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Saturday, May 06, 2006

Arts & Letters

Odysseys


In a curious turn of events, I had the chance to hear three renditions of Homer’s Odyssey in the space of a month. The ancient Greeks probably had the opportunity to listen to the epic but once a year, and maybe only in Athens. There is an ancient tradition that an annual recitation of the two Homeric texts in their entirety took place in that city at the festival of Athena, the so-called Panathenaic Festival. Performance practice, of course, is one of many controversial aspects of Homeric studies. It is known that there were professionals, the so-called rhapsodes, who took over one for another, each chanting perhaps the equivalent of four books of our present text. Those who have studied Homeric Greek and have read the Iliad or Odyssey will recognize Greek epic poetry even if no name is attached to it. It is a style all to itself: no one talked that way, no one wrote that way. To hear it is to enter into an emotional and psychic state that requires complete surrender. Theory has it that generations of poet-singers created a traditional style to fit the rigors of the dactylic, hexametric line. They made a language that is a mixture of dialects, building blocks of phraseology in which nouns and names were bound with repeated epithets—think of “swift-footed Achilles,” “much-enduring Odysseus,” “the wine-dark sea”—and stereotypical scenes, phrases, and personages that enabled a performer to remember and create for hours on end.

Readers of Homeric Greek grow fewer every year. Most Americans read the English translation of Robert Fitzgerald, Richmond Lattimore, or Robert Fagles. But hearing rather than reading the texts is a definite improvement since that is how they were meant to be presented, and reading is a poor esthetic substitute for it. What is an innovation, however, is the dramatized reading of the text. Instead of the poet-singer performing for an audience, dialogue passages of the text are enacted as though Homer had created dramatic scenes for his various characters. Homer’s text, one might say, was made for dramatization since a hallmark of his style is the very large proportion of his account given over to speeches as compared to third-person narration.

***

On March 13, the Poets’ Theatre in association with the Music-Theatre Group presented a dramatic reading at New York City’s 92nd Street Y of portions of the Odyssey text, adapted and directed by Kathryn Walker from the Robert Fagles translation. The audience was huge, perhaps because of Manhattanites’ thirst for culture or, equally likely, their previous experience of Walker’s fine work. In 1997, she mounted her first performance of The Odyssey, and went on to productions of other ancient texts, all at the Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center. In 2005, she took on Homer’s Iliad.

Scholars estimate that a recitation of either poem would have taken well over a day or more in ancient times; that obviously suggests a festival setting. Still, we assume, the text was not dramatized, but rather chanted by the poet/creator using a traditional language, style, and story. Walker’s reduction of the material to slightly under two hours is a miracle of recreation since she has kept the bare bones of the story and added the flesh of character, tension, humor, and pathos. Her production is a radical reformation of the original material. This she acknowledges by including a musical accompaniment (bass and percussion) that is always unobtrusive but expressive of the emotional currents evolving from the speakers of the text, as well as a chorus of three men of exceptionally beautiful voices and clear diction who introduce it (“Sing, Muse…”), conclude it, and provide song-poems at strategic points to move it along over vast stretches of third-person narration. It is instructive to see how Walker transforms the story that Odysseus tells at Alcinous’ court, an ingenious tale within a tale that could have killed the forward movement required by the drama. Because this section, while a tour de force of storytelling, is far too long and flat for drama, Walker increases the texture by working in a variety of narrative styles. For instance, she has the chorus sing of the Lotus-eaters, Odysseus describe his meeting with the Cyclops, while the encounter with Circe is dramatized.

The Odyssey aficionado will miss Telemachus’ visit to the mainland, Nausicaa at Scheria, and many of Odysseus’ encounters with the suitors. They have been sacrificed for a tight, dramatic script. For which reason, surely, Walker has dropped all the events toward the close of the poem, undoubtedly agreeing with the Hellenistic scholars who thought that everything after the middle of the twenty-third book was spurious. For her script, Walker has kept the initial scenes of Athena’s petition to Zeus for Odysseus’ return home, which sets the story going, and Athena’s visit to Telemachus, which sets up the scene at Ithaca. She then moves to Calypso’s cave, from where she can start Odysseus’ voyage home. The most risky maneuver is introducing the banquet scene with the Phaeacians essentially for the travel stories, which, despite Walker’s adjustments, do not propel the action. The events in Ithaca are all in place: the meeting with Athena, Eumaeus, Odysseus’ arrival disguised as a beggar among the suitors, the meeting with Penelope, testing the bow, the slaughter of the suitors, and the recognition/reunion scene between husband and wife.

