As the Poet in Upstage’s “ An Iliad” dims the lights, the audience is immediately taken aback by the unconventional portrayal of Homer’s masterpiece. The play starts with the entrance of the Poet (Marney Wood ’21) reciting a few lines from the original Ancient Greek of the Iliad, dressed in the attire of a 1960s private investigator: a waistcoat, a dress shirt and trousers. In her hand, she carries a similarly dated valise and brightly colored shield. She sets her suitcase down, dims the lone light bulb on the stage and recounts the gallant tales of Homer’s heroes, Hector and Achilles.
The Poet commences her soliloquy from Book 1 of the Iliad. She invokes the Muse (Sarah Abramson ’21) to show herself and narrate the tale of Troy with her. Agamemnon has kidnapped Chryseis, the daughter of one of Apollo’s priests, as a prize of the ongoing Trojan War. The father of Chryseis begs him to let her go but Agamemnon refuses adamantly. The priest beseeches Apollo to free her daughter, and Apollo unleashes plague, famine and death upon the Greeks. After the unrelenting suffering sees no end, Agamemnon agrees to let Chryseis go, but on the condition that Achilles must give up his prize, Briseis to him. Beginning to grow quite fond of Briseis, even falling in love with her, Achilles refuses and rages, only held back by Athena’s wisdom whispered into his ears. He refuses to fight the war for Agamemnon’s honor and exits the rest of the war.
Achilles’ absence strengthens the Trojans’ spirits and the Greeks are pushed back from Troy. Achilles still refuses to fight but lets his friend Patroclus borrow his armor to frighten the Trojans. Patroclus is ecstatic, and bloodies the field with bodies of the Trojans. However, the displeased god Apollo sabotages the armor, and Hector, the brother of Paris, kills Patroclus, mistaking him for Achilles. The enraged Achilles then kills Hector in retaliation. Hector’s mourning father, King Priam of Troy, pleads with Achilles for his son’s body so that he may get a proper burial. Eventually Achilles agrees and pauses the war to allow the city to mourn their hero.
The unorthodox presentation of the poem allowed the Poet and the Muse to question the correlation between humanity and war, rage and violence and ambition and Greek gods. The play centered on the theme of how war decimates not only physical things such as people, and homes and societies but also the abstract idea of humanity. Throughout the play, the Poet and the Muse seek to make the audience understand the intensity of the Trojan War. Audience participation is rarely surprising in plays, but this time the participation required the audience to answer a question, much like how a professor would in order to help a class understand a particularly difficult concept. While describing the gore and bloodiness of the battle, the Poet inched towards the audience member on her left and inquired of her, “Do you know what the frontline looks like?” The Poet went on to describe the charcoal laden fields with years of battle victims, and the blood and loss of humanity that accompanied them.
The instrumental tool in delivering the actors’ message of war and humanity was their reenactment of Hector’s daily life. They took him out of the context of the powerful, bloodthirsty hero we are familiar with from films like “Troy” and had him play with his son. His wife’s ardent requests for him to leave the battlefield left its impression on the audience’s mind, especially as the Poet moved on to describe the raw emotion that accompanied Hector as he saw his death near him in the form of Achilles. Similarly with Achilles, the Poet and the Muse described the immense hatred and anger he felt at the loss of his best friend Patroclus, which motivated him to brutally murder Hector. Achilles’ untimely pride tortures him after the death of Patroclus.
While immortalizing Homer, the Poet and the Muse lament the destruction of the war caused by two star-crossed lovers and list the most significant battles of human history. From the Peloponnesian War to the Battle of Talas or, as they put it, “the Arab-Chinese War,” to the US invasion of Iraq; from the War of Roses to the Bosnian War. The overpowering emotion of the Poet’s ever reverberating voice listing off the cruelties of the human race seemed to strike a chord of silence and contemplation. It is impactful and disturbing at the same time. Seemingly, the play could substitute any other story of war and its heroes and the message and dialogue would remain relatively similar. The direction of the play builds up the message of war. As the Poet describes the strength and rush of euphoria Patroclus felt while donning Achilles’ armor and killing the Trojans, the Poet, over passionate, stomps on the stage, the music deafeningly loud, engrossing the audience further into the battlefield of Ancient Greece.
The Muse and the Poet both separate themselves from the story in order to focus on the heroes’ woes of war, but also let their actions dictate the tone of the play. The Muse plays both Hector and Achilles in a peculiarly choreographed scene of the duel. The sharpness of her spear thrusts and the momentary remorsefulness she embodies as Achilles are puzzling as the message of the lack of humanity in war and the actuality of events, as described by Homer, which does not entirely concern itself with the inner emotions of the heroes.
At the end of the play, the Poet sits while glancing at the audience, at a loss for words, and hope, refusing to complete the song of the Trojan War because it is known: it is known how Hector’s baby boy is brutally killed by the Greeks, his wife sold into slavery, his father dead and Troy decimated. It is a collective moment of sadness for human history, and the attitude of the play reflects that. The Muse hums in the background. The Poet departs dejected and forlorn, reciting the original Greek.