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Barbara's Column
April 2003 #4

Barbara as Helen of Troy?
© by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Thursday, April 24, 2003

During school vacation week, as she awaits the debate on the House budget, a taxfighter columnist’s fancies turn to the TV drama about Helen of Troy, and memories of when she too was almost “the face that launched a thousand ships.”

Now stop that. I know you are looking at the attached photo and thinking “no way.” But this is a true story.

It was spring 1962, my first term at a Penn State commonwealth campus, and I was taking the required theater course. The selected play for that class was Jean Giraudoux’ Tiger at the Gates: “(Trojan) Hector, back from battle, comes as a peacemaker and convinces (Greek) Ulysses and the populace of the insanity of war, and together they agree that the Trojan War shall not take spite of all logic, the war erupts.”

Timely, yes? And note the French author. The points made during the debate between Hector and Ulysses would please anti-war activists. But I am not responsible for the dialogue or choice of play. I was just a freshman girl.

Our beloved drama professor Miss Burns decided to have the freshmen boys choose who would play Helen. To her surprise and dismay, they chose me.

If she had stopped to think, she would have realized that, in this period before the sexual revolution, when teenage boys weren’t often “scoring” with virginal freshmen girls, the former weren’t as interested in faces as they were in other body parts. And I can say this forty years and sixty pounds later, without appearing vain: my parts were ample and well-distributed.

Ms. Burns overruled the vote (as if she were Tom Finneran!) and pretty, petite Wanda got the role of Helen.

Don’t cry for me. I was as surprised by the original vote as anyone. I’d have liked to play Cassandra, Paris’ psychic sister, who warned about the “Greeks bearing gifts.” But that part went, appropriately, to an exotic-looking brunette; I got the role of laundress. This was OK because I really just wanted to be in the play with the several boys I was dating at the time, Hector and Ulysses among them, though I had a major crush on Ajax and was somewhat in love with Troilus. (If you are thinking that I didn’t take college very seriously, you are right).

When the costumes arrived, Helen’s wasn’t the off-shoulder toga you may have seen in the movies: Wanda was stuck with a modest white prom-dress. The laundress got a piece of hopsack that was designed for someone half my size. Not only did it leave my legs bare, but on the night of dress rehearsal a loose nail ripped the back open on my way to the stage. As I strolled out carrying my basket, someone in the audience yelled “Return Helen, keep the laundress!”

It was one of those moments that get one through middle-age and I suspect can still make one smile in the nursing home. But there was substance to this experience, as well.

When I first became the spokesperson for the Proposition 2˝ campaign in 1980, a Boston Globe columnist referred to Prop 2˝ as “a Trojan horse”. With my drama/history background, I could immediately fire off a letter to the editor proclaiming that “whether the Trojan horse was a good or a bad thing depends entirely upon whether one is a Greek or a Trojan.”

My point was clear. The politicians occupied the home turf, the high ground of Beacon Hill; taxpayer activists, outnumbered by hordes of spending advocates, needed an outsiders’ strategy to win. The initiative petition process took us inside the gates of power and gave us our property tax limit. Let’s hear it for the wooden horse!

Anyhow, I always enjoy the latest retelling of the Trojan War epic, and am looking forward to the 2004 film “Troy” with Brad Pitt playing Achilles. As Ulysses tells Hector in Tiger at the Gates, “Don’t ask me to interpret fate. All I have tried to do is to read the world’s hand, in the great lines of desert caravans, the wake of ships, and the track of migrant birds and wandering peoples.” Timely, isn’t it. Always.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem News and the Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in other newspapers.

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