Nonetheless, there is a curious imbalance in this drama between the males, who are relatively lackluster, and the exciting if not flamboyant presence of the females. This could be the result of casting, the director’s inclination to play up the encounter between male and female as one of romantic or sexual equals, or the greater celebrity and ease onstage of some of the women, not to mention that the very fine David Morse played Odysseus in an understated way. Kate Burton as Calypso was positively aglow, first as a kind of poor-waif-lost-on-a-solitary-island and then as more of a demure, yet insistent Mae West, promising the keys to the kingdom. Walker herself took the Penelope role, and she made her yearning for her husband and recognition of him exceedingly passionate, so much so that I went back to read the Fagles text, as her interpretation seemed so out of keeping with my sense of Homeric narrative. It was, indeed, as Fagles wrote it.

***

Less than a month later (does this herald a new trend?), the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation hosted a dramatic reading on April 9 at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, again with professional actors under the direction of Stephen Fried from the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC, this time with commentary by Gregory Nagy, the distinguished Homeric scholar who divides his time between Harvard University, where his lectures are standing-room-only events, and Washington, where he runs Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies. One assumes again that Fried and Nagy adapted the script for this performance from the Fagles translation. In this version, scenes of dialogue were held together by a narrator styled Homer, played by the Broadway actor Philip Goodwin. As Nagy explained in starting the performance with a recitation in Greek of the opening five lines, when the singer intones, “Sing in me, O Muse…,” he becomes an actor playing Homer creating The Odyssey.

It was interesting to note that this script also began with the colloquy between Zeus and Athena, and then jumped to the Calypso scene in the fifth book, jettisoning Nausicaa altogether. Instead of a recitation of all his travels, the Odysseus character, brilliantly played by Sam Tsoutsouvas, a veteran of many major Broadway engagements, provided a description, with powerful dramatic embellishments, of his encounter with the Cyclops. It brought down the house. Equally engaging because it was so marvelously witty were the dialogues between Hermes and Calypso and Odysseus and Calypso. Lise Bruneau (who was, by turns, sulky, sexy, ironic, sardonic, whining, and wheedling) created a very complicated character for Calypso. The other women were equally provocative. As Athena, Stephanie Roth Haberle, well-known to the large audience from her continued engagement with the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard, was tough, dominating, and insistent, just as you would imagine that goddess to be. Maryann Plunkett, who appeared as Penelope, was the treat worth waiting for, endowing the character with the deep well of emotion that the weary wait of 20 years had dug into her soul. The Homer character had his shining moment as well in a bloodcurdling rendition of the battle with the suitors.

The curious feature of this production was Professor Nagy’s role. If the singer was playing Homer, I guess we would have to say that Nagy was playing the professor/scholar adding the embellishment of commentary onto the drama. Esthetically, it was a curious addition, but given the fundamentally academic tone of so much of Boston, where a mere question about the day’s weather can provoke a disquisition on meteorology, notes on the proceedings delivered by a professor were quite in keeping. Cambridge audiences particularly do not want an experience that is not filtered through analysis and conceptualization. The most powerful of Professor Nagy’s many asides was his interpretation of Odysseus telling the Cyclops his name is Nobody. While, on the surface, this turns into a great joke on the giant, the narrator here, according to Professor Nagy, means to indicate that the Odysseus character formed from the Iliad narrative is now no more. Rather, a new figure is built up based on the specifically Odyssean traits found in the Odyssey poem. For this listener, who has read and heard The Odyssey more than he could possibly want, a fresh interpretation is like water to a man parched in the desert. I am not sure, however, that a neophyte audience is served by distracting it from the story itself. But, then again, how neophyte can a Boston/Cambridge audience be?

***

Another interesting and powerful engagement with The Odyssey, this time as chanted poem, spontaneous and liable to change from one performance to another, was performed by Sebastian Lockwood in Hancock, New Hampshire, on April 8. Lockwood has a marvelous DVD of himself in action that is available through http://www.lumenarts.com. A tall, handsome, vigorous man in his mid-fifties, Lockwood studied the anthropology of oral poetry with Jack Goody at Cambridge (England), the poetics of oral poetry among Native Americans with Dennis Tedlock, and Homeric epic with me. He brings a strong poetic sensibility to his work, having written his own poetry as well as converting working translations of Northwest Indian poetry into more esthetically pleasing forms. Long a believer in the essential orality of the works of James Joyce, he began thinking of oral performance with his readings of the Anna Livia Plurabelle passage from Finnegan’s Wake. On the occasion years ago when I heard Lockwood with that text, I was impressed by how I took it in and intuited it in the performance, without having to parse the language for meaning, so compelling was his delivery.

Blessed with a sonorous voice and an English accent gone mid-Atlantic, Lockwood can be hypnotic in a reading. He graduated from James Joyce to reciting his own material in Cambridge clubs as performance art backed by a combo. His mind then turned to Homeric performance and he embarked on a telling of The Odyssey. Having studied it so thoroughly in a variety of English translations, Lockwood uses his familiarity to achieve an interesting resemblance to the original Greek text. His combination of the language and phraseology of the great translations of Fagles, Fitzgerald, and Lattimore is a peculiar analogue to the Homeric text, which mingles Greek dialects and relies on formulas. These three translators differ fundamentally, the first being most readable and conversational, the second more self-consciously “poetic” and lyrical, and the third sternly literal while at least melodic.

