After the howls, the reverberating screams, the chants, the recitations, the physical re-enactment of war; after the fleeting tender moments amidst the horrors of war; after the narrator’s teases and asides Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson’s An Iliad ends in a rather anti-climatic two words: “You see,” says the narrator of this 110-minute (without intermission) re-telling of Homer’s epic, bringing this riveting play to its conclusion.
Of course, the two words are ironic. We don’t see the Trojan War; we are Homer’s readers and this performance’s viewers. For that matter, we don’t see much of any war, which is one of the points which the play drives home in a million and one ways. The Narrator’s task, as he defines it, is to bring the horrors (but also the human moments) into our sphere of vision through sound and mime and body movement in space. His second task is to extend the materials of the epic to our day, across centuries of conflict and violence, reciting a long list of wars (from the Trojan War to the Balkan Wars), of cities burned by war (from Troy to Gaza).
It’s a most remarkable re-casting of the Homeric epic, mixing ancient Greek, with passages from The Iliad, growls, long pauses, and most important, digressions and asides in casual, contemporary English. At the heart of this sometimes dizzying display is the idea that wars are made by individuals, and individuals are the reservoir of emotions–from friendship to love of parent, to revenge, to tenderness, to violence. But most of all rage–the rage of Achilles as he tries to avenge the death of his friend Patroclus. At times, the play slips into suspect, unconvincing territory when the range of this rage is stretched so thin that it seems to lose its power. But at the hands of O’Hare, at least in this afternoon’s production, the play quickly returns to the primal scene–war, and the large, complicated emotions it arouses.
There is nothing glorious in war, An Iliad, following Homer’s epic, tells us. But this play is also not a a cheap, fashionable anti-war tract. Human being start wars (Paris falls in love with Helen) and sustain them beyond logic and humanity. Wars don’t end; they just change their faces. As is the case with the gods that control so much of human action. “Gods don’t die,” the Narrator says early on in the play as he opens a bottle and takes a first of many sips. “They just go inside and stay in us.”
You see–the gods that change into the demonic; the musician that is also the Narrator’s other; the moments of sorrow and love that are nested and subverted by war’s violence.