The original “great book” was not, originally, a book at all. Thanks to the brilliant early-20th-century scholarship of Milman Parry and others, Homer’s Iliad, the 2,500-year-old Bronze Age epic poem, is today understood to be a cornerstone example of oral-formulaic composition, a technique that allows performers to rapidly improvise extended poems. How fitting that today we have An Iliad, an approximately 100-minute-long version of the epic poem created by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare and intended for the 21st-century stage. The “An” in the play’s title recognizes the fact that, before it was written down, the poem was perpetually in flux — every original Iliad was “an Iliad.” It was only the advent of literary culture that fixed the text in the specific order that we read it today.
For four days, April 15-18, the virtuosic actor John Tufts will deliver five distinct live performances of An Iliad, as directed by Ensemble Theatre Company Artistic Director Jonathan Fox and accompanied by the original cello music of the Santa Barbara Symphony’s Jonathan Flaksman.
Although Peterson and O’Hare rely on the Robert Fagles translation for sections of the original poem, what makes the play special is the thrilling way they have reimagined the telling of the tale as something contemporary. The anonymous poet/performer carries with him the entire history of human conflict since the Trojan War. He knows about World War I’s trenches, and the American armies of the great wars, with their soldiers drawn from every city and state in the country. The interweaving of these histories gives Homer’s timeless truths about self-destructive masculine wrath an inescapable relevance that takes the ancient story to the heart of modern concerns.
For tickets and information, visit etcsb.org.