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HOMER AND THE ILIAD

    We know very little about Homer. THE ILIAD, and THE ODYSSEY exist, therefore they must have had a creator. The creator is called Homer, therefore Homer existed, not much else. Scholars detect within the body of the poems evidence that he must have been an Ionian, and probably was born on the island of Chios off the coast of what is now Turkey. Tradition tells us he was an old blind man who wandered the country side reciting his two great epic poems THE ILIAD, and THE ODYSSEY.

    Whatever we know, or don’t know about Homer, we can be sure that during at least part of his life he would have been young. And, during that part he would have apprenticed, he would have studied to become a professional story teller. Story telling by the time of Homer was no job for an amateur. The story teller had to learn, or at least be familiar with, an enormous amount of material. There were the stories of the heroes, Hercules, Jason, Theses, Perseus, etc. There were the stories of the Gods, Demi-gods, Giants, Titans, on, and on, hundreds of them, and their very complicated relationships, and there was history, factual, and fanciful. In addition the story teller had to master the art of memorizing long complicated plot lines and improvising in a tight poetic form when performing them.

    This would take a considerable effort. An effort hardly worth making unless there there was some promise of a reward for it. It seems to me that the reward for a good story teller in the time of Homer could be considerable.

    Consider what the Greeks, or Ionians of Homer’s time had available to them, for leisure time entertainment. No movies, television, or radio of course. But also, no books, no reading for pleasure. (There was writing, but its use seemed to be limited to accounting and record keeping.) No plays, concerts, or games to go to. (All of that is in the future.) There seems to be little to do other than sing, and dance, make love, or make war, (all of which they did a lot of). and listen to story tellers.

    One can imagine story tellers, especially good ones did quite well. A “Star” like Homer might well have earned, in percentage of gross national product, what a “Movie star” or “Rock star” does today. I find it very difficult to believe that a story teller would spend the time and effort to create, and memorize a work as monumental as THE ILIAD then follow it up with an equally demanding work such as THE ODYSSEY for subsistence, or “just get by” wages.

    At some point in his early story telling career Homer began to include in his repertoire his version of a Trojan war story, soon to be called, THE ILIAD. He would have had a lot of material to draw on, and edit for this endeavor. For in the four hundred years that had passed since that war actually took place, the events, stories, facts, and names of individuals had been passed from generation to generation of men by word of mouth, and no Doubt had grown in the telling and retelling till by Homer’s time, the Trojan War Cycle of stories was extensive. They covered some forty years of time and included a large number of the Gods, and most of the known Greek world

    But it was not Homers intention to tell the whole Trojan War story. he appeared to believe he could better capture what he wanted to say about the Trojan War if he confined himself to the events which encompassed a time span of some two months, and he concentrated primarily on the actions which resulted from a quarrel between Agamemnon, and Achilles which took place in the tenth year of the war. he used an existing story “The Wrath of Achilles” as his starting point.

    One can easily imagine Homer when engaged to perform at the villa of a rich patron, one who set a bountiful table, supplied a comfortable bed, and offered agreeable company, stretching his performance of THE ILIAD so that it might take many nights before the end was reached. Eventually THE ILIAD reaches a length of 24 nights, or 24 “books” each taking about an hour to recite, that being an agreeable length of time for an after dinner entertainment. At the same time, one can imagine if the host was stingy, the bed hard, the company frigid... six nights would probably have covered it.

    Today, a standup comic keeps his material flexible so it may be cut, or streached to suit the audience reaction as he, or she performs it. Homer must have done the same thing, streatching, cutting, rephrasing as he went along to suit the audience of the moment. The point is, that THE ILIAD was elastic, and evolving during Homer’s life time. He did not, at some point, sit down and compose the entire Iliad in one great creative burst of imagination. THE ILIAD grew, and evolved, and changed with Homer’s telling, and re-telling of it. Just as the airplane has evolved from the Wright Brothers “Flyer” to the Boeing 747, something the Wright Brothers could never have conceived of, a literary work could in those days, evolve during a single story tellers life time to something quite beyond his comprehension when he began.

    After Homer’s lifetime “The Sons of Homer” continued performing Homer’s great works for some 200 years, passing the performance from generation to generation in the oral tradition (that is learning it by listening to some one perform it.) and, no doubt, in each generation it was improved to make it more suitable to the individual performers abilities, and audience.

    This continued until the sixth century BC, the time of the Tyrant Peisistratus. By this time it is said every village has its own performer of THE ILIAD, and each one of them has a slightly different version to tell. This offended Peisistratus who felt there should be only one version of THE ILIAD, the official, authenticated, version. This he set out to create, or have created. He appointed a commission, or its equivalent for those days and assigned them the task of writing it down so no more changes could be made, and while they’re at it, eliminate, cut out, all those improvements made by inferior poets. This was done, and this is the version we have today.

    One might well ask, if THE ILIAD is based on previous material, and if it evolved before, during, and after Homer’s lifetime, why do we give Homer sole credit for authorship?

    This is a good question. One scholars have been dealing with for over 2000 years.

