As the school year kicks off once again, Homecoming is right around the corner. This period is designating for celebrating the return of students, teachers, and everyone else to the community and school after summer break. I was never one to get especially excited over the occasion, but this year I’ve just come back from a semester abroad. For the first time, it really does feel like a homecoming to me, and I couldn’t be happier to reunite with my friends and peers. It's a good time for me.
But there's a complication: We think of homecoming generally as the end of a long journey, the closing happy chapter to an arduous expedition. But what if it isn’t? What if homecoming is just the beginning of another trial? Of familial conflict or identity crises? That would mean homecoming is actually be quite susceptible to privilege. It never really crossed my mind to consider it that way, so I’d like to turn the discussion from my trivial school life to some classic tragedy.
The tragedy of Seneca’s Hercules Furens begins when Hercules finally returns home. Think about it. He spends all that time completing his twelve labors to great success. But when he comes home—at what rightfully should be the end of all this trial and tribulation—that is when misfortune strikes. He is tossed into a mad rage that leaves him bereft of wife and children, ready to end his own life. And that is precisely, as Hera states in her opening monologue, because Hercules’s trial is over. She has no more monsters to throw at him, "So let him fight himself" ( Seneca line 85).
There’s a lot going on there, and I find myself drawing some comparison to the homecoming of soldiers (Andrew and I have previously discussed Bryan Doerries and Phyllis Kaufman's Theater of War. You can read up on it here.)
It’s no secret that returning to civilian life is a ferocious task. And to be certain, that is a key element of many texts that deal with homecoming. Nostos is the Greek word for it, and it’s no accident that it is the root word for nostalgia: longing for the past. Homecoming, nostos, is return to a community and a prior life, but it carries some baggage. You can’t return to something without having departed it in the first place, and that means something changes in the meantime. Things will never be what they were before, for better or worse.
Our playwright, Jeffy, has started to explore this idea of a conflicted homecoming in their first draft. But they are approaching it from a different angle. Because it isn’t just Hercules or Odysseus or any other staggering hero that struggles to find home. It can also be people who identify as queer.
Coming home can put a lot of strain on coming out. It’s one thing to temporarily leave a community and return as a changed person. It’s another to feel as though you might not be welcome again because of the parts of yourself you have learned to embrace. Homecoming for many queer people sets up a new array of tasks and painful decision-making. Should you even go home? Should you come out or keep it a secret? Will you be estranged from your family and community if you do?
When celebratory elements are re-framed to expose and underscore certain kinds of suffering, you have a set-up ripe for drama. Think of when Harry returns with Cedric's body and everyone is ready to celebrate. This type of irony is an essential tool of tragedy (e.g. the people of Thebes looking to Oedipus to save them when he is the problem). Additionally, you have an opportunity to stretch your compassion-muscles when you realize something you take for granted can be painful to someone else. This is a fascinating and relevant area to explore because it seems to be somewhat untapped, not because no one has ever considered homecoming to be difficult, but because I don’t think we get to hear it as much from an LGBTQ+ perspective. More specifically, we don’t get to hear it from a non-binary perspective with specific focus on the performative nature of gender.
Jeffy has decided that their Hercules will identify as non-binary, rethinking Hercules’s usual role as supreme masculine icon and patriarch. As we’ll get to see in Jeffy’s writing, many of our conceptions about heroism are rooted in traits that are traditionally designated as “masculine.” What does that say about who we accept as saviors in our narratives? And how will gender complicate the homecoming of our Hero?