‘An Iliad’: An ancient war story for our time
Begin at the middle. That’s how Homeric epics work. There’s no throat clearing, no preamble, no prologue. The poet invokes the muses, and then, BAM, there you are: in medias res, in the middle of things, BYO backstory.
The Trojan War took 10 years to fight and had its origins, years before, on the day Zeus set his sights on a pretty young thing, turned himself into a swan, knocked her up and fathered a half-divine, half-human daughter named Helen, the girl with the ship-launching face. But the Iliad doesn’t start there. Its early pages take readers to the final few weeks of combat.
An afternoon rehearsal of “An Iliad” at Studio Theatre starts in the middle, too. Scott Parkinson is the only man on stage. With his frayed clothing and scruffy face, he’s looking a bit worse for wear—an appropriate appearance, given that his character, the Storyteller, has supposedly been traveling the world for thousands of years, retelling the fall of Troy to anyone who’ll listen.
“An Iliad,” by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, based in part on Robert Fagles’s translation of Homer’s poem, is directed by Studio artistic director David Muse. It’s a mash-up of the past and the present, with the sole Storyteller speaking in a hybrid of Fagles’s more erudite language and modern, slang-filled sentences. He makes references, both lingering and fleeting, to the striking parallels between this ancient conflict in present-day Turkey and recent combat in Iraq and Afghanistan — from similarities in the location and duration of these clashes to the philosophical angst they inspire.
With “all the issues that are in the Iliad,it felt to me like it was the time for us to be thinking about that,” Peterson said. “Because especially [while writing the play], I was very much aware that we were, suddenly, really at war again.”
The set at Studio is bare save for a chair, table and a few other scattered props. You could call the production “minimalist,” if “minimalist epic” doesn’t strike you as too oxymoronic. Parkinson voices every character, accompanied by a single musician.
The Storyteller, perched on a ladder with his left foot resting on a low rung, reveals that Achilles is refusing to fight. Patroclus, his friend and comrade, floats the idea of fighting in his place. Give me your armor, Patroclus says, and no one will know it’s not you. Achilles is Superman, and Patroclus is more of a Jimmy Olsen, so the armor is much too big. But off Patroclus goes,the Storyteller says, “to the Greek ramparts.”
Off we go to the front lines, the Storyteller declares. And he seems to be saying: You know what that means. You’ve been there, too. You still are.
The story of the Iliad is more than 2,700 years old. The story of Peterson and O’Hare’sIliad starts in 2003, right around the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Peterson was bingeing on war plays and ruminating on the possibilities of solo performance. The Iliad idea came from a friend of Peterson’s who teaches the first chapter of Homer’s epic in a theater class at Fordham University.
“[That] had always provoked me, because I never thought of the Iliad as a play,” Peterson said. “And the more I started to think about it, it was! It was a play, a performance, way before it was a work of literature. And isn’t that a neat way to talk about what it’s like to fight, to be a country at war.”
As the play began to take shape, the mythic and modern narratives started to click together. By the time the script was completed, “we’d been in Iraq for nine years,” about the same length of time the Greeks spent camping outside Troy, Peterson said. “It started to line up even more directly.”
“I just thought: We should be talking about the fact that we are a country at war,” she said. “That we’ve started a war. And it lines up with the whole idea of the Greeks traveling all the way over there to the coast of what is now Turkey and basically laying siege to this city. That felt like, at the time — not to be too reductive — it felt familiar. Oh, right, we shocked and awed Baghdad. We attacked them.”
Though the play doesn’t say who the Storyteller is, “in some ways, I always imagine that he is Homer,” Peterson said. “[The Storyteller’s] problem is that he doesn’t have control over whether or not he chooses to tell the story,” she said. He’s immortal, haunted and cursed. He’s witnessed every war in the world.
Parkinson says the Storyteller “sees and hopes for a day in which we can evolve past war.” When that day comes, Parkinson and Peterson believe, the Storyteller will be relieved of this burden and die.
“We come away believing that what he tells is so fundamental to human beings, he’ll never get to stop telling it,” Muse said. “Lisa calls him the loneliest man on the planet.”
Given that the bloodshed has been almost nonstop for the past few thousand years, the Storyteller isn’t exactly optimistic. But still, Parkinson said, “he has this tiny, little, little sliver of hope that it can happen.”
To provide a focus to this tale, Peterson and O’Hare zoomed in on one central conflict: the Greek Achilles vs. Hector of Troy.
“You could say it starts with Achilles, it ends with Hector, and the climax of the story is, they fight each other,” Peterson said. “It’s so simple.”
That paradigm fuels the play’s meditations on rage, of which there are plenty. The Storyteller takes breaks from the battlefield to ruminate on how rage pulses through even the most peaceful among us.
“I’ve always been a very antiwar person,” Parkinson said. But “in order to do this piece, I have to look at my own propensity toward rage, toward anger. I have to look at things inside that I might consider somewhat shameful.”
The Storyteller, he said, “is constantly trying to take this ancient story and make it feel like something people can relate to today.”
Right before he describes Patroclus’s walk to the front, the Storyteller asks, “You know that feeling when, for whatever reason, you could kill someone?”
He launches into a verbal rampage, relishing the idea of ramming his car into the guy who cut him off on the highway, of the charred metal smoking in the street. He is manic, approaching explosion. He jumps on the table, crying out, “It feeeeeels good!”
Then the Storyteller goes quiet. He slumps off the table, to the ground as if he can feel the tug of gravity on every inch of his body.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “This is why I don’t do this. This is why I don’t do this.”
A scene or so later, the Storyteller describes how Hector finishes off Patroclus. It’s brutal stuff, even compared with rest of the carnage. Hector slays the kid, strips him of the last of Achilles’ armor, all the while “crying out like an animal.” He tears at the breastplate and at the greaves, and he leaves Patroclus’s body naked in the dirt.
“Hector is a good guy,” the Storyteller says, stepping back from the invisible corpse. “This is how it happens. We think of ourselves: Not me. I’m peaceful. Then it happens anyway. Some trick in the blood. Rage. Do you see?”
“Doing this play has helped me understand, more, the psychology of war and why people can become addicted to war,” Parkinson said. “We’re all sort of looking for life to have meaning and clarity and focus, and I think those things happen in war. . . . I think there are many, many people who would actually rather be at war [than at peace].”
The Iliad explores “very basic things about human nature,” Muse said. “Humans and war and what leads us to do this again and again and again. It’s one of those stories that shows what war brings out in people.”
Even though it took him years to bring the play to Studio, Muse said he never worried about its contemporary relevance.
“You think: When we produce this in a year, will there be a war going on?” he said. “Of course there will be.”
Dec. 21 - Jan. 13, 1501 14th Street NW, Studio Theatre, 202-332-3300.