An Illiad

Earlier this month, friends and I went to see a one man production of An Illiad. Adapted from Homer by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, it was a modern retelling of one of the most classic works in the Western World.

And I do mean retelling. Literally.

The Poet (played exquisitely by Teagle F. Bougere) comes on stage in a trench coat and carrying a suitcase and tells us the story of from the taking of Helen to Hector’s funeral. Except, it’s not just the story. Though the Poet says outright that he has told this story countless times before a myriad of audiences, it’s understood he’s an eternal character who is sharing something of his own memories. He quotes Homer in classical Greek. He appeals to the Muses for inspiration, to give him the words, the courage to tell this story again, to please not desert him mid-performance. Many of his descriptions are direct translations of Homer’s original text.

Yet what the playwrights and actor managed was to relate this legendary war to modern life. There’s a particularly poignant several minutes where the Poet is describing the horrors of the battlefield and he says (from my memory), “I’ve not see the likes of it since…” And then he lists each major war in the world from the time of Troy to present day, in every country we have records for. Squatting on the table, his voice a sad monotone, the name of every single major war for pretty much the entire history of mankind.

It still brings tears to my eyes, just thinking about that never-ending list echoing in the absolute silence of the theater.

Though the show was intense, with the Poet once so overcome with battle lust that he “threatens” to attack an audience member, to Achilles’ rage at his friend’s death and the insults heaped upon his honor, to sobbing inconsolably after Hector’s death, the story still has moments of humor, a quick turn-of-phrase which keeps it from becoming morbid.

When I think about mugging myths, this is the kind of thing I strive for. To find a new connection in what is universal in humankind between the far distant past and the present. While there was much talk about war, yes, but it wasn’t about war in itself. It was still the point The Illiad always had: The hubris of people thinking that war will solve anything, yet it’s a lesson that the human race never learns, even as we face war again.

This is the universal connection in humankind I was talking about, that something that we all have a personal opinion about, personal fears about. This is the essence of what good stories touch on, talk about, bring to the fore and make relevant for the present audience.

This reminder came at a good point, after having spent too much of the last many months bogged down by things other than the real point of the story. A glowing example to steer my ship by as I start sailing the creative waters again.

 

The production of An Illiad I saw with Teagle F. Bougere continues at the Pittsburgh Public Theater (www.ppt.org) through April 6, 2014. I highly recommend it if you are in the area.

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