Wednesday, October 8, 2014

HECUBA: a short play

Queen Hecuba and King Priam face each other over a dining table laden with food. The environment is rich, but in ruins. A wall is cracked. A tapestry is hanging askew. The dull roar of fighting is dimly heard in the background--every now and then a wail, horse's neigh, or crash. Three servants stand at the ready. The king and queen of Troy argue while their kingdom crumbles around them.

HECUBA I don't want you to go.

PRIAM Hecuba, we've been through this before. Of course I must go! Zeus sent me a messenger who told me to ransom our son's body from Achilles.

CHORUS All: Hector, our hero, has fallen. Hector, the world's greatest hero, is dead.
1. Death circles
2. Death circles
3. Death circles our city
1. Death circles our city now
All: Hector is dead.

PRIAM Stop that chanting and get me my boots! (Chorus #3 leaves stage)

HECUBA (addressing the rest of the chorus) More meat! More wine! (Chorus #1 and #2 leave, and Hecuba turns back to address Priam) So you think this messenger came from Zeus? It's a little late to be sending a message, don't you think?

PRIAM It's never too late for the deathless gods to show mercy...

HECUBA Mercy? Is that what you call this? (spreads her arms) I was queen, and my palace is crumbling. I was mother, and my children are dead. I was wife, and you rush to leave me because you think you got a message from a deathless god? (She walks over to Priam and begins to massage his shoulders, coaxing him) I don't believe it, Priam. Zeus is dead. Otherwise, how could He have let this happen? Troy was his favorite city! The most beautiful city ever raised by the sea! Where has Zeus been while the Greeks destroyed her?

PRIAM I don't know. Zeus doesn't inform me of his whereabouts. But now he's sent me a message, and I'm going to heed it. (Chorus #1 and #2 return with food and drink, placing a platter on the table and refilling glasses)

HECUBA (Putting a goblet in Priam's hands) Don't you think it's suspicious that Zeus suddenly speaks to you now? All those years burning incense on his altar, and we never heard a peep! Where was he 10 years ago when the Greeks first landed?

1. Where was he nine years ago?
2. Eight?
1. Seven?
2. Six?

HECUBA (Seeing Chorus #3 approaching with the boots, Hecuba moves to intercept them and tosses them into the wings as Priam watches, astonished.) Where was he when our men were spilling blood on the plains of Ilium--ripped open and gushing on the field?

1. My brother was trampled by horses.
2. My husband was speared through the neck.
3. My son was split open.
1. Beheaded.
2. Dismembered.
3. My lover was broken.
1. Cut.
2. Severed.
3. Pierced.

HECUBA Where was he?

CHORUS (Each turning to look at Priam when she says her line)
1. Where was he?
2. Where was he?
3. Where was he?
1. Where was Zeus, when our golden plains ran red?

PRIAM I don't know! It's a war. Warriors die. That's to be expected. You can't win glory without spilling blood. (rises and goes to the wings to retrieve his boots)

HECUBA Warriors die? It's as simple as that? (falls to her knees behind him) But not you, Priam. Please not you. You aren't a warrior. You're a king! And you can't go to the Greek's camp to retrieve Hector's body. You are all I've got left. Don't make me a widow, too!

PRIAM (turns and puts his hands under her armpits to raise her gently up.) What's this? The queen of Troy, begging? Hush, Hecuba. What are you so afraid of? Zeus has promised me safe passage! I'll be back, you'll see. And I'll bring our son's body, and then you can prepare him for a proper burial--as I know you want to do. You can wash him, rub his skin with fresh oil...

HECUBA Pull the sticks from his hair...


HECUBA Pick the rocks from his flesh...


HECUBA Sew up his wounds...make him whole again...

PRIAM Yes, Hecuba. Yes! You'll wash his thick hair, and comb it until it shines. You'll wrap his body in our finest shroud, the one you were weaving for my father. And then we'll build the funeral pyre so high...(The two hold onto each other for a moment)

HECUBA (tenderly running her hand through his hair) I know Hector should have a hero's funeral. But I'm afraid, Priam. How can you be sure this messenger wasn't sent by the Greeks to lure you into a trap?

PRIAM (Dreamily, eyes closed) I can tell the difference between a girl and a goddess.

HECUBA You can?  Let me guess. She was lavished with a splendor. The golden sun glanced off her helmet. The wine-dark sea pooled in her eyes...

PRIAM That's right.

HECUBA That could be anyone, Priam!

PRIAM It could be. But it wasn't. She was a messenger from the Gods.

HECUBA (seductively) Do you remember when I carried Hector inside my belly? I was a new-made queen, walking the halls in supple sandals, lifting a jeweled chalice at our feasts. How the people adored us!

PRIAM Of course I remember!

HECUBA The breezes were warm, then. The small white flowers that grow in the cracks of the walls gave off the most delicate fragrance. Musicians played in every corner of the city, their notes wafting through the windows. And the laughter! Shouts and laughter burbled up from the marketplace. Why, the very dust beneath our feet was blest with good fortune!

