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Hodkinson Abstract

'The moral madness of the modern Herakles': collage and fragments in Tony Harrison’s The Labourers of Herakles and the Harrison Archive

Owen Hodkinson

This chapter examines Herakles in Tony Harrison’s the Labourers of Herakles (1995), and in the notebooks and other materials that informed Harrison’s creative processes in the Tony Harrison archives in the Brotherton Library’s Special Collections. This play, partly based on the tragic fragments of Phrynichos, transposes Herakles’ story into the alien political environment of the late 20th century, incorporating genocide and ethnic cleansing in the Bosnian war (referred to in “the moral madness of the modern Herakles”) to make a powerful statement about the universality of human suffering. Herakles serves both as a figure for death and war in general, and (through the myths of Herakles as wrestling death and as civilising culture-hero) as a warning against humanity’s repetition of its destructive errors. Harrison’s Labourers and its hero alike are composites of fragmentary texts and conflicting images of Herakles: the playwright draws on ancient and modern, high-art and popular representations of the hero. This is vividly illustrated by the collage-like technique with which Harrison assembles and juxtaposes images and texts about everything to do with Herakles, Phrynichus, the Bosnian war and more besides in his notebooks while working on the draft of the play: they feature clippings from tabloid newspapers, magazines, scholarly monographs and articles, images from museum catalogues, postcards and advertisements, with Harrison’s handwritten annotations illuminating his reflections about the significance of Herakles as symbol for war, death, masculinity, humanity, and the redemptive power of art.