THE ILIAD as Theater,
Then and Now



    There is to the best of my knowledge, no record of a performance by Homer, or one of the Sons of Homer. Therefore we can never know for sure how Homer presented his two great epic poems when performing for his audience so long ago. But, we can put together bits of evidence from a decoration on a vase here, or a literary reference there, or observation of contemporary story tellers, to come up with an opinion which is both believable, and workable.

    The current popular opinion on how Homer created and performed THE ILIAD and THE ODYSSEY is based largely on research done by Milman Parry and described in the book “Singer of Tales” by Albert B. Lord. Their research, and work with Yugoslavian singers - story tellers of the early 20th century leads them to believe the method of singing long epic poems has been passed down for thousands of years, and has remained pretty much unchanged over the millennia.

    The Yugoslavian singers perform seated and accompany themselves with a one stringed musical instrument called a gusle. They have not memorized the song word for word, nor the music note for note the way a contemporary European entertainer would. There is no written copy to which they can refer. They work more like a jazz musician, improvising, making it up as they go, but staying within well defined forms, and faithful to well defined story themes. In their method of story telling, there is no “original” which they seek to reproduce, or improve upon. Each performance is an original and will never be repeated. Yet, because the story is made up of known themes, and is sung using established formula phrases, the story itself will change very little over the years of telling, and re-telling.

    Lord describes in his book, how Parry introduced an old experienced singer to a young new comer who was to sing a song the old experienced singer had never heard before. The song was not short, it took some 45 minutes to sing. After the performance Parry asked the old singer if he could do the same song word for word. The old man replied, yes he could, but it would take him a day or two to work it out. A few days later the old singer performed the same song, “word for word”, only the old singers version took some 15 minutes longer to perform, and all agreed it was more interesting than the young man’s version. It appears “word for word” does not have the same connotation among people who do not read as it does for those of us who think of words occupying space on a piece of paper.

    Albert Lord in his comments on what Parry’s research tells us about Homer, imagines Homer performing as the Yugoslavian singers do, seated, strumming, or bowing a stringed musical instrument, making it up as he performs, but staying close to the established themes, and phrases he has learned from previous singers. Homer’s great accomplishment Lord says, is that he took a very large number of shorter Trojan War songs, and songs from other sources, wove, patched and edited them together to create his song, THE ILIAD.

    Though I have never had the pleasure of experiencing first hand the performance of a story teller working in this fashion, I have seen film of such performances. Michael Wood in his two television documentaries “In Search of the Trojan War” and later “In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great” covers a variety of contemporary story tellers, or singers, working in the oral tradition. In “In Search of the Trojan War,” the Irish Saga Singer sat and chanted his tale, the Turkish singers strummed lutes, and danced as they sang. In “In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great,” the Iranian acted it out. It would seem the options for a story tellers choice of performance style are wide open. My personal experience, as a performer of THE ILIAD for a variety of audiences, leads me to disagree with Lord’s visualization of Homer’s performance presentation style. Also, I disagree with their reduction of Homer from the role of creative artist to that of brilliant editor. I do not mean to say, Homer made it all up using only his imagination as the source, that would be foolish, but he did far more than just collect a lot of stories, and edit them.

    As Albert Lord describes the oral tradition of story telling in early 20th century Yugoslavia, it is very set in its ways . It is so conservative that innovation, or changes in style are almost impossible. A singer may embellish descriptive details of a story, but he will not change the order of events within a theme, nor will he insert into a story new themes, or make up events to connect themes in a new way. Yet, as they describe THE ILIAD, and THE ODYSSEY Homer does this frequently.

    A contemporary singer-story teller depends heavily on the use of formula phrases in order to keep the rhythm of stressed, and unstressed syllables on beat with the “foot” of his poetic form. Lord presents analysis of epic songs in the Yugoslav tradition in which he underlines the phrases which are repeated elsewhere in the song, and notes how often they are repeated. If the phrase is repeated more than a few times, it is considered a formula phrase. He does this also with THE ILIAD, but does not comment on how much lower the count of formula phrases is in THE ILIAD when compared to the contemporary singer-story teller’s song.

