In the late Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a totalitarian regime burns books to stop people from thinking. One of the fire-starters, Guy Montag, discovers the wonders of reading, breaks away, and decides to memorize a book. A question for readers of the novel: which book, or part of a book, would you choose?
When I finished 451, way back when, I figured, Why not? As a lifelong devotee of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, I’d do what maybe hundreds of ancient Greeks did in the centuries before it was written down: memorize the Iliad. I’d help preserve one of the world’s greatest epics and would join another ancient tradition: become a singer of songs.
I gave no thought to the sheer length of the enterprise or which translation to use. And the La Jolla Playhouse’s terrific An Iliad raises another consideration: the emotional cost. It’s one thing to commit the Iliad to memory — got 10,000 free hours? It’s quite another to perform it, since the poem pulls you into its zodiac of whirling emotions so strongly that, as T.S. Eliot wrote, “You are the music while the music lasts.”
The narrator, called the Poet, is a time-traveler. He may or may not be Homer — or sometimes he is, sometimes not. He resembles the Ancient Mariner, driven to tell and retell a story, and also the old actor in The Dresser, who must “essay the role of Lear” once more. The task daunts.
After all, he must recount the tragedies of Troy. Not just one, as in the plays of Sophocles, but countless lives cut short before their time: “The flash of bronze, fighters killing, fighters killed.” And Homer personalizes each with the precision of a CSI computer graphic. So-and-so was the son of X and had a gift for doing Y. And he wasn’t just speared; here’s where the spear entered, those the internal organs it severed, this the last moan as his light flickered out.
The Poet must describe the lunacy of the gods (someone wrote: “Homer has done his best to make the gods men and the men gods”) and convey the sense that there are fates — as with so many of the women — that may be worse than death.
In book XII (of Robert Fagles’s excellent translation), Homer’s narrator stops, throws his hands in the air, and asks: “How can I tell it all, sing it all like a god? The strain is far too great.”
The Poet tells an abridged version, but in his 100 minutes the questions persist. How to communicate the anger/rage/wrath of mighty Achilles? Not to mention his whiney petulance: the commander of the Myrmidons is one of the world’s first superheroes, but for much of the poem he’s a spoiled brat; if he can’t have his way, he refuses to play.
And the Poet asks, having to characterize Hector, champion of the Trojans, “How do you describe a good man?” Not to mention when Hector becomes less than heroic: his profound selfishness (when he grabs the slayed Patroclus/Achilles’s armor) or cowardice (he flees from Achilles during their solo combat). Or how to describe Helen of the mystical beauty, now fed up with Paris after nine years of his primping self-regard. Or when Paris, in the irony of all ironies, goes from draft-dodging loverboy to the slayer of Achilles.
In one sense, the Iliad reads like a labyrinth. Just when you think you have a character figured out — that you’re on the right path with Hector or Helen — a wall blocks your way and you must reroute your steps.
And how to describe the sheer size of the war? — ten years, 1000 Greek ships, at least 50 men per vessel, maybe more. To create the poetic equivalent of master shots in movies, Homer used comparisons, now called “Homeric similes” (for example, when Paris faces Helen’s former husband Menelaus on the battlefield, the Trojan prince cringes, “as one who trips on a snake...recoils,” so Paris “dissolved again in the proud Trojan lines”).
One of the best features of An Iliad — text by Denis O’Hare and director Lisa Peterson — is how contemporary references function like Homer’s similes. Without over-explaining or talking down to the audience, the Poet compares the anger of Achilles to road rage: how all else vanishes into blind, univocal fury. Fuming at an insult, the Poet chases down an offender with blood lust in his heart: his hands could be gripping a steering wheel or the reins of a chariot. Then Rage — as if it were a Muse — threatens to consume him. He tries to stop, can’t; then catches himself and slowly recollects his senses.
And here we see the cost. The Poet, played with epic passion and torment by Henry Woronicz, has yet to conquer his own addiction to rage. Every time he sings the song, he says, he hopes it’s the last. That would break his cycle of violence. In one of the poem’s most extraordinary moments, Achilles does just that. The Poet, however, must retell the story before he’ll sleep in serenity.
Wearing dingy-brown garments and much-traveled boots, Woronicz could hold a cardboard “Spare change?” sign at a busy intersection and fit right in. Long white hair and beard type him as well. But once into the poem, along with his sweat-stained overcoat and vest, he sheds years, even decades. He becomes young and athletic. His performance often suggests that he’s either channeling Homer’s characters — or he’s a living Troy, and they’re invading him.
Woronicz works on a bare stage, behind which a soiled, cinderblock wall looms like an ancient Trojan fortification. In the rear, stage right, metallic lighting fixtures could be Bronze Age soldiers. He uses few props — a table, a suitcase — but has two allies. Scott Zielinski’s lighting mirrors the Poet’s moods: be they as sheer white as the sun-baked Trojan plain or dark as the dankest depths of Hades. It’s almost as if the lights keep the Poet on his task. He wants to pull away, tell iconoclastic — and funny — jokes. The lights seem to nudge him forward.
As does his Muse. Mark Bennett has designed an extraordinary soundscape. Brian Ellingsen plays the Musician/Muse. Turning an amplified double bass into an entire orchestra, Ellingsen performs Bennett’s arresting score and — thumping here, pinching there — conjures up everything from the clamor of battle to the tattered heart of old King Priam, who has suffered enough “pain to break the spirit.” ■
An Iliad, by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson, based on the Robert Fagles translation
La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, UCSD
Directed by Lisa Peterson, cast: Henry Woronicz, Brian Ellingsen; scenic design, Rachel Hauck; costumes, Marina Draghici; lighting, Scott Zielinski; original music and sound, Mark Bennett
Playing through September 9; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-550-1010.