“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.