An Iliad Onstage
I'm not so good with observances, and when Veterans' Day came round last month, I felt only the most fleeting sort of gratitude or even acknowledgment. Such feelings shimmer and vanish amid daily demands and the related distractions that crowd the collective attention span, such as reports of a spike in weddings on the same day this year, 11/11/11. Before you know it, the day and its intended reflection have passed you by, or you it. So it was splendid timing to attend An Iliad, a one-man show at the University of Chicago's Court Theatre. Rarely has the subject of war—or, better, what the English poet Wilfred Owen called "war and the pity of war"—been so sparely yet effectively staged.
In an intense performance running less than ninety minutes and without intermission, Timothy Edward Kane is riveting and endlessly energetic as The Poet, a modern storyteller or maybe one who's traveled three thousand years to speak to us, in Hyde Park in 2011. He speaks in order not to forget. Kane gives fresh, impassioned voice to the main actions of the Iliad, Homer's ancient poem about the Greek siege of Troy. He first appears hopping down from a backstage ladder, and resembles a Libyan freedom fighter, or, as the director puts it in the playbill's "Design Notebook," "an embedded journalist in the Trojan War": combat boots, soiled trench coat under which is a field jacket, a scarf—linen and cotton reflecting a desert climate. Taking a hasty drink from his canteen, and soon inspired by the Muse, The Poet proceeds to tell, yet once more, the story that is his to carry and share.
Kane stood downstage and recited Homer's ancient Greek lines (an expert on Homeric dialect was consulted), and then began to search for the best ways to help a modern audience appreciate the story's characters and dimensions. His explicit struggle— "um, um, um," eyes darting, as he sought the right word or analogy—was one of the most engaging things about Kane's character. We could powerfully sense, in his woodpecking hand gestures and verbal stumbling, the difficulty in conveying with a proper depth of feeling Homer's great poem. But once started, Kane did not stop speaking, however much he wrestled with his task, until the play had concluded. Receiving a standing ovation, he ran from the stage up the aisle through the audience.
The Brooklyn actor and writer Denis O'Hare and director Lisa Peterson adapted An Iliad freely from Robert Fagles' translation of the original, and the pointed localizing or modernizing moments featured in their version reflect their collaborative process. The pair would read aloud Fagles' text, and Peterson recorded O'Hare's frequent digressions in between passages, as he explained or elaborated or commented upon the scene or speech. This process could have had a nightmare outcome, making longer an already sprawling poem of fifteen thousand lines, but instead these surprising additions of The Poet accent a highly streamlined narrative. (Homer, too, was known for this skill: the action of the Iliad takes place during a short span near the end of the ten-year war, and Aristotle praised the epic poet for showing a dramatist's sense of a unified action.)
Thus, An Iliad is not only compressed, impactful theater at its best, but also an incitement to sympathy, sadness, and ultimately a better understanding of war (all wars), the boys involved in it, and the mixed effects upon those who experience it. War can provide moments of glory, as this stage version is honest enough to show us, and there is humor in the show—including The Poet's surprisingly comic turns as Paris and Helen—but mostly what comes through is the bitter taste of great loss—lost youth, lost years, lost life. We hear, as if it were recent news and not a millennia-old tale, about Achilles' rage, his and Agamemnon's dissension, the noble Hector, Achilles' doomed friend Patroclus and his rage against the advancing Trojans, Achilles' avenging of his dead friend by killing Hector and raging against his corpse, and finally, Hector's grieving father, the Trojan king Priam, and his bold mission to visit his son's killer and retrieve the mutilated body for burial.
An Iliad's set, as the stage manager and dramaturg explained at a talkback following the performance I attended, is meant to suggest the war zones of both ancient Troy and the contemporary Middle East. The show's director, Charles Newell (also the Court's artistic director), first envisioned an empty swimming pool, but with visual suggestions of ancient spaces such as catacombs. Audiences find themselves in a great, dried-out, underground sewer, or a long-dilapidated ancient bath. The sloping concrete is reminiscent of Troy's ramparts, but for me it also evoked LA's tagged, concrete storm drains, featured in car chases in numberless films.
