Adding One More Layer to an Ancient Tradition

We’re less than two weeks away from the opening night of An Iliad. As I watch the production develop, I’ve been thinking about what kind of experience the audience will have, listening to an account of this ancient story. In my own reaction to seeing—and particularly, to hearing—this play, I’ve realized how much more enjoyable it is to hear Homer aloud rather than to read him in silence. I’m starting to understand why my college literature professors kept encouraging us to form reading groups when studying The Iliad and The Odyssey. It’s all because the epic poem was created, first and foremost, for performance.

 The debate about Homer’s identity seems to have been going forever. Before the 20th century, scholars generally agreed that the poem was the work of a poet who could write, but they were divided over the opinion that the poem was created by a single person, and the belief that it was a compilation of the work of many. By the late 1920’s, classical scholar, Milman Parry (1902-1935) had offered solid evidence for the theory that The Iliad is the product of centuries of oral tradition. He posited that poets would reciteThe Iliad from memory, combining fixed text with improvisation. Poets would chant versions of the story with the musical accompaniment of a lyre. This may explain why an estimated one-fifth of Homer is repeated—stock phrases would become mnemonic devices for performers. (For a fuller account of debates about the Iliad’s origins, check out this article from the New English Review:
Today, people still perform ancient stories much like Homer and his contemporaries. In Istanbul, professional bards follow in this tradition, being raised from childhood to sing hundreds of tales from memory at weddings, feasts and funerals. The Bards will strum along and tap out the rhythm of their tales on a Saz. (You can see part of one of these performances in a segment of the Documentary Series, “In Search of the Trojan War:
 Although An Iliad may seem like a “twist” on a traditional story, Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare are actually drawing from these centuries old traditions. Like the poet’s of Homer’s time, the poet in An Iliad strings together Homeric text in an improvised fashion and adapts portions of the story for his own purposes. (In Undermain’s production, the poet—and an accompanying musician—have taken up the Lyre of Homer, the Saz of Turkish bards, and several other instruments.)
 I hope that when audiences come to see An Iliad, they experience something both fresh and evocative. This eclectic play piles up centuries upon centuries of traditions, culminating in a text that is as familiar as it is mysterious. Seasoned Iliad scholars and Homer novices alike will likely discover something new from Peterson’s and O’Hare’s adaptation.
Colleen Ahern, Assistant Director