches her face. “Don’t wake up, Lady,” he says. My mind is now attentive, my ears are open. I hear the awakened queen shout in disbelief and desperation before the wrecked Troy, and she speaks in my own voice. The three Hecubas interrupt each other in Serbo-Croatian and English. There are no emotions in me except fear, but everything I do is so far correct, without visible mistakes; only, I should be louder.

The three Cassandras are introduced to the stage. They are marvelous in their confidence and white dresses: they alone: in contrast to the entire cast in black cloth. El. is beautiful, suggestive, and touching in her pain. And the music – the Albanian drum – fits the scene of suffering. I feel my spirit lift and respond to the situation. My heart splinters on Andromache’s profound sorrow as she parts with her baby son, who is about to be hurled from the wall. This is such an unbearable tragedy. And the play is going on, and it is finished before I’m even aware of it. I hear the applause growing louder, and people are rising to salute us. The cast stands in the middle of the stage, and we embrace each other. It is an exaltation of success. In the hall, some unknown men and women are greeting me. They say: “That’s you. You are like everybody’s mother on the stage.” I see tears in some eyes. I’m exhausted and happy, and the night brings deep and undisturbed sleep at home.

The second performance brings me an unexpected joy. Refreshed and “experienced,” I act fluently. The effort now is less self-conscious. Our scripts, bound in gleaming black, add to our elegance on stage. We speak our lines in an harmonious flow of feeling. We complement and emphasize each others’ expressions. I feel emotions breaking from the heart of each person on the stage and streaming into the river of our common longing. Gradually, it becomes a symphony of our unutterable pain and love for the homeland that we left behind in quarrel and dread. I feel how our sentiment elevates us all. The silent audience watches and listens as one open heart.

My favorite part is nearing. It comes almost at the end. First N. speaks in English; then, I repeat the lines in Serbo-Croatian. This is an elegy for Troy in ashes and its vanished, glittering beauty. With profound love and longing, crucified between everything that I had, or believed I had; all these places that I loved so much and believed I belonged to – Sarajevo, Brist, Bobovac, Belgrade – I utter my part of the text. I cannot stop weeping. My face is soaked in tears, and I do not worry about my sobbing voice. My heart does its work following its own rules. Immediately afterward, the three Hecubas sing an old Bosnian love ballad. This is a favorite of my late uncle, who for years sang folk melodies as a radio singer, and its sad, gentle chant touches everybody’s hearts. At first the three of us sound insecure, but then our voices grow more and more expressive. We cry. At this moment the three Hecubas become one personality of complete sadness. The cast weeps with us. We are one soul. No one can take this moment of reunion from us. Yes, the people in the production were right: the play has served as a healing treatment, because all of us, in front of each other, have acknowledged how much in common we have and that can’t be changed.

The last scene is the culmination of our painful recognition of belonging to the same origin. The enslaved crew of Trojans is leaving for their destination, and the Hecubas bring stones to put in the center of the stage as the pledge of our intention to come back to our homeland. We are shivering with uncontrollable sobs. The actresses and actors cannot stop their loud weeping. Sharp, loud applause interrupts us. We bow before the compassionate audience and then embrace each other, weeping and laughing. We have been happy at least for the length of this dreamscape The Trojan Women has brought to us.

Afterward, I didn’t stop crying for days. I knew that never could this miraculous reunion between us, the cast members, be repeated. I felt empty and alone, more than before. And then, in a few days, I realized I was cured of so many pains that the war had brought me, so many prejudices that I had born afterward, and all the vanities that had made me so angry at the first rehearsal. My meeting with the Yugoslav cast was an irreplaceable wealth and the necessary condition of my personal growth, and this is the response to your question about my acting.



See also:

‘Hecuba,’ Writing from New York,Archipelago, Vol. 1, No. 3

Hubert Butler, “The Artukovitch File,” Vol. 1, No. 2




next page


contents download subscribe archive