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You See?: Critical Response to AN ILIAD at ArtsEmerson

An Iliad was one of the most intensely affecting pieces of live storytelling that I have ever seen. It spoke to me as a citizen of the world and also galvanized me as a theatre artist. I feel fortunate to live in Boston during the time of ArtsEmerson — I was not only able to see this play, but able to see it with its original developer and performer, Denis O’Hare, half of the Homer’s Coat collective which created it originally.

Homer’s Coat is, according to its website, “a creative collective that explores foundation literature”. At present, Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson are the only two members, and An Iliad is their debut project. O’Hare’s background is an actor, and Peterson’s as a director, but they developed this piece together, beginning at New York Theatre Workshop in 2005. The Homer’s Coat biography in the play’s program describes the development process of the piece as, “utilizing video transcripts, improvisation, original music, and diligent research.” I love that they developed the piece in such an organic and collaborative, yet careful, way. I imagine that rather than talking a lot, even when research was brought in, they got on their feet and explored. This clearly shows in the final product which feels conversational and improvised but also subtly carefully constructed.

As the audience filtered into the theatre, I noticed that there was a ghost light in the corner of the stage, turned on. Ghost lights remind me of the cyclical nature of theatre and storytelling: you put one out at the end of every show and strike it before the beginning of the next show. At rise, there is a deafening sound and light reveals The Poet (played by O’Hare) sitting on a suitcase center stage reciting The Iliad in Ancient Greek. Just the sonic experience of hearing ancient Greek was arresting. It truly sounds ancient, as if pulled up from the depths of the Earth. I immediately sensed that I was about to be treated to a very, very old story. The Poet is dressed in what seems to be a traveling outfit: a long coat, a hat, faded trousers and a shirt with a belt at his natural waist making for a modern but timeless outfit that was also vaguely reminiscent of a tunic. He begins to speak to us in a contemporary, self-effacing, conversational way, and informs us that he is going to tell the story of the Trojan War. Each time he tells it he always hopes it will be his last (this felt important at the time, but I had to listen to the rest of the performance in order to figure out why). He strikes the ghost light and “turns on” some stage lights. Now, we are clearly on a theater stage: there is a ladder up against the bare back wall of the theatre, several racks of lighting instruments upstage (and the instruments that are hung are clearly visible), exposed wings and fly rails, etc. This choice recalled the raw power of storytelling for me, as meta theatre often does, but, specifically provided a really interesting visual contrast to what I knew to be the epic nature of the story about to be told.

The Poet begins his story haltingly; he cannot remember all of the details that he must conjure in order to really transport us to this war. He is frustrated. In fact, there is a sense that the details of the war are slipping away from him as he speaks them over and over again, but that he desperately needs to retain them. As he tells the beginning of the story, he puts many of its details specifically into a contemporary context, trying to describe the fleet of men that left Greece to fight in terms of areas in the United States; diverse groups of men from Brooklyn and Boston to the Panhandle and Texas. While I usually find this kind of choice pandering, I did not feel talked down to. Rather, it put into perspective the problems I see with America’s military involvement and the vast numbers of young men and women who are called away from their lives to fight and often die.

In a (relatively) short discussion it feels most important to target: a) Who The Poet is  b) The role of metatheacricality and music in the piece and c) What does this piece say to our contemporary culture, and potential future cultures, about war?

As I watched, I began to understand The Poet as a “relic” of sorts; he seemed to be a visitor from another time — assumedly Ancient Greece — who was not quite up to date on our customs but nevertheless tried desperately to describe the story of the war in detail, he often wished aloud for a photograph, but, in the absence of one, painted strikingly clear pictures using only words. He seemed to know the places and people he was describing intimately; I sensed a homesickness to him, a lostness. I also got a strong “cursed spirit” vibe from him; I was really struck by the notion that he might be trying to tell us this story in order to be released from this limbo-like hold; his identity as the bearer of this long and emotionally-draining story. Perhaps he was beholden to this story for as long as humanity continued to fight wars? I even thought that perhaps he was the spirit of one of the men whom he described in the story (was he Patroclus)?

Metatheatrically speaking, I am fascinated by the choice to set such an epic story in a theatre that is not pretending to be anything else. Obviously, it puts all of our focus on the storytelling and makes the stakes of The Poet’s ability to tell the story that much higher, but it is more complicated than that. First, there are moments in which The Poet chooses to harness more complicated aspects of theatrical performance such as sound effects and godly light cues. Therefore, it seems much more like The Poet is a specifically a theatre artist, and not just a storyteller on a bare stage. Therefore, if The Poet is charged with telling this story until he does not need to anymore (until there are no more wars), are O’Hare and Peterson implying that this, too, is the charge of theatre artists everywhere? Obviously, they are not suggesting that we tell stories about the Trojan War specifically, but that we as artists take on the political responsibility of responding artistically to the violence in our world. However, this comparison also acknowledges what I think is a very honest admission that as long as war is happening, we as artists will always feel slightly cowed by it, slightly at a loss for words and actions, but it remains important that we attempt to respond authentically. The slight level of alienation that is created by placing the piece firmly in a theatre helps hammer home to the audience that this is not just a story about war in which The Poet wants us to get swept up. He does want that, I think, but he also wants us to think constantly about how the story relates to our own lives today.

Additionally, Sarah Ruhl writes something interesting in her Preface to Passion Play about how it is no coincidence that we use the term “theater” to mean “place where war is being fought”.  The Iliad, as I understand it, is not specifically an anti-war poem, nor was it written to glorify war only; it is a little bit of both. There are many theatrical aspects to war: costumes AKA uniforms, pageantry as a show of strength or worth, staged scare or trick tactics (the word tactics in general …), hierarchy, organization …. What an apt choice to use the tools of theatre to tell such an an expansive military history. Also, is a war being fought against hope and despair in the theatre every time the story is told?

Near the end of the play, The Poet lists off almost every armed conflict in popular recorded history, which takes what feels like three full minutes. He sits under one harsh lighting instrument that increases in intensity until he is seemingly crushed under the weight of all of the violence. Obviously, we in Boston have been thinking a lot about violence and, if not war, at least an aggressive threat that momentarily lead some to an “us and them” mentality. As I listened to that list, I felt overwhelmed by human’s predilection for violence, and the inability of world leaders to learn from history and to stop perpetuating cycles of violence. However, as I listened to the end of the piece, the touching description of Achilles’ decision to return Hector’s corpse to the Trojans and the subsequent truce for the  preparation of Hector’s body for proper burial, I began to reflect on the role of ritual in healing our collective consciousness, and, therefore, of the role of the theatre artist in doing that as well.

The Poet’s final words are, “They bury Hector’s body … you see?” Closing the piece with, “You see”, which is repeated several times throughout the rest of the play, has a dual meaning. Obviously The Poet wants to know if we are seeing in our minds what he describes, but he also asks us to recognize that one of the most important parts of his story is about human’s ability to show mercy, to seek peace, to take a hard look at ourselves, and to change. This is not a story about past wars, or about plagues to humankind that are no longer threats. It is a story about us, today — whenever that is — and a story whose end must be found in bearing witness, choosing to act, and in caring for our community.

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