    We can never know of course exactly how Homer would have composed, and presented his two great works but, we can look at evidence, we can use our imaginations, and come up with plausible scenarios which can make THE ILIAD more enchanting for us today.

    One: How original would a singer of Homer’s time be? Would he include existing songs in his work “word for word” as the contemporary singers do, or would he use those existing songs merely as reference material. Shakespeare uses many existing stories as source material for his plays, but one would not be tempted to say he was an editor. Source material for “Hamlet Prince of Denmark” goes back to an old Norse legend of an Amleth who avenges the death of his father, and there are possibly three versions of the tale as plays before Shakespeare's final version. Since Homer’s songs are the earliest known songs in the Greek language, we cannot point to an earlier song and say, “See, he copied it.” We can, however, notice there are passages in THE ILIAD in which archaic (for Homer’s time) words, and phrases are used. It would seem, Homer has used “word for word” material from an earlier time, composed in an earlier form of the Greek language. I cannot read Homer in the original Greek, but I rely on the work of those who can.

    As one studies THE ILIAD, and compares it to other Greek literature which followed it, one cannot help but be impressed with how original Homer is. His understanding of, and ability to express, human behavior and emotion is awesome. His sense of timing, and story construction are brilliant. His language is, I have been told by people who can read it in the original Greek, some of the most beautiful ever composed. All of this would point to Homer being an exceptional artist of his time using existing songs as source material to be re-interpreted, or re-composed, rather than included word for word. Though obviously, based on his periodic use of language which was archaic in his time, he did occasionally do just that.

    In my imagination, I conclude, Homer created THE ILIAD over a large span of time, changing it, improving it, lengthening it, shortening it as the needs of his particular audience required. Those who followed Homer, the so called “Sons of Homer” may have also added to it, and attempted to improve it to make it better suit the audience they faced. But, the essence of the poem, the authors understanding of human behavior, and emotion, the personalities of its characters, the story construction, the language used, are by one man, Homer, and THE ILIAD by Homer is, as we know it today, pretty much intact as it was created 2700 years ago.

    More to the point of this essay, is the question, how did Homer, and the sons of Homer, present their song when performing? Did Homer sit and accompany himself on a musical instrument as he sang, or did he stand holding the speakers staff and act it out as he performed? Or was there some other mode of presentation? Following those questions, is the question, what difference does it make?

    For the questions of performance style, there is some evidence for the first two points of view. First, there is a drawing from a vase showing a singer of tales (Homer?) seated with a harp in his hands. Second, there is written reference to the story teller taking the “speakers staff” before he begins. (The “speakers staff” is referred to in both “The Iliad”, and “The Odyssey”. In formal meetings, or gatherings, a staff, like a tall walking stick, was held by the person speaking, and no one else could speak till he finished and handed the staff to the next speaker.) As for some other mode of presentation, without any evidence it's difficult to speculate. But, later literature seems to treat the arrival of the chorus, and dancing, then the addition of more than one performer as something of a revolution in presentation style. Had the sons of Homer been doing any of this before, I suspect it would have been commented on.

    While the style of performance of the Yugoslavian singer of tales is to sit, and sing, as the vase drawings portray, their stories are, as far as I can tell, mainly narrative. They are action adventure stories about the exploits of heroes. There is very little dialogue between characters, any speeches in the first person singular are not extended, there is much reading, or telling of the contents of letters. This type of story telling, is very suited to the strict rhythms and extended vowels of singing.

    THE ILIAD on the other hand, is mostly dialogue and extended speeches in the first person present tense. The story teller, or the singer of the tale, must as Aristotle in his Poetics says, become the person speaking in order for the words to make sense. He must become the person speaking in order to delineate one character from another so the audience can tell which one is speaking. To become the person speaking a performer of THE ILIAD must be free to use all the body language, and vocal inflection a contemporary actor uses as he “portrays” a character. He must be free to present the physical and vocal aspect of a virile young man, an ancient old man, a beautiful woman, or a crippled God. Sitting, with hands occupied by a musical instrument would make this very difficult, if not impossible.