Newell, the notes tell us, had only Kane in mind for the show's demanding solo role, and he delivers a thrilling performance, which is heightened by an awareness that this version of Homer's story returns us to its original compositional setting—that of oral delivery, speech and song. Kane, who worked earlier with Howell in another fierce war play, Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, tries to give the audience some sense of the scale of the Greek mission to Troy—the various towns and regions represented, and the numbers raised—numbers of ships, and of young men filling them from each of these places. The power of the adaptation becomes apparent almost immediately when The Poet acknowledges how long ago this was, and how hard it is to imagine, and so he transfers the areas represented to the United States: suddenly all of these boys sailing to Troy hail from upstate New York, Florida, or Lawrence, Kansas, and all the while the speaker points to these places on a huge imaginary map.
Other similar moments involve a description of a photo of young soldiers in the trenches in World War I, or a long, ridiculously long chronological catalogue of wars, moving from Troy and the later conflicts of ancient Greece, onward and ever onward to Kabul and Iraq. This accumulative rhetoric, which mixes vatic effect with a tired resignation that such conflicts are unavoidable and their costs never remembered, much less fully reckoned, reminded me of a poem I recently encountered in the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski's new collection. There he remembers a driver of a hay cart crying out
as men always do when they panic
—they screamed that way in the Iliad
and have never fallen silent since,
not during the Crusades,
or later, much later, near us,
when no one listens.
Of course these moments seek to connect Homer's ancient battle and the lost soldiers he immortalized with the soldiers, our soldiers, still fighting today and no doubt (the connection implies) having very similar experiences. Fortunately these inclusions merely punctuate The Poet's primary commitment to telling the Trojan story. The parallels make the originating war story more imaginable and expand its circumstances throughout history. They avoid the obvious risk, and do not distract or reduce in merely politicizing or heavy-handed ways.
A few other modernizing touches enliven the play greatly. As I trust my opening description of the story's incidents makes clear, the Iliad, from its first word onward, largely focuses on rage, and here Kane reserves his greatest display of rage for his turn as Patroclus. Wearing his friend's armor, which we're informed is too large for him, and thus must have shifted and jiggled on his body or been filled out with stuffing, Patroclus hurtles his spear and growls and grinds his teeth as he cuts down the Trojan forces, causing their retreat from the Greek lines back to Troy's plain. Kane then pauses, as if feeling more deeply the raging condition he is representing, and says to the audience that we are all capable of such rage, and it can feel good—as when, for example, someone pulls out in front of us on the freeway. (This met with great laughter.) Likewise, when Achilles is about to face off with Hector, The Poet makes a brief aside about how it might all go otherwise. Colloquially Achilles imagines himself taking Hector out for a drink instead and commiserating on their fighting—remember how four days ago we were fighting, and we killed your charioteer? or how about when we were fighting in front of the Trojan walls and then that bird landed in front of us, an egret it was, maybe?, and wasn't that so weird? The effect is jarring, moving, and highly satisfying.
The production deftly incorporates the four elements, which contribute to the impression of simple force. For example, Kane at one point dunks his head in a nearby pail of water, cooling himself down after especially intense physical exertion. As Achilles, he relays news of Patroclus' death to his mother Thetis by the single light of a match, creating a mournful effect. And soon a pipe sticking out of the back wall emits a powerful beam of light, suggesting the way Achilles' divinely made shield must have gleamed on the battlefield. The collaborators would have been foolish to omit Homer's gorgeous description of the shield of Achilles, and hearing it spoken renews the impression that all of known life is contained there, rendered by the smith Hephaestus' skilled hands. To rephrase Erich Auerbach, a clear and equal light floods the world found on that shield.
An Iliad magically captures much of this virtue—each part, each character Kane plays, feels equally close at hand and persuasive. Anyone living in or near Chicago who attends the show—which runs only through December 10: don't delay!—will be assured of a memorable holiday outing. And if it's not possible to catch the show now, there will be a next time: in February, at the New York Theatre Workshop, Peterson and O'Hare will be directing and acting it together for the first time.
Brett Foster is associate professor of English at Wheaton College. His first collection of poems, The Garbage Eater, was published earlier this year by Northwestern University Press.
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