PRIAM It surely was. That's what everyone thought.

HECUBA (placing his hand on her stomach) And then Hector grew fat and fine in my belly. Our first child. Your heir. He was going to be king! Your arms held me so tenderly those nights, when my belly first rounded. And the maids brought fresh milk laced with honey to my bed.

1. You were beautiful
2. Young
3. Pregnant
1. Full of life
2. Full of Troy's bright future
1: How we loved our pregnant queen.

HECUBA (moving his hand to her breast) And then, after Hector was born, my breasts swelled with sweet milk. And he suckled so fiercely. Do you remember? He had a warrior's spirit, even then.

PRIAM How could I forget? But what good does it do to talk about those days now? They are gone.

HECUBA But why are they gone? Why did Zeus abandon us? We did everything right! We poured out libations. We sacrificed cows. We built statues. Our own daughter is a temple priestess!

PRIAM It's not for us to question the gods.

HECUBA How could Zeus sit by when the Greeks parked the salt-pocked bellies of their terrible ships on our beautiful brown beaches?

1. Where was he?
2. Where was he?
3. Where was he?

PRIAM (Scowling he makes a shooing motion to the chorus, which retreats into the corners.)
I suppose he was busy. He rules all the earth and sky--and we aren't the only mortals under his protection.

HECUBA He was busy for 10 years? When body piled upon body, death upon death--leaving wives without husbands. Kings without princes! Mothers without sons...

CHORUS All: Where was Zeus, our god?

HECUBA (Starts pacing. Priam follows, trying to catch her arm.) Where was Zeus when Achilles was driving his spear into Hector's neck? Where was he when Achilles was dragging Hector's body behind his chariot in the dirt?! (She stops suddenly to face Priam.) It was an abomination! Why didn't Zeus stop it?

PRIAM (Caught by surprise, he stumbles backwards.) I know...I don't know. (He groans and puts his head in his hands)

HECUBA Zeus was busy, I suppose, turning himself into a bull or a bird so he could fuck one of his of mortal mistresses behind Hera's back!

PRIAM (Catches her by the wrist) Be careful what you say!

HECUBA (laughing maniacally) Why, Priam? Because the gods might punish me? What could be worse than they've already done!

PRIAM Don't be a fool! There's no need to insult them. Zeus may find a way to help us yet.

HECUBA You think so? How, I wonder? Perhaps he'll make sure the knife that cuts your throat is particularly sharp, or the first Greek who rapes me has a very small...

PRIAM Enough!

HECUBA (moving her hips lewdly) Zeus must have been having a very distracting liaison, because there was plenty of time for him to intervene while Achilles dragged Hector's body around the walls of Troy three times!

CHORUS (Trancelike, each one comes out of her corner, taking a step closer to the center with her statement, surrounding Priam and Hecuba)
1. We watched from the parapet,
2. his body dragged,
3. round and round.
1. Hector, our hero,
2. dead,
3. mangled,
1. broken.
2. Not one word was spoken.
3. Every eye was transfixed.

HECUBA Achillies! Pah! (spits) And that's the monster you expect to show you mercy and give Hector's body back?

PRIAM I do expect it. Achilles' rage was spent on that savage display. Now he sits in his tent crying.

HECUBA Crying?

PRIAM He mourns for Patroclus, the young warrior that Hector killed.

HECUBA If Achilles couldn't stand to lose his precious Patroclus, he shouldn't have have let him on the battlefield!

PRIAM Stop shrieking at me, Hecuba. I'm not the enemy. And you aren't the only one who has lost a son.

HECUBA I'm not?

1. Who has?
2. Who has lost?
3. Who has lost a son?

PRIAM I had 50 sons before the Greeks came to our shores.

HECUBA Is that meant to impress me? Me, who bore 19 of your children, then stood aside as you fathered more children with other women!

PRIAM It's a king's right!

HECUBA And what has become of them--our precious children? Dog's meat! Lying dead on the plains. I spent 19 years growing dog's meat in my womb. 

PRIAM Not all our children are dead.

HECUBA If not yet, they soon will be. Cassandra has gifted me with her visions.

PRIAM You can't believe Cassandra. She's mad!

HECUBA Paris, who brought this plague upon us, will kill Achilles, then be killed himself.

PRIAM (Laughs a little in surprise.) Paris, the coward, will kill the great Achilles? That would be a sweet revenge.

HECUBA Our other grown sons? They will die on the field.

PRIAM Surely, not all of them...

HECUBA Laodike, the most beautiful of all our daughters? A chasm will open to swallow her.

CHORUS 1: Earth will take back her beauty.

HECUBA Cruesa will be left behind as Troy burns.

CHORUS 2: Run, Cruesa. Run!

HECUBA Polyxena will be sacrificed to the ghost of Achilles.

CHORUS (talking to each other)
1. So even his ghost can hurt us?
2. Does he never tire of our blood?
3. Our princess! Put to death in the street!

