Vol. 31 No. 2

Haunting Echoes: Tragedy in Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Elliot Trilogy

by Nathalie Aghoro
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 31, Number 2 (Winter 2019)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2019 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

Musical variations, the pursuit of belonging, and a persistent specter: These constitutive elements of the three experimental plays by Quiara Alegría Hudes known as the Elliot Trilogy speak of tragedy. They are imbued with the trauma of war, nostalgia, and alienation—a theme that George Steiner identifies as crucial for the dramatic form in his article “‘Tragedy,’ Reconsidered.” For Steiner, “the necessary and sufficient premise, the axiomatic constant in tragedy is that of ontological homelessness . . . of alienation or ostracism from the safeguard of licensed being. There is no welcome to the self. This is what tragedy is about.”[1] Hudes’s central protagonist Elliot seeks to recover a sense of home in a society removed from the realities of war he experienced as a soldier in Iraq. Over the timespan covered by the three plays Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue (2012), Water by the Spoonful (2012), and The Happiest Song Plays Last (2014), the playwright redefines tragedy when she sends her hero on a quest for redemption after a fatal error in judgment. But even when he seems on the cusp of overcoming it, the haunting echoes of his past as well as a family curse catch up with him and threaten to shatter his world.

The tragic is at the center of the Elliot Trilogy’s plot, but formally the primary dramatic impulses are theatrical experimentation with form and the inclusion of musical variety as each play focuses either on the classical fugue, free jazz, or classical Puerto Rican music. The plays differ in their structural composition and their aesthetic concerns, an instance that reflects the formation process of the trilogy. In an interview with Anne García-Romero, Hudes explains that she “did not set out to write a trilogy, but a few years after . . . Elliot, . . . [she] felt there was still more story to tell, and more structural and stylistic experimentation . . . to do in regards to music and playwriting.”[2] The plays reflect this evolution of the creative process, since they work effectively as standalone productions as much as they present a conceptual and topical arc that unites them into a three-movement oeuvre. Both a composer and a playwright by training, Hudes combines her vocations in the 2007 Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue by developing a musical structure for a theatrical staging that poetically reflects on loss and suffering. The second play, Water by the Spoonful, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 because of its “imaginative . . . search for meaning” that emerges from an experimentation with virtual, actual, and theatrical space and an exploration of family and community in the twenty-first century.[3] The tragic dimension in Water by the Spoonful is realized as there is no escape from past fatal mistakes—neither in real life nor online.

While in the first two plays Elliot is haunted by the first person he killed as a soldier in Iraq and struggles with the untimely and avoidable death of his little sister as a child, The Happiest Song Plays Last marks a departure from tragedy that still retains the tragic, but merely as one among other more prominent themes. As Hudes explains in a video interview for the 2014 Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Elliot is “poised to overcome” his past troubles in the last part of the trilogy and the play explores this orientation toward the future from a personal and social perspective.[4] This becomes particularly apparent in the renewed formal engagement with music as an auditory medium that, for Hudes, is capable of uniting people in celebration while simultaneously addressing grave social conditions with critical lyrics to promote political change.[5] Indeed, the drama does not lose the nostalgic undertones and dissonances established in the previous plays. However, a bittersweet hopefulness—uncommon for classical tragedy—takes over with the Puerto Rican troubadour tradition that Hudes introduces into performances of The Happiest Song Plays Last through the sound of the cuatro which is the national instrument of Puerto Rico.

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