    Here is my opinion: Homer’s greatness lies not so much in his poetry, or in his selection of every word of THE ILIAD, and THE ODYSSEY. Though the selection of those words and the order in which he selected them make THE ILIAD one of the greatest works of art by man. His greatness lies in what he did to the art and craft of story telling. He made two improvements which changed forever the course of Western literature, and in some ways changed the way Man perceives himself.

    Since before the time of Homer and through to today, the art and craft of story telling is basically narrative. That is the story teller tells who, what, when, where, why, and how. He uses lots of colorful adjectives, and adverbs, throws in some sound bites and he has his story. The “news writer” of today working in television, or newspaper, uses the same art and craft. If he is a story teller of the Bronze age, he composes it in a poetic meter so that it may be more easily memorized and passed on. This “narrative” form has served well for thousands of years.

    Homer’s first improvement was to change the narrative form into what scholars today call the dramatic. That is he expands, and extends the “sound bite” from a quote describing what the person said into a prolonged speech which is spoken in the first person, present tense. These speeches allow the narrator to not just report what was said, but to become the person saying it. And, as he assumes the character, and expresses the passion of the speaker, the audience can see deep into the heart and soul of the character. They can see his hidden agendas, the honesty of his emotion, the truth of his motives, the value of his character.

    Homer’s second improvement was one which allowed the first one to work. That was, he brought to his work an understanding of human nature, and humans in nature that far surpassed any which had gone before. He creates whole human beings, often with just a few words. Homer’s characters cannot be easily cast into the roles of protagonist, or antagonist, hero, or villain. They are, just like real human beings, capable of performing the most noble acts, and then moments later indulging in the most petty behavior. His characters are not good or bad, they are good and bad. This does tend to make THE ILIAD hard to read, its hard to pick out a person to root for, but it makes THE ILIAD a joy to perform.

    This view of what a human being is, and Homer’s ability to create speeches to express it changed the way the “Greeks perceived themselves. Life was no longer just a stumble down a path set by the Gods, but something in which the individual has choice. And if the individual has choice, then he is capable of using that choice intelligently, and if he can do that, then he can govern himself, and can create for himself a legacy as an honest brave soldier and citizen, or as a fool and a coward

    Peisistratus, when he created the official written version of THE ILIAD accomplished two things. First he preserved THE ILIAD so that an important part of the evolution of Western Literature, and Culture could be kept forever. Second, he killed it.

    THE ILIAD was conceived and created as a work to be performed by a story teller to a listening audience, not a work to be read. But, now, why hire a storyteller, (remember they are expensive, and have to be fed) when for a fraction of the cost one could own the written version, and read it whenever one wished. Soon the live performances of THE ILIAD became fewer, and fewer, though live performance of THE ILIAD did last for awhile in the form of contests.

    To tell the whole truth though, the days of THE ILIAD’S ascendancy as popular entertainment were numbered anyway. For when Homer gave the narrator of the story the freedom to become the character speaking, he set in motion an unintended consequence.

    It was not long after Homer had shown the way that other poets saw uses for this new technique. If one was going to use different voices, why should one not use different people? Also, this would cut down on the amount of memorizing to be done. The narrator, the least interesting role, was probably the first to be delegated. Besides it is far more interesting don’t you think, to use multiple voices who also dance, to do the narrators job, a chorus we’ll call them. Even then, a 3 hour performance doing all those voices is a strain, why not use two actors, or three, or how about an actor for each role?

    Perhaps you recognize what they had. They had drama, the great tragedies and comedies of Euripides, Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Aristophanes. THE ILIAD could not compete with that.

    Today THE ILIAD is an artifact. It’s something made by man in an earlier time which can instruct us about that time. By looking back to see where we have been, we can perhaps better see where we are. THE ILIAD is to literature as the Parthenon is to architecture, or the Greek battle helmet is to the art of War.

    Today THE ILIAD is literature, ancient literature, used mainly by college professors to annoy college Liberal Arts Majors. It is dissected, its parts examined and counted. Connections are discovered, analyzed, and catalogued. All this scholarly activity is quite appropriate for something lifeless, inert, unchanging.

    One must have sympathy for those college students attempting to read THE ILIAD or read “Cliffs Notes” condensations of it. THE ILIAD is not a good read. Reading Tom Clancy, or P. J. O’Rourke or Sue Grafton would be a much more enjoyable use of one’s time. But it is important to note here that THE ILIAD was never meant to be read. The written version of THE ILIAD is to THE ILIAD as a script is to a play, or a score is to a symphony.

    THE ILIAD was created to exist only in those fleeting moments when it is performed by a live story teller in front of a live audience. The essence of THE ILIAD is not in the words or the order in which they are arranged, but in the sound of those words, the sound not only of the word itself, but in the inflection given it by the artistry of the performer. THE ILIAD also cannot exist without the presence of the live story teller. It is he, or she, whose posture, and gesture are as indicative of a character’s age, social position, personality, self image, as are the words given to that character by Homer. The opportunity given to the live story teller to choose those gestures, and inflections from moment to moment is what makes THE ILIAD a living work of art open to an endless variety of interpretation, interpretation that will be different every time it is performed. No wonder they had contests.


 
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