Lockwood’s experience at making poetry has given him the instinct to recite in powerful cadences with an underlying sense of line, so that the auditor knows that he/she is caught up in a contrivance that will create an aural/intellectual space as capacious or confined as a room. There is a driving force created by the emphasis upon line units that propels his listener on and on into the story. The audience following along seems mesmerized, as can be seen on the DVD. Lockwood attributes his ability to hold an audience in part to his skill at masking his breathing so that there are no narrative breaks. This is not to say that he does not dramatize the action when necessary with grand gestures, booming voice, soft whispers, or sly glances at the audience. It is interesting to observe him lingering over a word or pausing for effect, since, like a lion waiting to pounce upon a hesitant mouse, he never lets the audience out of his performative grasp. He also uses the technique of the English poet Christopher Logue, another translator/adapter of the Homeric epic, who introduces, casually and appropriately, items from the contemporary scene into his Homeric battle narratives. Lockwood claims that, because of the seamless quality of his delivery, a fleeting reference in his Odyssean narrative to islands such as Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket does not jar his audience. It also allows the audience a sense of the here and now in the midst of the then and there, giving the epic poem the universal, panoramic quality that it seems to have had for its original auditors.

His only accommodation to his audience—that is, acknowledging that they are outside of the performance space—is his introduction to the events that constitute The Odyssey’s text. He manages this task in language and style that are not markedly different from what he uses for the actual Homeric story that follows. Since it is inconceivable that an ancient audience would not have had that prior history as cultural context when it listened to a recitation of The Odyssey, Lockwood gives his poem that added depth it needs. Of course, twenty-first-century audiences need all the help they can get. Lockwood’s recitation has been immensely successful, not only in club venues where he first experimented with it, but among adult audiences in general. For instance, he has met with great success with the exacting audience at the annual meeting of the Classical Association of the Middle Atlantic States. He has also taken his chanting on the road to schools, where transforming a squirming auditorium into intent listeners is a miracle of recitation.

Lockwood has eliminated the initial Telemachia, the story of Telemachus’ journey. But, being a romantic, with a well-developed interest in love stories, he lingers long over Nausicaa’s enchantment with Odysseus and her parents’ warm reception of him on the island of Scheria. Interestingly enough, he also emphasizes the role of Athena in the narrative. Although, in my estimation, she is only there as part of the formulaic décor—as a backdrop to Odysseus’ intensely human story, that is—Lockwood foregrounds her actions and thoughts in a way that gives the entire narrative much more of a divine perspective: the world of the gods is ever-present in this performance.

***

Robert Fagles is, of course, a splendid translator of ancient Greek texts. His translation of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, which I have seen in production in many venues with actors of varying talents, is especially impressive, and his language always works brilliantly on the dramatic stage. His Homeric texts, particularly The Odyssey, also have that fluency that marks a language designed for speaking. I have had the occasion to read through the poem in one sitting, albeit a long one, and it is a good read. In that sense, Fagles has made a poem that works for the twentieth century in a way that his great predecessor, Richmond Lattimore, did not. As is always pointed out, Lattimore was scrupulously faithful to the Homeric text in the sense of including every formulaic phrase and epithet that are the very building blocks of the oral poetic style. Read aloud or mouthed in our time, however, this language is very slow, with repetitions that make a modern audience impatient.

That is why a director who uses Fagles’s translation will be successful. But as Bentley said to Pope about the latter’s very great translation, “It’s a pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but it is not Homer.” As a classicist (and perhaps others would say a retired professor who can’t shut up), I felt that there should have been a disclaimer in the very intelligent program notes accompanying the 92nd Street Y production, only because very, very few people know anything about the original Greek text and the impression it makes on its hearers. The incredibly stylized language of the Homeric text distances its audience, swallows up the characters and events depicted into the maw of the oral manner, makes everything expected and inevitable, producing a frisson of recognition, “the charm of the familiar,” as Parry put it, something hinted at in country-western music or the riffs in jazz. This style is not dramatic, it is not immediate, and it would not do for the fine evening Walker prepared for us. But as a matter of the historical record, I wish that the audience knew this. Professor Nagy passes over these matters, too, claiming instead that the Homeric text is dramatic as well as epic, even at one point arguing that it can be read as a novel. It is all well and good to acknowledge that, in a general way, there are hints of drama and the novel, as literary critics developed these categories over the centuries, in the ancient text. But epic is a thing apart. Dramatized readings can be made from it very successfully, but what we have, then, is no longer the Homeric epic poem. If this is pedantic quibbling, so be it.

Charles Rowan Beye is distinguished professor emeritus of classics at the City University of New York, a contributing editor to greekworks.com, and author, most recently, of Odysseus: A Life.
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