Thursday, August 16, 2012

To Read or Not Read "The Iliad"

I love going to the theater. It’s my first love. I mean I love books and reading and everything that goes with that, but when push comes to shove theater will get my immediate attention. This might sound odd coming from someone who makes their living from books, someone who on a weekly basis writes on this blog about books and authors, but what many people don’t know is that my background is in theater, and having had the privilege to work, perform in, and study theater for many years I find myself feeling a little lonesome without it in my life on a daily basis. One might ask what a book blogger is doing speaking about theater when she should be discussing The Dog Stars by Peter Heller or some other newer title, but bear with me—I’ll get to the correlation.

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to see La Jolla Playhouse’s An Iliad, a re-imagining of Homer’s epic poem The Iliad (the Robert Fagles translation) at the Mandell Weiss Forum. The performance is done in one act (approx. 110 minutes) as a single, yet captivating monologue. The only addition to its storyteller, known simply as “the Poet”, is a musician who interacts musically using a double bass, the metal staircase, and a variety of other small instruments and tools. The musician never speaks, but the power of his music, particularly the double bass, interweaves perfectly with the storytelling, at times overwhelming the audience with its low, occasionally violent sounds that perfectly emulate the hardships of war as described by the Poet. For his turn, the Poet, as played by actor Henry Woronicz, is an intriguing figure, alternating from a hobo-like man pacing about a sparse utilitarian set speaking to the audience as though they were sitting beside him in a way station (there is no fourth wall in this production), to this eloquent poet with a visible and visceral connection to the men within this story that he is compelled to keep repeating to the world. Woronicz and musician Brian Ellingsen perform their material beautifully, bringing the right touches of humor, drama, and horror to this epic retelling. The only fault of the play is the text itself—not that great epic poem The Iliad, or even some of the modern comparisons used to create a better picture for the audience, but in the addition of dialogue that instead of adding to the underlying “horrors of war” theme, rather took audience members out of the tale and into a bit of clock watching. It seemed as though this dialogue, lists really, would just go on and on, destined to bore the audience, despite the excellent delivery by Woronicz. For example, at one point the Poet lists off every war since the Trojan War-every war. At first I was impressed at the research that was done to give the audience a chronological listing of so many wars, many I had no recollection of hearing about in my history classes, but after what felt like several minutes I found myself just waiting to hear the end so the play could go on already. I looked at my watch a couple of times here. Now maybe I’m missing the point, perhaps the director/writer wanted to desensitize the audience in much the same way our culture has become desensitized to war and violence—in which case they succeeded with me—but overall that and a few more stanzas like it, took me and those people around me right out of tale and into time tables and thoughts that perhaps 80 minutes would have been a more ideal time. Whatever my thoughts, this small criticism certainly does not detract from the fantastic performances of the actor and musician, and the brilliance of their natural and captivating storytelling skills.

So, how do I possible connect a mini-theater review to make it relevant to a book blog? Let me try.

I don’t really remember much about reading The Iliad. I know it was in 7th grade and we followed it up with Beowulf. I remember more about the mythology; Paris, the apple, Helen, Achilles and his heel, but the nuts and bolts have left me. I’m far more familiar with its follow-up The Odyssey, both because I read it at an older age, and because a fellow student and I took key scenes and rewrote them in modern tongue for a performance back in college (see I can be a dramaturge too). But The Iliad, that was one I never did revisit. Having seen this production—hearing the parts of the epic poem as it was meant to be presented—orally, I couldn’t help, but be curious about the text itself. Enter the Fagles translation. This is a translation I have sold, ordered, and found for countless high school students. I haven’t read it, I haven’t really had an interest, but I know that it’s the preferred edition of teachers in La Jolla and after witnessing it in performance, I just might go back and peruse its depths, and then again, I might not. In some ways I’m hesitant to reread this work—I’m not shying away from the text itself, I’m not a 16 year old student any longer and certainly don’t balk at ancient texts, but after hearing and seeing Henry Woronicz’s performance I am reminded that much like Shakespeare, these works were not meant to be read to one’s self, like one would read Dickens, but they are meant to be performed, the words given life by an actor, poet, or musician; no longer merely a book, but a reenacting, a personal experience; which is far more cathartic that any words on print.

Now I’ve gone and hurt myself by basically telling readers to watch, not read. Please don’t take this to mean that in the future you should see the movie (or in this case, the play), and just forgo the book! Instead what I recommend is to see this wonderful performance, and take all of the actor’s despair, anger, humor, humanity; tuck it into a small corner of your soul and then pick-up this epic poem, allowing yourself to resurrect those feelings when reading of the friendship of Achilles and Patroclus, the death of Hector, and the fall of Troy. I think you will find it will move you beyond a reading experience, into a whole new understanding of an ancient text that still bears so much weight in the affairs of today.

It is my hope that those of you reading this will do two things—see the play and read the book. Not to sound too much like an advertisement, but I think it will change the way you see the text and to top it off (advertisement here) the La Jolla Playhouse has graciously offered to host discussions for book clubs after the performance, even going so far as to offer discounts to reading groups over 10 people, just contact Alex Goodman at For groups looking to gain more insight into Homer’s tale I highly suggest this method—it’s entertaining and enlightening.

So, moral of the blog—do the opposite of what your teacher told you to do. See the play, read the poem, get a whole new outlook on Homer. And maybe I’ll pick-up that Fagles edition and give it another whorl.

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