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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama

Norma Jeane Baker of Troy

Anne Carson

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To purchase Norma Jeane Baker of Troy

Title: Norma Jeane Baker of Troy
Author: Anne Carson
Genre: Drama
Written: (2020)
Length: 68 pages
Availability: Norma Jeane Baker of Troy - US
Norma Jeane Baker of Troy - UK
Norma Jeane Baker of Troy - Canada
  • A version of Euripides's Helen
  • Premiered on 9 April 2019 in New York, in a production starring Ben Whishaw and Renée Fleming, directed by Katie Mitchell

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Our Assessment:

A- : powerful and poetic; neatly done (if difficult to stage)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Artforum . 27/5/2019 Jennifer Krasinski
Bookforum . 2-3/2020 Audrey Wollen
Financial Times . 11/4/2019 John Rockwell
Harper's . 3/2020 Lidija Haas
The NY Times . 10/4/2019 Ben Brantley
The Telegraph . 10/4/2019 Rupert Christiansen
Wall St. Journal . 10/4/2019 Terry Teachout
The Washington Post . 12/7/2019 Anne Midgette
World Lit. Today C Summer/2020 R.Signorelli-Pappas

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) screwball stunner of a text -- a poem, a monologue, punctuated throughout with nine lessons in the history of war (...) Mitchell's reframing flattened so much of the work's dimension that one might think she only skimmed Carson's poem. Her choices needlessly aggravated, and seemed to underestimate her audience too." - Jennifer Krasinski, Artforum

  • "Carson's restaging only enlivens. She allows her ancient characters to stretch their legs, broaden their breath, after a long, crowded journey to the present. (...) Norma Jeane Baker of Troy takes the permanently doubled nature of womanhood seriously, as an emotional condition rather than a narrative device. (...) In the cuts between Norma Jeane/Marilyn/Helen's monologues and narration, Carson has interspersed short pedagogical interludes, lessons in the "History of War." The writing glows in these sections, wry, brutal, spacious." - Audrey Wollen, Bookforum

  • "Carson's text is a complex mash-up of past and present and the two women and extra characters from Marilyn's time, interspersed with didactic "lessons" about war. (...) It's very clever, sometimes too much so. (...) Does it work ? For the most part, yes." - John Rockwell, Financial Times

  • "It's always a pleasure to watch Carson's mind at play, and her minor works can have a swift, casual sharpness. (...) Carson's slapdash Norma Jeane captures some qualities underestimated in too many conjurings of the original-- the intellectual energy, Bolshie rebellion, and crude humor that underpinned her blonde -- clown antics and helped make them indelible onscreen." - Lidija Haas, Harper's

  • "(L)ess a play than a staged poem (.....) By the end, they have together achieved a sort of improbable apotheosis of empathy. Or that's the way I saw it. Ms. Carson is not the most immediately accessible of writers. (...) You don't really you need to know your classics or even your Hollywood lore to grasp the thematic gist of Norma Jeane, which ponders the follies of war-making men and their abuses of women. Sometimes Ms. Carson's conjunctions of figures past and present can seem both too obvious and too obscure." - Ben Brantley, The New York Times

  • "Carson compressed pithily, into an hour-long performance, a tome's worth of thoughts on translation and adaptation, women and their role in myth, the uneasy interference patterns that result from overlaying past and present. The play, it turns out, is all about women dealing with the canon and its challenges. Perhaps it's hardly surprising, for all the progress that we've made, that very few people seemed to get it." - Anne Midgette, The Washington Post

  • "(B)rilliantly conceived but untidily written. (...) This is a work that assumes knowledge of both Greek mythology and Hollywood lore on a rather massive scale. (...) The language and tone of Carson's play are strikingly uneven." - Rita Signorelli-Pappas, World Literature

