- Front Row review
- Dallas Morning News review (pay wall)
- TheaterJones review
We’ve long known Homer was a performing bard. The oral tradition rings out in his opening call for inspiration in The Iliad — ‘Sing, Muse, of the wrath of Achilles” — and it pops up elsewhere in the poem: “How can I sing it all like a god?” But in adapting Robert Fagles’ superb translation of The Iliad to the stage, perhaps Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare were inspired, in part, by Fagles’ own preface: “Homer’s work is a performance, even in part a musical event.’
At the Undermain Theatre, Peterson and O’Hare’s Iliad is indeed a performance, a one-man, 96-minute blowout for actor Bruce DuBose as he sweats through his shirt, declaims the famous, bone-crushing battle scenes, evokes weary enemies coming together — for a moment — over their dead. It’s also a musical event. An Iliad premiered two years ago at the Seattle Rep and since then has been performed around the country by major companies like the McCarter Theatre and La Jolla Playhouse. But more than those productions did, director Katherine Owens has foregrounded the music (with sound design by DuBose). She brings Paul Semrad, former bassist for Course of Empire, onstage to accompany DuBose with mandolin, lyre and guitar, while DuBose himself occasionally chants in Greek, playing a Turkish cura saz.
Still, even with all the music front and center, the Undermain’s Iliad is basically The Most Spellbinding Classical Lit Lecture You Never Attended. That doesn’t mean it’s dusty (actually, classics and literature teachers should flood the theater with their students; it’ll be the best intro they’re likely to see). If we’ve been lucky in college, we’ve had a professor or two who intuitively understood the dramatic nature of a lecture and whipped up our interest in a novel or poem. They made the printed form seem mere preamble to the electrifying inspiration of speech and gesture. This Iliad is like that.
It’s also plain from designer John Arnone’s layout — with its chalkboards full of quotations from Homer (in the original Greek) — that we’re meant to see this setting as a classroom. It’s a classroom, though, with odd, unnecessary blue campfires off to each side, keeping some pots bubbling. They don’t suggest authentic battlefields so much as a funky chem lab.
In any case, the Undermain’s lecture-hall approach also distinguishes it from other productions of An Iliad. Taking off from Peterson and O’Hare’s own remarks (seen here on video), those productions more or less portrayed The Poet as an ancient wanderer, coming into a bare theater or possibly a bar. Given his frayed clothes, he’s possibly a homeless vet. And between drinks, he regales us, the other bar patrons, with his war stories. He’s Homer as interpreted by Charles Bukowski.
But at the Undermain — in keeping with the set — costumer Giva Taylor has decked out DuBose in a dapper, summery linen jacket and vest. It’s only because DuBose enters with a handsome fedora — and later, slugs down tequila instead of sherry — that we don’t take him for an Oxbridge lecturer with Semrad his silent-partner teaching assistant.
No matter; this is one drama where the packaging’s not that important. Once DuBose sets the story sailing — with Homer’s famous roster of Greek ships — we are transported. Inevitably, Peterson and O’Hare have condensed the epic tale, removing, for instance, all of Diomedes’ preliminary match with Hector as well as most of the tangled, petty quarrels amongst the gods.
But they’ve not streamlined merely for length; they’ve focused this Iliad on Homer’s great theme: “Rage” — as Fagles opens his version — “Goddess, sing of the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles.” The Greeks called it aristeia, the killing spree that found a warrior at his peak, transformed by the power of sustained fury. Alexander Pope, in his version, translated the term as “full of the god” — conveying divine possession, the hero vaulting beyond his normal, human capacities. But while aristeia literally means “best” (it’s the origin of our word ‘aristocracy’), it can also involve the warrior’s own death. He sacrifices himself to glory while succumbing to a single-minded destructiveness.
So we see the ennobling benefits of anger as well as its brutalizing consequences (the loss of beautiful Troy is repeatedly invoked). We see anger power the poem in the righteous wrath of Achilles over the death of his companion Patroclus — and Achilles’ own, bitter knowledge that he himself will die young. But we also see anger tied up with notions of masculine honor and warfare — in the blustery defensiveness of Agamemnon and the heroic resignation of Hector in a cause he doesn’t fully believe in (the theft of Helen, King Menelaus’ wife, by Hector’s cowardly brother Paris).
