Last evening my wife and I went to see the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s stunning production of An Iliad, the one-man retelling of Homer’s ancient poem, starring Jim DeVita.
“One-man” is not quite right, for cellist Alicia Storin is cast to play the musical Muse to DeVita’s “Poet”, and as actor DeVita embodies many of the people and gods that populate the Iliad. But the play demands a lot from its one actor, who must display and sustain a wide and exhausting array of personalities and emotions over the course of 100 uninterrupted minutes. The original Iliad (named for Ilium, the city also known as Troy) is some 15,000 lines long and meant to be recited, so it is fitting that an adaptation of it should be brought to the stage and depend upon the memory and talents of one man, or, if we don’t want to get too caught up in Homer’s/the poet’s gender, one woman.
What makes the play a play rather than an ancient poetry reading is a script that turns Homer into a generic, ageless “poet” who, like the Ancient Mariner, is compelled to wander the world reciting or singing the story of the siege of Troy in an attempt to show the true nature of war– brutal and ultimately wasteful and useless. It is ironic that one of the founding poems of Western Civilization, a civilization of unmatched technological prowess and a long history of violent conquest, was a poem about what war does to people– soldiers, civilians, families– and the culture and cities they create. And what war does the Iliad suggests, even to the victorious, is not good.
The poet in the play is, as I say, not Homer, who was a man of his time, despite his obvious genius: Homer had to fulfill the conventions of ancient Greek culture and religion, in which the various gods and goddesses manipulate the actions of men and women. But unlike many typical dramatic depictions of war, in the Iliad both sides, the Greeks and Trojans, are presented as equals: there is no Greek nationalistic propaganda going on here. If anything, the Trojans as a whole elicit the most sympathy from the reader, as they are the ones being attacked and their city, women and children threatened. What makes The Iliad a great, classic work of literature is that the soldiers and their family members are presented as complex, flawed individuals caught up in something they sometimes quietly or openly question but fail to entirely overcome. By allowing us to recognize the humanity of all involved, Homer’s poem has moved readers for a very long time.
An Iliad is a contemporary attempt to dramatize the human lessons of Homer’s vision. The French author Simone Weil called the Iliad a “poem of force” and by this she meant a poem about the futility of armed force, and this is what the play says, too, but through drama rather than analysis. One of the most powerful moments in the play is when DeVita’s poet, disgusted with the carnage and grief, simply names all the wars that have taken place since the battle for Troy, all lumped together, no distinction made between “just” and unjust wars, all the wars he has witnessed and failed to prevent. Included in the list of wars are Iraq, Afghanistan and, hopefully not prophetically, Ukraine, a timely warning. Will we heed it?
Of Jim DeVita as actor, well, he’s clearly one of the best, and a writer as well as an actor. His physical stamina (how does he not lose his voice?) and acting range are well-suited to one-man performances. He was raised on Long Island (as I was) and could have easily ended up in the NY theater scene, but he made his way to Milwaukee and eventually out to the American Players Theatre in Spring Green. Wisconsin is lucky to have him. And we’re fortunate to be able to see such an important, stirring work of drama so close to home.
Postscript: An Iliad will be performed through March 23.