    As a performer, I have tried it both ways. My first approach was to use one voice, that of the narrator, and to adhere very strictly to the meter of the poem. The audience response was polite, appreciative, and confused. They had a very difficult time following the story. Many mentioned they had trouble telling which character was speaking. Later, when I began working with a director who encouraged me to go further, and further with character, the audience reaction began to change. It was enthusiastic, and eager for more. THE ILIAD began to come alive in ways we had not imagined possible. It’s scary. It’s sad. It’s funny. It’s populated by real human beings who are coping with real life and death issues. Now, when Achilleus asks Agamemnon if he is threatening to take Achilleus' girl by force, it’s no longer just a challenging question, now the fate of the Akhaian forces hangs on he answer. When Hera questions Zeus about his secret plans, we see clearly the prototypical domestic comedy scene played over, and over by Jackie Gleason and Audry Meadows, by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez. THE ILIAD ceased to be an ancient poem of academic and historical interest, and became an exciting theatrical story.

    Have human beings changed so much in the past 3000 years that what interests us, what entertains us, is different? I think not. I think that the reaction of a contemporary audience to the two methods of presentation is a good clue to what would have been the reaction of Homer’s audience. I think Homer and the sons of Homer stood as they performed, and impersonated the character of the person speaking. I think the audiences of those centuries when THE ILIAD was being performed regularly at festivals, in town squares, in private homes, loved and wanted to see THE ILIAD again, and again because it entertained them. It made them laugh, it made them cry, it made them think. It gave them insight into human (and Gods) behavior and motivations.

    What difference does how it may have been performed make? Only this, is THE ILIAD literature or theatre? If it is literature, as it most certainly is, if it is the foundation stone of all Western literature, as it most certainly is, then we may quite happily dissect it, deconstruct it., count and number it’s similes, metaphors, paradigms, and aphorisms. We may guard it as the property of an intellectual elite, and keep it safely stored on library shelves.

    If, however, it is also theatre, then the fullest appreciation can come only when it is witnessed in performance. And, if in performance it is accessible to anyone over the age of six, then an effort to prepare, and perform it is a worthy thing to do.


    Is THE ILIAD, as a 2700 year old poem, performable and valid as entertainment today without major rewriting? I believe it is. THE ILIAD was created to be performed, not read. As good as it is as poetry to be read aloud, or to oneself, analyzed, dissected, and enjoyed, it is something else all together in performance.

    An actor will tell you something happens between the time he first reads the words he is to speak, then memorizes them, then turns them into thought, then turns them back into words expressing that thought, or that feeling at that moment in time. The words first read, and the words finally spoken are exactly the same, in the same order but, their meaning can be entirely different. So it is with THE ILIAD

    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 in 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 that will be different every time it is performed.

    If THE ILIAD is available to us only in performance, does this mean THE ILIAD is inaccessible to us until some brave soul, or souls, spend a good part of their life memorizing all 16000 lines of poetry, creating vocal and physical characterizations for each of the hundreds of individuals who speak in THE ILIAD, and then arranging a time and place for performance? Yes, it probably does, but that is no reason to give up, or despair.

    Even if a company were to be formed to do that, would it be worth it? THE ILIAD is after all some 2700 years old. It can hardly compete as entertainment with “The Phantom Menace” or what ever is the latest movie box office hit. Let me answer the question with a question. Can the Parthenon compete with a 20th Century skyscraper? No, it cannot. But, shouldn’t the Parthenon be kept and cherished to keep us aware that once long ago men built that, and because they did, the 20th Century skyscraper is possible.

    Granted a full presentation of all 24 books of THE ILIAD is impractical. However, it is possible for one who is interested to sample THE ILIAD, to memorize and prepare for performance single “Books” of THE ILIAD. This at least gives a taste of what the full feast would be like. Like viewing what parts remain of the Parthenon we can get an idea of what the whole might have looked like even if we can never truly know the whole. We can, as I am happy to learn has happened in 1999 create companys which stage as theatre edited versions of certain books of THE ILIAD, and present them as their interpretations of the epic poem. This, performing of parts, and reading the text will have to do until.....


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