“Can you see it, can you?” the Poet (the magnificent Teagle F. Bougere) implores us. “Do you see?” A wandering troubador, he wants to conjure for us a complete and fulsome picture of the Trojan War; but he has nothing but words to paint its horrific and pathetic scenes. Words, and his body and his voice. It helps that some of the words are those of the great ancient poet Homer, as translated by Robert Fagles; it may help even more that the rest of those words are firmly in a contemporary idiom, allowing us to see the connections between (for example) the fury that propels the ancient Greek soldier in battle to engage in a “BLUR OF KILLS” and the road rage we feel at the asshole who cuts us off on the freeway.
An Iliad (written by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, and directed by Jesse Berger, currently at the Public) begins with the Poet’s invocation to the Muses from Homer’s poem, and establishes its subject right off the bat:
RAGE! Goddess, Sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls […] What drove them to fight with such a fury?
The story that follows doesn’t provide an adequate answer to that question, which is part of the play’s (and, I’d guess, The Iliad’s) point. There is no “adequate” answer to account for war, for the long history of war (more on that below), or for the deep, awful, terrifying fury that undergirds the worst of human behavior. In the case of the Trojan War, what drove them to fight are a series of stupid and hubristic motives, or as the play puts it: “pride, honor, jealousy…Aphrodite…some game or other, an apple […] it doesn’t matter. […] It’s always something, isn’t it?” Instead of answering the question of what drives men to fury, the play explores, on the one hand, the nature of fury itself, and, on the other, its uselessness, futility, destructiveness, and utter wastefulness. In Peterson & O’Hare’s hands, The Iliad is a story of men “addicted to rage” who garner our sympathy precisely because they are so trapped by the circumstances their anger and pride have landed them in.
We all know the story of the Trojan War – brothers Agamemnon and Menelaus led the Greek armies to Troy to bring back Menelaus’s wife Helen, who was seduced away by Paris, yadda yadda – so, like Greek audiences of ancient tragedy, our attention is captured less by the story’s content than how it is told. Here, the telling is everything it needs to be: mesmerizing, captivating, gut-wrenching, heartbreaking. The effectiveness of this production derives nearly equally from the writing – which, as mentioned above, moves fluidly between the high diction of verse poetry (sometimes in Greek) and the casual diction of modern speech, with a variety of gradations in between – and from Bougere’s performance, which modulates between invocation, incantation, direct address storytelling, and full embodiment of character, all with exceptional finesse and virtuosity. Not to get all professorial on yinz, but I think Bougere’s performance is what Brecht had in mind when he named the type of theater he aimed to create the “epic” theater: it’s a performance of epic storytelling, in the Homeric mode, that alternates between showing and telling to allow us to experience not only what each of the characters thinks and feels but also the storyteller’s opinions and feelings about them. What has been mistranslated as “alienation effect” is in full force here, yet it’s anything but “alienating” because the multiple layers of performance Bougere makes visible draw us closer in, engaging us both emotionally (who cannot be touched by the image of Hector’s infant son, laughing as a Greek soldier heaves him over the battlements because he thinks it is his father playing a game?) and intellectually (there is no escaping the play’s invitation to think critically about humanity’s propensity for war).
In places, I wondered a bit about Peterson and O’Hare’s inclusion of modern references – at the beginning, for example, as the Poet begins to recite the famous “catalogue of ships” from The Iliad, he interrupts himself and offers instead an analogous list of place-names from the US. If you take this, and other modern allusions in the play, as mere dot-connecting, it seems heavy-handed; we don’t really need to have the connections between the horrors of war in ancient Greece and the horrors of war in the 21st century pointed out to us. But as a strategy for making us see the mind-numbing enormity of what war involves, in a way that replicates Homer’s catalogue of ships and similarly requires us to compass both the macro and the micro, it is quite effective. Toward the end of the play, for example, the Poet suddenly stops telling us the story of Achilles’ humiliation of Hector’s body and launches into a chronological listing of wars since the Trojan War. The list is long, encompassing over three thousand years of human conflict, and he delivers it in an emotionless deadpan. Its length — its tediousness — is its purpose: he’s recited at least twenty wars before he gets to what we recognize as the middle ages, and you might think, when he announces World War I, that we’re almost done, but a surprisingly long list is still to come. The impact of this list goes beyond merely connecting Homer’s poem to modern conflicts: it compels us to acknowledge and bear witness to war’s status as an enduring and permanent feature of the human condition, and to reflect, with the Poet, on why it has been so.