The Story Of An Iliad Is Not The Story Of The Iliad


Tonight Undermain opens the second run of An Iliad by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare.  Most audiences know this play as the one-man version of The Iliad.  That’s not entirely accurate, and the reason involves an important lesson in play analysis.  Feel free to draw your own Venn diagram.


The story of An Iliad is not the story of The Iliad.  Its central character is not Achilles.  It does not take place on the fields of Troy.  It is not an epic, not even a war story in the normal sense.

An Iliad contains all these things but is distinct from them.  And the distinction between Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s An Iliad and the Iliad it contains may seem theoretical, but it has significant artistic consequences.

How do we know the story of An Iliad is not the story of the Trojan War?  Don’t we hear all about the great battles, the gods’ interventions, the wrath of Achilles?  Don’t we hear verses straight from Homer?

The answer has to do with dramatic structure.  The protagonist of An Iliad is the nameless Poet — not Achilles or Hector.  And the central action is not a graph of Achilles’ rage.  It is the Poet’s attempt, through the retelling of an ancient story, to dispel the rage that sends men to war.  “Every time I sing this song, I hope it’s the last time,” the Poet says on the first page of the script.  What clearer declaration of intention could an audience hope to find?

The most frequently recurring line in the play is a question: “Do you see?”  The Poet needs his audience to understand something about violence, about wrath, something contained with Homer’s poem.  He has traveled the world since the time of the Trojan War, trying to communicate the lesson, and, as history makes evident, failing at every attempt.

The Poet uses The Iliad to achieve his goal, and his interaction with the poem and the audience is the substance of the play.  Homer’s Iliad is ingeniously nested within his story, it reflects his struggle at points; at points, it is the cause of the struggle.  Achilles’ addiction to rage within the story mirrors the rage the Poet wants the audience to abandon.  The bloodlust of Patroclus is so potent that the Poet himself is possessed by it.

We can observe the Poet’s digressions from Homer’s text: immediately after Hector’s death the Poet halts to remember another battle it reminds him of.  He ends up listing nearly 150 actual historical wars, up to present day, in a play on the catalogues of epic poetry.  The climax of the play, arguably, comes in another digression at the moment Achilles gives up his anger:

“And now here’s the thing.  What I love singing, and I hope I can make you see: for once, Achilles, who is addicted to rage – as so many of us are, really, when it comes right down to it – this fighting man feels the rage well up in his heart…and he makes it disappear…How did he do that?”

These digressions exist to mark the Poet’s dramatic action, and they are as important as the Homeric portions of the text.  The sense in which An Iliad is an anti-war play, in a way Homer’s epic is not, is contained within these digressions, within the story of the Poet but not the story of his poem (except as he illuminates it).   Again and again Peterson and O’Hare’s script calls for the Poet to gulp down alcohol.  This has nothing at all to do with Homer’s Iliad, but suggests the difficulty of the action the Poet is undertaking in telling it: without a drink he does not feel he can continue.

I wrote that there are artistic consequences to realizing that the story of An Iliad is the story of the Poet and not his poem.  To begin with, this determines the world of the play.

The world of Homer’s Iliad is ancient, martial, mythological, corporal in the sense that it intimately familiar with viscera and bloody death, it is overwhelmingly masculine, and it values honor and glory above nearly all else.

The world of An Iliad is essentially our world.  It is the room the Poet enters: a theatre, a bar, a space to perform and a modern audience, whose remoteness from the world of the poem is charted (implicitly and explicitly) in the text.  As the Poet explains, our world is no longer captivated by gods or honor or martial glory in the way that it once was, and yet it is still consumed with rage.

A curious characteristic of An Iliad is that the world of the play therefore changes with each production not because of literary interpretation but rather because of social context: the world is the audience, and room, and city, and time for which it is performed.

Another consequence of accepting An Iliad’s dramatic structure is costume design (frankly, all design, but costume is easiest to talk about).  In Undermain’s production, Giva Taylor has given the Poet various durable costume pieces he may have gathered and kept over his last hundred years of traveling.  As the play continues, the Poet removes articles of clothing – this is indexed to his progress as a character, not to the nested tale he describes.  The stripped layers suggest the Poet’s fatigue (the scale of his conflict) and also his arrival nearer the heart of the matter (the naked truth, so to speak).

The staging of the play demands attention to its central story.  A presentation of Homer’s Iliad may favor Achilles and Hector, tucking the narrator into the corner and giving center stage to enacted myth.  If An Iliad is the Poet’s story, though (and it is), movement and composition within space must favor his use of and reaction to the story.  His presence as narrator is as important as what he narrates.  Neither trips to the table to take a drink, nor long pauses to gather thoughts or remove shoes must be elided to make room for battle.

In recommending the play to potential audience members, I often find myself referring to it as “a one-man version of The Iliad”.  Strictly speaking, this is untrue.  While you do get a one-man version of The Iliad if you come to the show, the show itself is something else.  Ultimately this affects not just how the artistic team interprets the script but how the audience is to understand their experience.  A play is a machine that performs an action.  Though it can be confusing to talk about, it’s important to recognize that Homer’s Iliad is actually a part of the machine in this case, not the machine itself.

Stephen Foglia, Literary Manager