"An Iliad" for the Ages Takes History Lovers Back to the Trojan Wars

Culture Watch


Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

An Iliad
New York Theatre Workshop
79 E. Fourth Street
New York, NY

One of the most thrilling adventures of all time is one of the earliest: Homer’s Iliad, the lengthy, heroic story of how the Greeks went to war with Troy around 1250 to bring back the beautiful Helen, wife of Spartan king Menelaus, who had been stolen away from him by the Trojan prince Paris. The Greeks, led by Menelaus, Agamemnon, Odysseus, and aided by the world’s greatest warrior, Achilles, battled the Trojans for nine long years to recover her before finally conquering them with a trick –- Odysseus's legendary Trojan horse.

Homer's epic poem has enchanted readers for millennia. (Not even Shakespeare can claim such longevity -- at least not yet.) With such an ancient provenance, you'd think there'd be no innovative way to yet again tell the tale, but playwright Lisa Peterson and actor Denis O'Hare have found one. Using the late Princeton classicist Robert Fagles's most recent translation of The Iliad, they've turned the 15,963-line, 24-book long poem into a one-man show. It's too gruelling of a performance for one actor, though, so O'Hare alternates performances with Stephen Spinella (who starred in the performance I attended). O'Hare/Spinella plays The Poet who punctuates the tale of the Iliad with references to our own time.

It's new, it's different, and it's positively scalding.

The Poet is not simply Homer reciting the Iliad with some asides. He's a fully-fleshed character, outfitted like a modern troubador in a large overcoat with all of his belongings in a small suitcase. He rages against the stupidity of the leadership of both the Greeks and Trojans for embroiling themselves in a largely pointless war; not even the beauty of Helen escapes his wrath. His narrative of ships, swords, arrows, and blood is equally vivid and terrifying.

An Iliad covers much of Homer’s epic and complicated story, but trims much of it in order to keep the play manageable. The Poet quickly explains why the war started and then stands on the ramparts of Troy, represented by stark wooden chair in the center of the dark stage, and describes what the hundreds and hundreds of ships carrying tens of thousands of Greek warriors looked like as they filled up the harbor and weighed anchor. Then he dives into the tale, boldly drawing masterful portraits of the heroes and villains.

The Poet and Peterson have their favorites. Their two most admired combatants in the Trojan War are Hector, the Trojan leader, and Achilles, the heralded warrior. Achilles, reluctant to fight for Agamemnon at first, is drawn into the fray when his best friend, Petropolous, is killed in battle. Achilles hunts down Hector on the battlefield and slays him as thousands of stunned onlookers watch from the tops of the walls of Troy. The battle between the two, as related by The Poet, is absolutely breathtaking. He yanks the audience right onto the beaches of ancient Troy with his riveting description of the legendary battle between the of the greatest warriors in the history of literature.

But The Poet is also full of rage. He tells a sorrowful story of the Trojan conflict, exasperated, he says, that the Greeks cannot go home without victory and are therefore condemned to fight on. The Trojans must win the war to save face and preserve their place in history. They cannot give Helen up -- to do so would strip Troy of all prestige. The result, The Poet bitterly relates, is the death of thousands on each side for no good reason.

The Poet moves back and forth between ancient Troy and modern America, comparing the rage of the soldiers outside of Troy to the current state of affairs in the United States. In one sizzling moment, he stands on a chair and recites the long, tragic list of the many wars the world has fought since Troy fell.

Both budding classicists and the general public will enjoy An Iliad. Peterson's masterful piece is not only colorful and charismatic, but compact and straight-forward, not an easy feat to accomplish when updating ancient epics.

It is a wonderful history, a fascinating play, based on enduring Greek myth, and stars a mesmerizing Spinella.

PRODUCTION:  Produced by the New York Theatre Workshop. Sets: Rachel Hauck, Costumes:  Marina Draghici, Lighting: Scott Zielinski, Music: Mark Bennett. The play is directed by Lisa Peterson.

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