Our 29th Season: A Conversation with the Dead

[Originally posted 08.27.2012]

“No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone…. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.”

T.S. Eliot, Tradition and the Individual Talent
As we rehearse for An Iliad, I’ve been thinking a lot about the presence of the classics at a place like Undermain, where the focus has always been on producing new and experimental work. True, our season, which we’ve dubbed “The Season of Myth” comprises three very recently penned plays. We’re starting off with An Iliad, Lisa Peterson’s and Denis O’Hare’s adaptation of Homer; continuing with Burying our Father, a new take on the roots of the Abrahamic religions; following that with Penelope, Enda Walsh’s twist on The Odyssey; and wrapping up the season with The Ghost Sonata, a seminal piece in modern avant garde theatre. So we’re far from turning into a classical theatre company. But the fact remains that our focus will be on the ancients for most of this season.
There are probably dozens of ways I could begin talking about why this fits into our mission or how the classics relate to our past programming (dive into our archives and you’ll recall several other productions with classical themes). The place I’m most inclined to start is T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”
Eliot is one of the best examples of an experimental artist who was always writing about the classics in some way or another. Take, for example, “The Wasteland,” Eliot’s modernist cacophony of voices in which he alluded to dozens of literary works, from ancient to contemporary. Eliot had a clear sense of exactly why he wrote experimental poetry—and it had nothing to do with leaving the past behind.
Eliot loved the past and he loved classical literature (it’s tough to read anything he’s penned without running across some mention of Dante’s Divine Comedy.) His focus in writing poetry was always on how he—as a 20th century poet—related to all the writers who had come before him. In “Tradition and the Individual Talent” he says:
“He [the poet] must be quite aware of the obvious fact that art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same.”
I’ve always found this to be an incredibly exciting way to approach experimental theatre. Instead of thinking of experimental work as an improvement on what has come before, there is so much more to draw from once you consider new work as a conversation with existing forms. Suddenly, this takes away the pressure to make something better than ever and instead gives the artist the great responsibility of fashioning something entirely of the moment from the building blocks of human experience.
This is clearly one of the goals of An Iliad. In adapting Homer for modern audiences, Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare gave the text a historical sense by creating an awareness of all the violence that has persisted since the legendary Trojan WarIn this way, the playwrights are drawing up a sense of history from Homer’s time to today into the story of the Iliad. This “historical sense” is something Eliot addresses in his essay:
“The historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature…has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.”
Perhaps it seems funny that dwelling on history and the literature of the past could create a great sense of urgency for artists. Yet, ultimately, I think that’s what it can do. At Undermain, it’s our job to experiment with theatrical forms, to make something new and of the moment. But where do these forms come from and why would we want to change them anyway? These are questions we have to ask ourselves with every production, and by producing plays based on classical themes we are able to directly address these topics in performance. This year, as we grapple with all the questions that underlie our Season of Myth, it is my hope not only that Undermain prompts a dialogue among audiences, but that we may continue a perpetual dialogue with the dead.Colleen Ahern, Assistant Director