“An Iliad” is a treatise on the purposes of war
When I was at St. Leo’s (an all girls’) High School, in second-year Latin we read portions of the “Aeneid” by Virgil, the story of Aneas’ journey from the battlefields of the Trojan War. He traveled the Mediterranean stopping in Carthage where he met and bedded Queen Dido. Aneas eventually ended up in Italy, marrying Lavinia, the daughter of the Etruscan king Latinus.
Our Latin teacher was Sister Brendan, a tiny, elderly Franciscan nun, who giggled over the manipulative deities, their overactive libidos and their naughty intrusions into the love and war affairs of men. It fascinated me that the literature of so long ago had been preserved, and (please realize that this is through the limited lens of a school-girl mind,) that it had also been so interesting and well written.
When I was a HS senior, I had a continuing fascination with the convoluted loves and lives of Goldsmith, Swift, Sheridan, Addison and Ben Johnson. They were brought to life by a remarkable teacher, George Walker, who wanted us to know them as real people with imagination and sometimes mountainous faults, not as the unquestioned and unrivaled gods of literature. Their lives were just as messy as the Greek and Roman gods, Aneas, Achilles and Hector, Paris and Helen.
When I went through some University of Maryland extension courses, we read large portions of “The Iliad.” Again, I was fascinated with the humans’ hubris and the gods, goddesses and demi-dieties who manipulated sex, events, people’s lives and atmospheric conditions for their own ends. I also loved the beauty of the language, “swift as the wind Achilles”, “the rosy fingers of dawn”, and as quoted in Rostand’s “Cyrano”, “Is this the face that launched a thousand ships and burned the topless towers of Ilium?”
It’s a story made familiar through Lit courses and, of course for the really young, through Classic Comics and then movies (think of Brad Pitt in “Troy”.)
Homer’s “Iliad” is re-imagined by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson, based on Robert Fagles’ translation of the epic, into a one-man show, acted by Hans Altwies and directed by Peterson.
The production opens on an uninhabited backstage space, with a rolling rack of light fixtures, ladders and a table. The door opens and a man comes in. He has seen better days, carrys a shabby suitcase and is dressed in a formerly good tweed suit, raincoat, fedora and a large pair of unlaced workmen’s boots but no socks. He is obviously weary, but he starts telling us that he used to get thousands of people at his presentations. He’d sing for four days to tell the whole epic but nowadays, few are interested in the old stories.
The storyteller shows the cuckolded and deserted Menelaus, his brother Agamemnon and other political allies gathering men from all over Greece with the numbers 56, 27, and more. But these aren’t the number of soldiers; these are the numbers of ships from the small towns or regions, each with many, many men. He likened it to an army draft of young men from small Ohio towns.
He tells the story of a war, fought for ten years, with a washing back and forth across the shore of the contending armies. It reminded me of WWI, with the endless back and forth of shell-shocked soldiers throwing themselves out of their foxholes and fighting one day for 50 feet of ground and the next day having to abandon it and retreat back to the foxholes they’d left the day before.
I think this production was really asking, “What is the purpose of war?" Men have called their tribes, clans, countries and sects to aid them when they have been disrespected or have lost face, or from envy to gain the people and resources of a “better” land. Tribalism exists today, as in “America , love it or leave it,” and war is everywhere. The storyteller had a long, long list of wars that many of us are familiar from history, but he doesn’t leave it as an aberration of the past; he brings it right down to today.
Hans Altwies was superb as the storyteller, showing the audience the importance of the stories of people’s lives, as well as that of the gods and goddesses; that the stories exist for each generation and all stories have common themes. Family love, conflict, friendship, betrayal, joy, despair and religion are common themes because they are they embody the common human aspirations and regrets. And especially in Homer’s time, the aspirations and regrets of the gods as well.
“An Iliad” is a superb piece of storytelling and Altwies is superb as the storyteller. This was so strong a production, solid from start to finish. It’s worth seeing again, after all, everyone wants to hear a favorite story again.
“An Iliad” runs through May 16 at Seattle Repertory Theatre. For information on ticket prices, group rates and special rates for attendees under 30 years of age, call the box office at (206) 443-2222 or go online at www.seattlerep.org.