Cultural Response: An Iliad, New York Theatre Workshop

Event: An Iliad, a play written by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare
Location: New York Theatre Workshop
Date Attended: March 21, 2012
Performers: Stephen Spinella (The Poet), Brian Ellingsen (Bassist)

On Wednesday, March 21, 2012, I attended New York Theatre Workshop’s production of An Iliad, a new, one-man retelling of Homer’s epic. When I first heard about the production, I was skeptical. How could one person act out the entire story of The Iliad, from the catalog of ships, to the drama of Achilles, Patroclus, Hector? Which stories would the actor focus on? How could he become these characters without seeming dated or overtly comical?

I read The Iliad as an undergraduate studying abroad, researching a term paper at Oxford that explored the ethics and methods of the excavation of Troy, a site in modern day Turkey (Hissarlik) that continues to capture the imagination of archaeologists and other classics scholars. While my early 20s were spent captivated by the ancient stories and the lands they came from, my most recent exposure to The Iliad was the awful, sweaty but perfectly chiseled demigods in Troy, the type of high budget, star-studded, flashy special effects-filled, sword-and-sandal epic movie that continues to bloat the summer selections at your local movie theater. My guess is that the directors and producers of such films as 300, Troy, Clash of the Titans (for which there will be a sequel, coming to a theater near you! Wrath of the Titans), emphasize the splash, the visuals, actors flying across the screen in martial arts moves or frozen in “bullet time” a la The Matrix, in order to make the theater viewing experience worth our 13 bucks (here in Manhattan, at least).

This play is the exact opposite of those movies. One man. Backstage. Talking to us, the audience members, like we’re friends. Imagine a good friend telling you a story about something from his past, in a bar – but he’s the best storyteller ever. The Poet is a stand-in for Homer, or multiple Homers. Tobias Myers, the Classics scholar who was part of the AfterWords discussion following the performance, said there are two competing theories of who Homer was: 1) a single man who wrote down the epics of The Iliad and The Odyssey; and 2) a composite of poets who told these stories. Either way, the epic poems were indisputably told: at festivals, competitions and other events around the ancient Greek islands. The stories changed, as all oral traditions do, depending on the audience and location. In An Iliad, we’ve met up with The Poet in present day New York City; this is an ageless man, who’s told these stories for thousands of years to as many audiences. In some plays, the actor becomes the character; we as audience members are expected to believe these actors are these characters, all the time, in their daily lives. Here, the actor embodies the characters as he’s telling them, but then pulls back periodically with the line “do you see it?” Do you see the scene he just told you? Do you see Hector, startling his son in full battle regalia? How he has to take off his helmet to become Daddy? The woman in front of me nodded each time Spinella uttered the phrase; I saw it too. Sometimes he illuminates a moment in the Iliad story by relating it to present day: a listing of wars throughout history, the psychology of rage after a driver cuts you off in traffic. While these moments could have been forced or motivated by political leanings, in Spinella’s performance there are no false moments.

The stories told in this play, as in Homer’s poem, are stories about rage, destruction, power, and love. Never abstract considerations of what war does to the human spirit, we see instead the human moments: the power (if not leadership) and pride that Agamemnon exerts over his fellow soldiers by demanding one of their prizes; the frenzy and blood rage Patroclus exhibits behind Achilles’ armor; the dropped open mouth, sigh, and weep of a mother who learns about her son’s death.

The Poet calls upon The Muses (here, represented by the lone live musician, bassist Brian Ellingsen) to tell his stories. The Muses, in classical Greek mythology, are daughters of Mnemosyne (Memory, embodied) and Zeus. They are frequently invoked at the beginning of classical Greek poems, as if the poet does not create the stories himself, but remembers them aided by the daughters of Memory. Throughout this play, we see a vivid portrayal of the relationship between the Poet and the Muses. As the bassist plays a certain tune, the Poet hears it and nods: ah yes, this story. And in raging moments, as The Poet tells certain stories of blood lust and rage, the bass accentuates the dervish, sawing on the strings until the Poet cries, “Stop!” He can’t tell that story anymore. We see the haunting relationship between Poet and Muse; how access to the divine, to cultural memory can break and torture a human man. There are stories he can’t tell, he doesn’t want to tell. He knows what they are; he knows the torture of becoming those stories.

Myers referred to Plato’s dialogue “Ion,” in which Plato shows his suspicion of poets and the power they hold on their audiences. In the dialogue, Ion is a rhapsode: a professional reciter of epic poetry, particularly Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. Ion bumps into Socrates who engages him in a dialogue (as is Socrates’ wont), attempting to prove that poetry is a matter of divine inspiration and not knowledge. Through a series of questions concerning whether a poet (in this case, Homer) knows more about the professions of charioteers, generals, and doctors than those who practice those professions themselves, Socrates concludes that those who write, recite, and listen to poetry are dispossessed of intellect; rather, they work from a source of divine power, servants of a god who speaks through them.

As in several of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates’ ultimate goal in “Ion” is knowledge: as Socrates defines it, knowledge is that which can be deduced through a series of concrete, logical proofs. And perhaps in the time period of Plato and Socrates, the way of the gods was passé. Indeed, logic has brought us science, a desire to understand cause and effect, in order to know how we can better address the roots of disease, death, and wear on the human body and the earth. Plato knows that poetry is powerful: he’s seen the madness and energy that the epics bring onto the speaker and the audience. How poetry can move, despite no discernible change in the surroundings:

Should we say [the rhapsode] is in his right mind…when’s he at festivals or celebrations, all dressed up in fancy clothes, with golden crowns, and he weeps, though he’s lost none of his finery—or when he’s standing among millions of friendly people and he’s frightened, though no one is undressing him or doing him any harm? Is he in his right mind then? (Plato 943)

In Spinella’s performance of An Iliad, we take the journey with him. Here, Plato’s fear of poetry’s power is accurate: we are moved as the Poet is by the stories he invokes from the Muses. Unlike Plato’s assumption, however, experiencing a moment beyond one’s physical location (through intuition, emotion, empathy) does not make us less knowledgeable. Early on in the play, The Poet says the gods never die: they change, burrow inside us, become us. By being and becoming the stories of The Iliad, The Poet allows us to see beyond and within ourselves: how rage, blood lust, war, mourning, love, pride, desire, and loss have always affected both sides of a conflict, across cultures, and in our own homes and personal relationships.

Sources:

Plato: Complete Works. “Ion.” Trans. Paul Woodruff. Ed. John M. Cooper. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997.

Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Viking Penguin, 1990.

Note:

An Iliad is now closed, but if there are plans for future productions, I will update this post and announce on this blog.

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