HECUBA Cassandra will be "married" to the great Greek king Agamemnon, then brought to meet his ax-wielding wife.

PRIAM Stop it, Hecuba! I won't hear any more.

HECUBA You won't? Not even about Hector's son, our sweet little grand-baby? The Greeks will throw him from our highest wall!

PRIAM That's enough! (He addresses the chorus) Get my boots, cape, and helmet. Now!
(They all scurry off)

HECUBA (Picks up a knife from the table, points it at him, and moves to stand between him and the door.) And our own baby? The little boy we sent to Thrace for safekeeping? Polymester will kill him and take all his treasure, as soon as he learns we have lost this wretched war.

PRIAM (He grabs the knife out of her hand and flings it on the floor.) Enough, I said! Why are you tormenting me? You should be helping me, Hecuba...

HECUBA No. (She backs away from him and bars the door with her hands.)

PRIAM I am bringing gifts to the very man who murdered my son. I will kneel before him. Put my lips to his hand. Beg for Hector's body. No father has ever been asked to do more...

HECUBA (Drops her hands) So you are a beggar now, too?

PRIAM (Taking her dropped hands in his) What else would you have me do, Hecuba? Let Achilles dump Hector's body on the plains?

HECUBA I would have you stay, Priam. Stay with me. Let your fate be my fate. Let us meet it together. I don't want to die alone!

PRIAM No one is dying here today. I'll be back tomorrow. You'll see. Hector was Troy's greatest hero. He will have a hero's funeral. (He steps away from her to be dressed)

CHORUS (One comes back with the cape, another brings the boots, another the helmet. All three start dressing Priam.)

HECUBA (Defeated, she turns away so as not to watch the preparations, looking out over the audience) I BEGGED Hector to fight from the wall, not to go out on the plains to face Achilles. But he wouldn't listen!

PRIAM He couldn't fight from the wall. You know that. Then all the soldiers would want to fight from the wall and no one would be willing to go to the field.


PRIAM He was their leader. He had to set an example. He only did his duty.

HECUBA Duty! Pah! (She spits again) There's a word I no longer know the meaning of. Your duty is to your wife! Your duty is to stay alive. (She turns to beg him one last time) If this mission goes wrong, you will have a glorious warrior's death to comfort you. But what will happen to me when you're gone? I'll be enslaved to the very men who murdered my family. Exiled from the land I love. I'll be doomed to grieve my losses forever.

PRIAM The war isn't over yet. Maybe there's still a miracle coming.

HECUBA And maybe this is the end of everything we've ever known.

PRIAM (Fully dressed and ready to go, he speaks to her gently one last time; both are aware he might not come back) You mourn your losses too soon. I'll be back tomorrow. Come, give me a goodbye kiss.
I'm going now.
(She doesn't turn to look)
Wish me luck.
(She puts a hand to her chest but doesn't turn to look at him)
Goodbye, Hecuba.
(She says nothing. He leaves.)

HECUBA (Falls to her knees and sobs)

CHORUS (All three rush to comfort Hecuba)
1. Don't worry.
2. He'll be back.
3. We're safe here.
(Someone begins knocking which alarms all four of them, who turn in unison to look at the door)

VOICE OUTSIDE THE DOOR Queen Hecuba? You have a visitor: Polymester from Thrace!

1. Polymestor!
2. The traitor who killed your baby!
3. The thief who stole your treasure!
1. Hurry, let's hide in the temple!
3. We must beg for mercy!

HECUBA No! (Sees the knife on the floor and begins to crawl towards it) I'm through with begging. We will welcome our guest.

VOICE OUTSIDE THE DOOR (knocking) Queen Hecuba! May we enter?

HECUBA Just a moment! I'm getting dressed! (She grabs her knife off the floor, stands, and goes to the table. The chorus follows her.) Take this guest gift, each of you. Hold it behind your back. It's to be a surprise. (hands each a knife)

VOICE OUTSIDE THE DOOR (More knocking) Polymestor has tragic news about your son! An accident!

HECUBA (to the chorus) Let's give him a blood-warm reception.

(The Chorus nods at Hecuba, then turns away from the audience one by one, the knives held at their backs, as the knocking gets louder and a man's voice keeps calling, "Queen Hecuba?" Hecuba is the last to turn and expose the knife behind her back. Then she turns just her head toward the door and calls)

Come in!

(Black out.)


"Hecuba" was written for the SF Olympians festival and performed in a staged reading at the Exit Theater on November 13, 2013. 

Hecuba is one of many short stories, plays, novels and columns you can find on my Amazon Author PageSee what I'm working on now at
Cover art is a detail from a 15th Century tapestry of the Trojan War which can be seen at the Victoria and Albert museum in London. The detail shows Amazon queen Penthesilea pledging fealty to King Priam.

TIP JAR: Want to express your appreciation? Leave a review on Amazon, at Hecuba or just search for the title and click on it when you find it to move it up in the search rankings. 
Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.