The prevailing feeling of war, maybe more than fear or dread, is exhaustion. More than a decade into the longest and most wearying armed conflicts in U.S. history, M. Craig Getting directs a heart-breaking adaptation of the western world’s very oldest war story: An Iliad, at the Lantern Theater.
An Iliad, adapted by playwrights Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, from the Iliad — familiar to many of us from our high school reading lists – is presented in a style that’s almost classical: a Poet (Peter deLaurier) reciting the story, evoking the violent battles and shimmering fountains of Troy, with support from a Muse (Liz Filios) on lyre, drums, the occasional radiator.
Peter de Laurier’s Poet is wry and humorous, best in the quiet, human moments between the conflicts, or the long effort spent contextualizing the story. He doesn’t quite bring the power needed for the battle scenes, and his voice is occasionally lost beneath the drums or in the rhythm of the lines. Still, more important than selling another scene of bloody slaughter is selling the Poet’s long weariness of singing those scenes in the first place, and here de Laurier is at his best: drinking, disheveled, broken down, exhausted.
Liz Filios’ Muse creates the soundscape with some historic instruments, some found instruments. The physical presence of the music is a blessing; recorded music would have sapped the story of its immediacy. It’s evocative without being intrusive, and supplements the poetry nicely. There is the hint of genuine interaction between Poet and Muse, but she never really rises to the level of an actual character, instead mostly flits from instrument to instrument in support.
Homer’s Iliad is a dense text; it takes hours to recite, and there’s little historical evidence to suggest that many people ever bothered to do the whole thing. When we talk about “Homer”, we’re usually talking about “the Homeric Tradition”, a cycle of songs and stories compiled like a greatest hits album. Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare have not just cut the original, but also tried to contextualize it in a way that is meant to capture the feeling of some of these scenes in a way that makes sense to a modern audience – there’s maybe a little too much time devoted to that, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen an adaptation of the Catalog of Ships (a famously long and boring sequence of the poem in which the author literally lists every name and tribe of Greeks who showed up to the war) that genuinely captured the underlying essence of the sequence.
It’s the picking and choosing of scenes that makes the play here – the Iliad is steeped in ancient Greek misogyny of course, and there’s little effort to genuinely purge that from the story; it’s still about who gets which slave girl, so this is still very much a story about historically masculine rage. It cuts Odysseus’ beating the dissenter Thersites, and Achilles and his Myrmidons at leisure – drawing a narrow circle around the themes of the story. This isn’t war as Agamemnon’s relentless imperialism, or war as an unbearable burden for the Greek citizen, but war as an inextricable violence that plagues human nature itself.
The war in Troy, if it ever really happened at all, was sometime in the 12th or 13th centuries BCE; the Iliad composed around the 8th. It was created as central to the literature of the Hellenic golden age in the 6th century, and revived with the Roman conquest in the 1st. It was preserved during the Byzantine Empire, excavated during the Renaissance. In the 19th century Western powers, eager for tools to justify their empire, renewed their interest again. We come back to it again in the 20th and 21st centuries, trying to make sense of our long history of seemingly endless wars.
What is it about this story, like a raw wound we can’t stop picking at, that’s kept it alive for so long? There’s a famous scene, in between some of the fighting, recreated in this production with moving tenderness: Hector returns from the war to see his wife Andromache and his infant son Astyanax. Hector’s doom hangs heavy over the scene – we all know that much, but it isn’t all. The poet will tell us at the end, but in ancient Athens there is no one who heard this story and didn’t know that the infant Astyanax would be thrown from the ramparts and killed after the fall of Troy.
How thorough, how complete are the horrors of war. There’s the wound, the barb on the arrow launched thirty centuries ago and still landing with cruel precision. The Lantern’s An Iliad is powerful, compelling, and it makes my heart sick to think of it.