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Norma Jeane Baker of Troy has a cast of one -- Norma Jeane Baker -- making it more monologue (or poem) than conventional drama; the role is a doubled one, however, as several times Norma Jeane appears: "as Mr. Truman Capote". (Unsurprisingly, however, when it was first staged, a second actor was thrown into the mix (not for the Capote-parts, but rather a completely supplemental figure).)
       The play more or less alternates between the lone figure on stage and short lessons on the 'History of War', prose sections that take a (classical) Greek term -- say: τραῦμα --, provide an English translation ('wound', in this case), and then a related lesson; most also include supplemental material -- in this case: on 'Changing Attitudes' and 'Continuities'; elsewhere, for example re. παλλακή ('concubine'), the supplemental bits offer commentary on things such as: 'Applications', a 'Case Study', 'Can You Pass', a 'Teachable Moment'-example, and a 'Battlefield Cliche'.
       As the sub-title indicates, this play is: A version of Euripides's Helen, but Carson's version extends considerably beyond the original, even beyond the substitution of a real-life contemporary figure as the lead. The contemporary figure also mirrors the greater Helen-myth -- and, for example, Carson offers the 'Teachable Moment' explaining:

Helen's very first appearance in history and literature, at verse 126-129 of the third book of Homer's Iliad, shows her sitting in her chamber in the palace of Priam, weaving. She is weaving a vast tapestry that depicts, minute by minute, the battle going on outside her window. Notice Homer uses the word "sprinkle" to describe how she embroiders the dooms of men into her web. Helen knows dirt. Helen is a death-sprinkler.
       And so throughout Carson's play Helen is often occupied, while she speaks, with knitting -- and, as is wryly noted:
What are you knitting ? says Miss Pearl Bailey.

She is eating almonds from a ziploc bag.

The fall of Troy, I say.

Big theme, she says.
       Big theme, indeed .....
       [Pedantic observation: While the basic idea of ziploc bags was patented around this time, such bags were not actually available until the late 1960s.]
       Norma Jeane Baker is Euripidean in being a double -- behind the name is also the Hollywood creation, Marilyn Monroe, just as an illusory Helen was hidden by Menelaus in a cave: "The truth is / a cloud went to Troy", Norma Jeane Baker reveals to the audience. And, this being Hollywood, in this version it was of course a publicity stunt; the real Norma Jeane Baker meanwhile was at the Chateau Marmont, learning her lines for the 1952 Fritz Lang film, Clash by Night (with: "dear honourable, oldfashioned Arthur, / who led an army to Troy to win me back" -- that being her later husband Arthur Miller). (Arthur Miller is the better fit for the Menelaus-type figure, though at the time she was more involved with future husband Joe DiMaggio.)
       Norma Jeane Baker not only plays her part, but explicitly spells out the playing of it for the audience (with her speeches very much directed at it throughout), complete with beginning her scenes with variations on: "Enter Norma Jeane". So also when she brings in that other ("funny little girl"-) voice, or indeed the multitude in her, she declaims:
Enter Norma Jeane as Mr. Truman Capote.

First choral song.

Enter chorus.

I am my own chorus.

I think of my chorus as Mr. Truman Capote.
       Ultimately, this particular doubling is no longer (just) an alternating one, brought both on stage and entirely within her: "Enter Norma Jeane as Mr. Truman Capote to join Norma Jeane as Norma Jeane". While not easy to stage, this play full of doubles (specifically those phantom-doubles, the pure creations: Marilyn Monroe, and the ghost-Helen) works well in purely literary terms, right down to the final stage direction at the conclusion of this one-(wo)man play: "Exeunt omnes singing".
       Identity is central to the play, but power-relationships dominate. At one point Carson's Norma Jeane Baker bluntly sums up the central point of these stories:

is the story of Helen,


Norma Jeane,


War is the context

and God is a boy.
       Here and throughout, the simple, stark language of this play-length monologue is effective and powerful. The narrative as a whole might seem relatively bare, but the foundations -- the original Helen-story, as well as the Marilyn Monroe-story -- are sufficiently well-known to provide a supporting foundation that allows Carson to build on -- as she does very effectively.
       The prose 'History of War'-lesson interludes meanwhile are a welcome change of pace. More difficult to integrate into a staged version -- indeed, difficult even in just reading to envision as part of the played part of the drama -- they obviously function better in the text-version. Both supplement and complement to the Norma Jeane Baker monologue, they work well with the text to make for a richer, deeper whole.
       Spare but ultimately surprisingly far-reaching in its handling of story and its themes, Norma Jeane Baker of Troy is an impressive work. If difficult to imagine as stage-work -- and with the first staged version sounding like it inadequately reflected the text-as-a-whole -- it is an impressive, poetic text and well worth engaging with.

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 June 2020

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Norma Jeane Baker of Troy: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Canadian author Anne Carson was born in 1950.

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© 2020-2021 the complete review

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