Few literary works capture the unspeakable aspects of war better than Homer’s The Iliad. The epic poem and the world’s first global literary classic lays out the savagery, splendor, spitefulness and large-scale indignities men are reduced to perpetuate and suffer, with such vivid aplomb that it can bring nightmares to even the most harden of men.
The Iliad’s war imagery is relentless and when I walked into the Villa Giudia in Rome, Italy back in 2008 and saw The Euphronios krater, the only surviving Etruscan terra cotta krater (bowl) from 500 B.C., I wept. The scene of Hermes watching while Sleep and Death lift Sarpedon from this earth to take him elsewhere is lifted straight from Homer’s Iliad. It so powerfully depicts the awkward beauty of war, the heroic magnetism of men who died an honorable death in battle, that it is unnerving and painfully beautiful.
I’ve always struggled with the idea of war. As a Christian I am fixated on peace on Earth and good will towards men. Yet, so many wars have been fought in the name of religion such sentiments seem silly and quaint.
Reading The Iliad did not make this struggle easier. Homer is plain-spoken in the consequences of war yet he writes eloquently about the men who wage it. Much of The Iliad has been spliced to appease modernity and contemporary versions often play up the Achilles love story, the bromance between Patroclus and Achilles, the farcical nature of Paris or the trickery of the Trojan army (though that horse thing came later in The Odyssey, but why quibble about facts.)
But The Iliad is about one thing – the horrors and heroics of war. Line after line depict in brutal detail the result of rage, war and men abandoned, adhering to or assuaging their gods. So few people pick up its pages because they are afraid of its ancient format. Yet once you get used to the English translation that tries, sometimes in vain, to capture the beauty of the ancient Greek language, anyone can see Homer’s epic poem has relevance even today.
And with a country recently embroiled in three conflicts just months ago, the subject matter of the Iliad cannot be more apropos.
Which, according to the program, is why director Lisa Peterson and actor Dennis O’Hare deigned to revive The Iliad in their version “An Iliad,” which I saw tonight at The Court Theatre in Chicago.
Mixing contemporary phrasing and poignant modern visions of young American men off to war in Afghanistan and Iraq with the bloody, brutal battle between two noble men – Achilles and Hector – An Iliad rides Homer’s coattails to comment on the futility and brutal consequence of warfare.
A searing scene in which the only cast member traces the Trojan War’s legacy through real wars in the ancient, medieval and modern worlds piles on the pathos, blatantly pandering to our heartstrings about man’s seemingly endless lust for war. A subtle war criticism this is not. But then neither was Homer’s original Iliad.
An Iliad stops its rendition just after Achilles kills Hector and them shamelessly commits posthumous acts of torture upon Hector’s corpse that rival Abu Ghraib. It is an ancient allegorical statement about the empty pride of war victories that still resonates today.
Still, I was left a bit hollow from An Illiad, I felt the play gave me too little a contemporary take on an ancient text – when you revive a classic better have something profound to say with it and An Iliad fell short on that point. Unlike Homer who wrote about both the horror and beauty to be found in war An Iliad is a one-note wonder beating the drum of non-violence into our skulls.
If you’re gonna revive The Iliad to say “war is bad,” why not give it a little umph beyond the obvious? Why not use the play to turn attention to the fact that even now, centuries later, men are still waging war to curry favor with seen and unseen gods? It’s a fact left unexplored in modern literature or theater and is a new twist on an old obsession. Maybe it’s because I just finished writing a book about terrorism and jihadists, but I think delving deeper into this inexplicable need men have to kill for mysterious gods is a good way to thrust The Iliad right into the modern American dinner table conversation.
Still, I highly recommend the production for those quick ADD types who want the best parts of a story cherry picked for them because The Iliad is a story of lust, war, obsession and devotion that every one should know. For those who haven’t read the actual poem or who haven’t recently seen the Hollywood movie Troy, An Illiad will do just fine.