Norma Jeane Baker of Troyis a meditation on the destabilizing and destructive power of beauty, drawing together Helen of Troy and Marilyn Monroe, twin avatars of female fascination separated by millennia but united in mythopoeic force.
Carson—legendary poet, classicist, heartbreaker—is known for her eviscerating ability to take myth and move it into a local hotel, without ever letting the divine implications of the story waver. Actually, 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. We already knew there was more than one Marilyn ... Euripides took the dominant opinion that women are not really real literally, forgiving Helen by extension. Carson sits with this imposed unreality and its consequences, refusing purity by allowing her character to exist in multiplicity without accusing her of deceit ... The writing glows in...sections, wry, brutal, spacious.
It offers what we’ve come to expect from Anne Carson: non sequiturs, crisp single lines, sharp generalizations...classical references in modern dress ... This version of Euripides, and of Marilyn, ends up neither feminist nor anti-feminist, neither anti-war nor martial: it’s a big shrug, a sense that all is illusion, and we have no choice but to play along. And yet Carson’s Norma Jeane, like Euripides’s Helen, is also a serious play about war and about postwar mourning ... If the play, or the poem, seems to flail, to fall between the stools of savage farce and heroic rescue, deconstruction and redemption, stage drama and see-through illusion, there are reasons to think the original does too. And if the play doesn’t know what to do with itself by the end, Marilyn didn’t know either. Nor did Persephone ... Carson excels when she animates the mixed feelings around a conventionally heterosexual, monogamous, strongly felt erotic bond.
...today’s most insouciant classicist ... It’s always a pleasure to watch Carson’s mind at play, and her minor works can have a swift, casual sharpness ... Naturally this isn’t the real Marilyn, whoever that may have been, and it doesn’t aim to be. Yet 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.