It is the season for theatrical literary adaptations, as “Gatz,” based on “The Great Gatsby,” recently opened to rave reviews in New York, joining “Orlando” (from the novel by Virginia Woolf) and “The Sneeze” (short stories by Anton Chekov).
Now “An Iliad,” a dramatized version of Homer’s Greek epic, based partly on the translation by the late Princeton professor Robert Fagles, is in previews at McCarter Theater and opens on Friday, October 22. It runs through Sunday, November 7.
Notice that the title is “An” Iliad, not “The” Iliad. That is very important, says director Lisa Peterson, who co-created the show with actor Denis O’Hare. “Most people would identify “The Iliad” as this poem they read in college,” she says. “And I didn’t want to be claiming that this was the one and only. I wanted to make people understand that this is one of many Iliads.”
The Iliad (which simply means “song of Ilium,” aka Troy) is one of the Big Three in ancient epic poems, along with Homer’s other Greek saga, the Odyssey, and Virgil’s classic in Latin, the Aeneid. Robert Fagles wrote acclaimed translations of all three. The Iliad is a story of war, death, honor, and dishonor. For those who have been out of college for awhile, let’s encapsulate the 24 books of Homer’s story:
The Trojan War has been raging for years. The Greek leader, Agamemnon, won’t return a Trojan captive, despite the offer of a hefty ransom. This angers his top warrior, Achilles, as well as the god Apollo, who rains down plague upon the Greeks until Athena intervenes. There’s a truce; it is broken. Hector, a commander of Troy, rallies his men. Achilles’ best friend gets killed. A really ticked off Achilles pursues Hector. Spoiler alert: Achilles kills Hector, but feels a little bit bad about it.
It would take an exceptional scholar (not available here) to explain the dense, dark, and gore-filled story in less than three hours. And Peterson has handed the job over to one actor, who, alone on stage for 90 minutes, has to get over the sense of what Homer used to take days to do.
Peterson, an award-winning director with many New York, Los Angeles, and regional credits, explains the evolution of this particular production. “When I started out with this,” she says in an interview prior to the beginning of a rehearsal at McCarter, “I actually originally thought it might be more of a happening or an event. When I started talking with Denis O’Hare about it, we were knocking around ideas about performing it in bars — more on the fly, a little less formally. We actually thought that he might improvise much of it, the way we think perhaps the early bards had some things learned and some things improvised. But as we worked on it, we developed a way of creating text that feels improvised, but isn’t. Now it’s a script.”
She makes the point that whether the Iliad is a play or a poem — “I have a friend, she says, who, in world theater classes, teaches the Iliad as the first play in the Western canon” — there is no doubt that it was handed down in the oral tradition, and meant to be performed. “No one really knows, but a lot of scholars think that the story was told by many people. But there was a form for it, a sort of song and rhythm that went along with it, and there were set pieces that stayed the same. Each story teller, depending on where they were and what was happening in the world around them, would change things. Over the centuries, the things that really worked would stick.
“Somewhere along the line it all got written down — no one knows how that happened, or whether it was dictated, which is what a lot of people think — that there was a great bard, maybe named Homer, and someone sat down and recorded what he did. But we kind of took that as a springboard and invented a poet character, who might be Homer, who still exists, knocking around the world. He tells the story, using a combination of a little bit of ancient Greek, his initial language, some of the Robert Fagles translation, which for me is the most speakable and exciting American English translation, and a lot of writing that Denis and I did, in which he makes reference to a lot of contemporary similes.
“He moves somewhat fluidly from telling us the story in a very straightforward way, to reaching back into the hexameter verse when he wants it to have a kind of epic quality. But we liked the idea that it was a stew. A wonderful Homer scholar in Seattle said that she liked to think of the Iliad and the Odyssey as these great cultural stews, into which anyone can dip their spoon. The core of the story is the same, but the way that you tell it, the way you work to engage your audience, can change.”
The Iliad, respected as it is, has never been quite as big a hit as the Odyssey. The tale of Odysseus, with its sweeping scope of time, battles, enchantments, and events in this world and the other, has resonated in pop culture. It’s been adapted for film, theater, and television. James Joyce took the story for his novel “Ulysses,” and in 2000, the Coen brothers loosely based on their most popular films, “O Brother Where Art Thou,” on the Odyssey.
The Iliad, on the other hand, is quietly respected, but viewed as a more daunting project. Peterson muses (appropriately for a director of a Greek epic): “The Odyssey is full of adventure. The Iliad keeps reminding me of Moby Dick. It’s obsessive, it’s violent, it’s dense. It’s more sthematically organized; you don’t really have so much story. It actually takes place in about 40 days. It’s thick, but when you start to unlock it, the one thing that really moves me about it is the idea of these two great warriors, Achilles and Hector, who are fighting for different reasons — Hector is defending his city, Achilles is fulfilling his destiny. It seems to apply to what I imagine it’s like to be a soldier now — that your brother is the most important to you. And it’s very philosophical, the line between life and death, and the pull towards life and the suck toward death. I find that very moving.”
Peterson’s poet/narrator is a world-weary everyman who has seen far too many wars. He has told this story many times to many audiences, but he quickly swings into his rhythm, and as he recounts the epic, he helps the audience relate by referring to all the other wars and deaths that man has created before and since — sometimes for a noble reason, often times senselessly.
Peterson does admit that doing the show right in Fagles’ backyard is “sort of” daunting. “He passed away before we had a script,” she says regretfully. “We went to his estate and got the rights, but he never knew about it. His widow, Lynn, though, came to the first rehearsal, and she was really supportive and wonderful. It is a bit daunting, but also exciting.”
To be onstage alone for an entire evening is a challenging task for any actor, let alone one who has to learn some ancient Greek, a lot of difficult names, and will always have some audience members, particularly in Princeton, who will know if he trips up. It’s like having to memorize every Phillies team since 1912, and tell what befell each, and how the gods were responsible.
Co-author Denis O’Hare is a Tony Award-winning actor, and he was originally scheduled to play the part at McCarter, until he had a schedule conflict. Fortunately, Peterson was able to get another Tony Award winner, Stephen Spinella, to step in. Spinella also appeared at the McCarter in “Electra,” in 1998. “As matter of fact,” Peterson says, “Denis has never actually performed the show. He’s done readings of it for audience, but he’s never gone through the rehearsal process, never had to memorize it, which is no easy feat. We only hired Stephen a couple of weeks before we went onto rehearsal. He’s been working like an Olympian to learn it, and he’s doing an amazing job.”
“An Iliad” was staged at Seattle Repertory Theater last April, and in Portland Oregon in September. Peterson acknowledges that she would love to take it to New York.
“A number of other people around the country have shown interest, and I would like to not always be the director; it’s something that can be done in a lot of different ways. I could see taking it to army camps, like the Theater of War project (a New York company that takes ancient Greek war-themed shows to military bases around the country, as part of a Department of Defense contract). But whatever happens, “An Iliad” is something that I will be interested in for a long time.”
“An Iliad,” Matthews Theater at the McCarter, 91 University Place, Princeton. In previews Wednesday and Thursday, October 20 and 21. Opening night Friday, October 22, 8 p.m. Stephen Spinella in Homer’s tale of love, battle, and honor adapted by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare. Through Sunday, November 7. $20 and up. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.