In performance, An Iliad feels long — not long as in butt-wearying long but long as in vast. We’re surprised that it’s only 90-odd minutes. Part of this comes from Homer’s epic techniques. The great list of ships, for instance, both heightens the drama (it was all so big, so colossal!!!) and draws attention to the poet’s own feats of memory (Homer repeatedly wonders, how can I remember all the names?).
But the play also feels long as in wrung-out. Condensing The Iliad like this gives its emotional effects more compressed power. (Peterson and O’Hare also wisely inject something that Homer generally lacks: deflating humor.) Unlike any reader who’s plowed through all twenty-four chapters, we can grasp the full arc of Achilles’ wrath from bellowing beginning to mournful evaporation, when he sits down at last with King Priam, father of his enemy, Hector. One of the final, more affecting moments is, in fact, silent: DuBose mimes Achilles picking up the body of Hector and giving it to Priam to burn.
I have two reservations. First, DuBose is one of our finest actors, and he enjoys working with music and sound design. He’s miked here, which allows for different electronic effects with his voice, notably the addition of reverb. It’s a tingling effect at times — it makes the Undermain feel truly cave-like and can make DuBose sound suitably god-like and commanding. But I think it’s overdone. DuBose already has such a deep, theatrical baritone, the echo can seem hokey, unnecessary.
In fact, a number of the drama’s emotional peaks come when DuBose is at his simplest, most conversational — most vocally naked, as it were. When he plays Andromache, Hector’s wife, he points and pivots slowly. Her finger is following her husband’s body — Troy’s last, best hope — as the triumphant Achilles desecrates it, dragging it behind his chariot around the walls of Troy. In the original Greek, Andromache screams, faints, awakens, tears off her veil — and her wails fill up a page and a half. Here, DuBose’ Andromache asks quietly of her husband, What help are you now to your infant son? Now that you are dead?
I’ve heard DuBose thunder many times, with and without amplification; I hadn’t heard him whisper like a widow choked by grief.
My larger reservation is about Peterson and O’Hare’s adaptation. Scholars argue that Homer’s image of Hellenic warfare is poetic and inaccurate (the chieftains didn’t exactly ride to the frontlines in their chariots, conveniently dismount and then engage in solo combat). Yet it’s clear the poet knows full well what a flying, bronze-tipped spear does when it hits a human face.
It’s hard for modern listeners to thrill to such bloodlust — except when it’s presented in forms like action films or video games. But Homer clearly wants us to exult in the dismembering splendor of violence, the splitting of bodies when done by a master, a samurai, a knight. These hymns to flashing armor and slashed anatomy are some of his most spectacular, even sensual passages: “But one spot lay exposed / where collarbones lift the neckbone off the shoulders / the open throat, where the end of life comes quickest — there /– as Hector charged in fury, brilliant Achilles drove his spear and the point went stabbing clean through.”
There should be a joy expressed in these lines, the thrill of playing Call of Duty. Instead, we’re mostly appalled. Or we marvel at Homer’s savage expertise. It’s true, though, that unlike a Hollywood exercise in sword-and-pectoral mayhem like 300, Homer doesn’t conveniently overlook the agonies that remain, the weeping people, the loss of sons and fathers and husbands. Neither does he offer any consolation. There’s no happy eternal reward here — we simply vanish down to the House of Death.
Accordingly — judging from what they’ve said and written — Peterson and O’Hare want to balance the overall effect of Homer’s poem, so that even in this shorter, punchier stage version, we get both the excitement and devastation of battle.
But in performance, An Iliad is pretty one-sided: It packs a solidly anti-war wallop, something it’s hard to see Homer ever fully intending. (Hence, the changed title, An Iliad, an interpretation of The Iliad, one of many interpretations.) The play’s anti-war power builds and builds, not just because of the gore that Homer relished and we recoil from. The adapters also want to make Homer’s war alive and present for their modern audience, not by anything so crude as arming these Greeks and Trojans with RPGs and Abrams tanks. They slip us into the play, inserting us in Homer’s epic lists. It’s a simple enough trick but undeniably effective. The Poet breaks off recounting all the Greek leaders and where they sailed from and starts naming towns in Indiana, Michigan and Texas. Later, his roster of the many wars that will follow this late-Bronze Age squabble becomes an echoing exercise in human futility and death.
Much like King Lear’s famous “Never, never, never, never, never,” it’s an echo that seems to go on forever, an echo that engulfs us and implicates us in our seats.
Unless — Peterson and O’Hare imply — we stop it.