“The moral madness of the modern Herakles”: collage and fragments of Herakles in Tony Harrison’s The Labourers of Herakles and the Harrison Archive
This chapter examines the figure of Herakles in Tony Harrison’s play 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. Harrison transposes the story of Herakles into the alien political environment of the late 20th century in this play, partly based on the tragic fragments of Phrynichos, which treats modern genocide and ethnic cleansing in the Bosnian war in a powerful statement about the universality of human suffering.
Herakles in this play serves on the one hand as a figure for death and war in general—“the moral madness of the modern Herakles” of the title referring to the Bosnian conflict—but on the other hand, through the myths of Herakles wrestling with death and as civilising culture-hero, as a figure of protest against humanity’s repetition of its destructive errors.
Harrison’s Herakles, as the play itself, is a composite of fragmentary texts and conflicting images of the hero: the playwright draws on ancient and modern, high-art and popular representations of Herakles / Hercules and his myth. This is particularly 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 much 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.
Provisional content for Hercules Performed