An Iliad and the permanence of war
Courtesy: Mostafa Abdel-Aty

I love Homer’s Iliad. My family used to play audiobooks of the Alexander Pope translation in the car as we moved from one part of the country to another. When I was 12 I made a map illustrating Homer’s Odyssey and carefully burned the edges and dipped the paper in tea to try to make it look old.

So when I went into Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson’s D-CAF-hosted production of An Iliad at Falaki Theater last night I was nervous. I truly wanted the play to be good, and was worried about how it was going to pull off converting one of the most complex stories I’ve ever read into a 100-minute one-man show.

But star O’Hare and director Peterson sidestep this in the first minute: It’s clear that O’Hare will be giving an oral history of the Trojan War. The show, co-written by the pair in 2010 and much toured since, is not just a reenactment of the Iliad story, but also an ode to the act of telling, to stories and to time.

Dressed in a raggedy sweater, a long overcoat and a hat, 53-year-old O’Hare’s nameless narrator looks like a remnant from the Great Depression. Whether or not he’s meant to be Homer is never made explicit, but he implies that he’s been telling this story for years and years – he mentions crowds in Alexandria and Rome gathering to listen to it for days. But now, he adds, times have changed and people are less interested.

His language jumps fluidly back and forth. One moment he’s yelling Homer’s words, and suns and rosy-fingered dawns crowd his speech. The next moment he’s comparing the wrath of battle to the rage felt when someone cuts you off in traffic.

O’Hare thus tells the story in two ways: He interacts with the audience, asking questions, relating the age-old story to everyday things that happen in our lives, or he embodies the Iliad’s characters. His body language is flawless as he moves from Agamemnon to Achilles in a moment: first drunken, proud king and then equally proud but godlike warrior.

The lights and music tell the story as much as O’Hare’s voice. In the moments before a character dies, the spotlight narrows to a single yellow beam highlighting him, dying and surrounded by darkness. The music lends the story grandeur, making the god’s voices echo and making O’Hare’s opening line (“Everytime I sing this song, I hope it’s the last time”) fitting because the story is truly musical and his words are just the clearest part of the symphony.

On stage there is only a desk, with a newspaper, a paper bag with a bottle of “alcohol” he drinks compulsively throughout, and a chair. Scattered on the floor are light fixtures that never light up, giving the impression that this stage is a forgotten one and that the narrator has been on it, telling this story for years.

Throughout, the act of storytelling is at the forefront. As O’Hare goes through the familiar lines of the Iliad, he brings up other wars and other stories that are both similar and different to Homer’s work. The implication seems to be that some stories always repeat themselves. Stories of war still need to be told, because war never stops.

To hammer this home, at one point he lists interminable wars, from the Peloponnesian wars to the current war in Yemen. At another, he illustrates the devastation at the gates of Troy by holding up what he says is an invisible photograph of First World War trenches , pointing to each dead young man and giving him a name and a history.  

The “war is hell” argument is hardly new. But what makes this performance good is the way O’Hare connects to the audience and makes us see how patterns of war repeat through history. The idea is given urgency because when O’Hare names the young soldiers, he gives them Arab names and says they are from Sinai, Aswan, Cairo making it impossible not to think of the conscripts currently in Egypt’s army and far away from home.

One of the best moments is when he describes Troy before it’s sacked by the Greeks. He talks intimately about streets where fountains flow in every house and lines between public and private are blurred. He talks about community councils getting together to discuss where to plant the next fig tree. In these little moments he takes the audience to a place where Trojans could be their neighbors, making Troy’s doom poignant and worth mourning.

By the time he gets to the part about the fight between Hector, prince of Troy, and Achilles, the great hero of the Greeks, he has succeeded in creating sympathy for both: For Achilles’ suffering after the death of his friend and lover Patroclus, and for Hector’s sense of honor that keeps him outside the gates of Troy even though he knows Achilles will kill him.

The other thing O’Hare absolutely succeeds at is anger. He describes anger bubbling up inside all the warriors, people he describes as otherwise good men who then do gruesome things. Ripping out opponents’ eyeballs, mouths smeared with soldiers’ blood, Hector beating and berating Patroclus’ dead body, Achilles dragging Hector’s body around Troy’s walls for the eyes of his family and friends. For O’Hare’s narrator, rage is another permanent, repeated product of war.

He makes such actions seem almost inevitable, partly through the Greek gods’ direct presence in the play. Early on he explains that, while gods such as Zeus, Hera, Athena and Apollo have disappeared from worship, they can never really die because of the things they represent: power, jealousy, wisdom, creation.

This idea of inevitability and permanence seems encapsulated in fate, which threads its way through O’Hare’s narration. Everyone in the Iliad is doomed from the beginning, their killing leading to curses and eventually their own deaths. Fate, the narrator suggests, is literally a product of the gods and if the gods are our emotions, both good and bad, then the hypothesis that they are impossible to escape is no longer so far-fetched.

The one objection I have to An Iliad is how it portrays women. When O’Hare inhabits the women in the story his actions are overly exaggerated, and they become caricatures of femininity rather than characters. This is only made more obvious by how easily he slides into the story’s men.

They are also mainly shown in the tired trope of women trying to prevent the action happening, rather than having agency of their own. The only three women who have a direct presence in the play — Helen, Hecuba and Andromache — all try to convince Hector not to go out to face Achilles and all seem blissfully unaware that there’s a war going on.

The Iliad is largely the story of Hector and Achilles and I would not want to change that, but if Hecuba, who in the Iliad is both sad and strong, is going to be portrayed, then she deserves more than to be a caricature.

The story is faithful to the Iliad. Paris is a fop, Helen not worth it, Hector great but vainglorious, Achilles a living god filled with rage, Patroclus dead before his time and Agamemnon a proud lout. And it ends when the Iliad ends.

This is when the narrator says he can’t tell anymore. Not of the Trojan women nor of the Trojan horse. He breaks down in tears as the story presses down on him, before approaching the audience again, his last words cut off with the lights.


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