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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama


Lesia Ukrainka

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To purchase Cassandra

Title: Cassandra
Author: Lesia Ukrainka
Genre: Drama
Written: 1908 (Eng. 2024)
Length: 278 pages
Original in: Ukrainian
Availability: Cassandra - US
Cassandra - UK
Cassandra - Canada
Kassandra - Deutschland
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • A Dramatic Poem
  • Ukrainian title: Кассандра
  • Translated by Nina Murray
  • Previously translated by Vera Rich (in Lesya Ukrainka: Selected Works, 1968)
  • With an Introduction by Marko Pavlyshyn
  • This is a bilingual edition, with the Ukrainian text facing the English translation.

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Our Assessment:

B+ : the familiar story, but a fine presentation of it

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Although presented as A Dramatic Poem (драматична поема), Lesia Ukrainka's 1908 Cassandra certainly looks like a traditional, classical drama (in verse). The subject-matter is also a familiar one, the story of one of the daughters of Priam, King of Troy -- cursed with the gift of prophecy, and doubly cursed, by Apollo, in that her always accurate prophecies are never believed. With the Trojan War not going well -- and she knowing all too well the terrible things that are to come -- she struggles with her condition; as she puts it: "My head already wears the heavy crown / of maledictions like an iron diadem". Everyone is irritated by her pronouncements, too; as Andromache tells her: "you always / foretell out of place, for no apparent reason".
       The basic problem is, of course, that Cassandra doesn't offer the rosy picture that everyone wants. As one local puts it:

     We have had it up to here with
this one's prophecies ! Nothing but gloom and
doom ! We are fed up !
       Among the most interesting aspects of Cassandra is how Ukrainka contrasts Cassandra and her brother Helenus and their differing approaches. In Ukrainka's telling, though he presents himself (and is regarded) as a seer, Helenus' gift of prophecy is not the equal of Cassandra's. As he admits:
Do you not ever see what is to come,
inevitable, certain ? Do you not
ever hear the voice deep inside your heart
that says: "It will be so ! Exactly so !"

To tell the honest truth -- no, not ever.
       Instead, he tells people what they want to hear -- the happy outcomes that they wish for -- hoping thus also to help bring them about. He's a faker -- but a faker with a purpose, as he believes that what he does can shape outcomes. Whereas Cassandra sees a world, and a path, entirely (pre)determined by fate -- "But what about the Moirai, unmerciful / Moirai? It is their will that does compel / the world") --, Helenus believes that events can be influenced by conviction in the desired outcomes: as he (correctly) notes: "While I spur courage, you evoke despair". But, of course, that's because the world is a miserable place and (shows of) courage are a pointless pseudo-ideal -- but the illusion of having the power to shape one's fate goes over well with his audiences.
       Helenus does not believe in absolutes:
     Again this truth and untruth !
Let's drop these words, as they both mean nothing.
Perhaps you think that truth begets the speech ?
I think it's speaking that begets the truth.
       The evidence, of course, continues to suggest otherwise: even as he spurs fighters to 'brave' action, Helenus' rosy predictions fail miserably, while time after time Cassandra's are horribly realized (often nicely exacerbated by her warnings going unheeded).
       Cassandra's defeatist-sounding attitude -- "what better use of time than to accept / the inevitable ?" -- does not go over well. Indeed, she is quite the wet blanket -- not helping matters with her dour and bitter attitude. The situation -- the whole Trojan War mess, and then also the fact that her fiancé Dolon had dumped her and she can't get over him -- certainly justifies the way she feels and acts, but still, as she presents herself, hers isn't a winning personality (or approach).
       Much of the story, and the setbacks, are familiar from the many tales of the Trojan War -- including here also the episode with the Trojan horse --, but Ukrainka also has, in one longer episode, Cassandra desperately -- but, of course, hopelessly -- trying to save Dolon. As he goes off to meet his inevitable fate Cassandra shows a different kind of passion, begging the gods to save him, distraught that they are willing to:
     rob me, a wretched woman, of my
last dream, my desperate desire to have
the man I love alive ? He was not meant
for me, yet he is mine, my only one.
       It makes for effective drama --as does much else here. Yes, most of the story is very familiar, but Ukrainka presents it well, right down to the dreadful ending, Clytemnestra conniving with her lover Aegisthus: "We need two swords. You go and sharpen them" .....
       Nina Murray's translation is mostly solid but occasionally (very) jarring, especially when some modern idioms and expression finds its way into the otherwise classical text, such as: "There ain't / no such thing as free lunch", or: "Today, we can drink wine unmixed ! Let's party !". Fortunately and admirably, this edition is a bilingual one, so the original Ukrainian text can also be consulted.
       Ukrainka's Cassandra is yet another close variation on a familiar story, but a good and engaging one. It still reads well and obviously lends itself to performance.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 June 2024

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Cassandra: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Ukrainian writer Lesia Ukrainka (Lessia Oukraïnka; Lessja Ukrajinka; Леся Українка; actually Larysa Petrivna Kosach (Лариса Петрівна Косач)) lived 1879 to 1913.

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© 2024 the complete review

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