An Iliad, presented this week at the Paramount Center Mainstage at Emerson, is a testament to the epic power of one person to embody a story. The piece was created by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare and is performed by Denis O’Hare and Brian Ellingsen. An Iliad at ArtsEmerson follows on the heels of Euripides’ Trojan Women presented in the same space by SITI Company.
Not only does this piece highlight the universality of wartime experiences, but in conversation with Euripides’ Trojan Women, it highlights a facet of war that our modern society has often ignored: The male experience of war is more often than not a solitary one. One man (person) must hold within himself all the epic and gratuitous feelings of a war. He has no companions. This is even more applicable to our society today than it was in Ancient Greece, because now every human (male, female) is experiencing war from the traditionally male perspective—alone.
Trojan Women is a chronicling of the female experience of war, and as such in our society digs into the experience of war from the perspective of one with no agency. While I might argue at another time that there is no such thing as “agency” in war, An Iliad is an examination of war from the other side—the privileged, the aggressor, the male. More often than not as artists, we are delving into the experience of what it means to be the “other.” That is to say, we are looking at things increasingly from Hecuba’s perspective. In our society, particularly in our largely progressive and liberal-minded city, staging An Iliad is a risk. It could easily be viewed as a glorification of the privileged white male, a celebration of his reign onstage—that is, it could be if Denis O’Hare were not quite so clever.
O’Hare spins this story so tightly around the relative human experiences of grief and rage, that the tale is unavoidably universal. Surely this carefully crafted appeal to all is essential to pull of a show of this caliber: After all, as selfish as it may seem, to sustain audience attention while they watch just one person onstage for 105 minutes, isn’t it imperative that each audience member see something of themselves in that man?
O’Hare achieves this seemingly impossible feat not with spectacle, but by gaining the trust of the audience almost immediately. He achieved this in the performance I saw both by welcoming the audience directly into his world (he verbally responded to comments of the audience regularly) and by telling his stories in a direct and honest manner. That is to say, O’Hare never tricked me, and in a story so painful I truly appreciated that. While the use of a “bait and switch” tactic can be extremely effective in theatre, it was not employed here and I was grateful. Sometimes, while laughing at something particularly vulgar or horrifying (as one does, to cope), I began to be afraid that I might be being tricked—that any moment O’Hare might pull the rug from underneath me and I would be exposed to how “inappropriate” my reaction was. Because this never happened, I came to trust O’Hare’s character. I found this route just as theatrically effective, if not more so, than a “bait and switch” might be: The trust he built enabled me to have a deeper experience of the story he was telling me. My laughter at ”inappropriate” moments highlighted deep truths of the human coping mechanism for me, rather than making me ashamed. It is sometimes very arresting, horrifying even, to feel the full weight of your humanity. With O’Hare’s gentle but honest guidance I was able to bear this weight.
An Iliad serves not only as a vessel through which to experience the weight of humanity, but also a living example of the almost magical capability of one human to invoke a story. O’Hare in his enactment of this story is a glimpse at our theatrical roots as human beings, as well as a prayer for the future of storytelling. To describe the structure and power of this theatre to one who has not experienced it is to provoke disbelief. One man tells the epic story of The Iliad in less than two hours by himself playing all the characters and the narrator and it is never even for a moment boring.
Try telling someone that. They wont believe you.
And yet, An Iliad is proof that the epic power of conjuring stories is in our blood. In form, O’Hare barely strays from the custom of how epic stories were first told: by one man, accompanied by one instrument. The structure of this play functions as a true corollary for our human experience of war: one human is so insignificant and small, yet essential to the preservation of our stories. This is highlighted in An Iliad by the miniscule physical presence of one body on a theatrical stage, one human on the infinite stage of war.
Although not modern, the story An Iliad tells is emphatically contemporary, especially in a city that still bears the raw wounds of terrorism (or evil, or grief, or confusion, or idiocy, or savagery… call it what you will). O’Hare’s character spouts a seemingly endless list of wars, listing for ages and yet not even highlighting every atrocity. We sit together in the audience and share our reckless human burden as he speaks of more and more and more death, war, horror. Although he says at the beginning of the play “every time I tell this story, I hope it will be the last,” we know in our gut it wont be. This is at once a harrowing and joyful prospect. Harrowing in that we have yet to escape our hunger for destruction, joyful, in that in destruction’s wake we create.