It’s worth pondering for a moment the curiously understated title of Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s An Iliad. It’s the indefinite article—“an”—that leaps out at you: an “an” that places this Iliad within a constellation of different Iliads over the centuries. Certainly, there’s Homer’s original epic, performed by bards in Greek, and also that poem’s various global translations (including Stanley Lombardo’s celebrated version of 1997—a staple of college campuses everywhere). There have also been numerous stage and film adaptations, including Simon Armitage’s The Last Days of Troy (2014), Netflix’s Troy: Fall of a City (2018), and, rather more infamously, the Brad Pitt vehicle Troy (2004).
But the central claim of An Iliad is that it’s not “the” Iliad. Rather, it’s a meditation on the Iliad, one shifted to (apparently) contemporary America. The plot of the leisurely original epic is (mostly) there, but now crammed into a swift 100 minutes. In a nutshell: the Trojan prince Paris, sent as an ambassador to the Greek city of Sparta, abducts King Menelaus’ wife, Helen. The Greeks, vowing revenge, siege the city of Troy for several long years. The Iliad—the original Iliad—famously opens with a quarrel, in which Achilles, mightiest of the Greeks, is insulted by Agamemnon, brother to Menelaus. Furious, Achilles withdraws from battle, and the Trojan forces, led by Hector, press the attack: things now look bleak for the Greeks. Patroclus—Achilles’ best friend and literally his alter ego—proposes a desperate solution, a gamble that sets off a chain of escalating reversals and deaths. The final scene—of ransom and a sort of wary reconciliation—must be reckoned among Western literature’s most beautiful ruminations on conflict and humanity: a glimmer, perhaps, of hope amidst the carnage and the waste.
This original Iliad—which coalesced as a mammoth poem sometime in the 8th century BCE—was likely performed as episodes, with a single bard offering to his audience an individual scene for the evening (for instance, the quarrel, or a night raid, or the ransom). It was never intended to be a play, per se—and in fact, Aristotle, in his Poetics, specifically singles out the Iliad as material enough for many plays without (paradoxically) being suitable as a play. (It’s just too big!) So, Peterson and O’Hare’s version must not only negotiate the switch of language—from Ancient Greek to contemporary English—but also the challenges of form: from epic to theater.
They do so with great bravura. In this play, the character of the Poet seems—at first—to be channeling the original epic, including the oh-so-epic Catalogue of the Ships, a roster of soldiers from faraway city-states. (This is a surprising choice: Aristotle even highlights the famous catalogue as inappropriate to play-form. We might ask: what drama can a list contain?) But the Poet is able to “translate” that catalogue into modernity with an unexpected gallop over surprisingly familiar geography. And with that artistic choice, the thrust of Peterson and O’Hare’s adaptation becomes clear: that the Poet will be our guide through centuries of wars, for which the Iliad is a blueprint and our contemporary conflicts are sad, and sadly perfect, copies.
It’s a platitude told of classical texts that they are timeless—but nothing could be further from the truth. They are—like all texts—time-bound, products of a specific place and culture. The power of An Iliad is that it exploits the gap between antiquity and modernity, exaggerating and explaining the foreign-ness, but—just as importantly—highlighting those terrible, troubling moments in which we do seem to replicate the passions and events of the original epic. As the Poet laments, “Every time I sing this song, I hope it's the last time.” Indeed, the tragedy of the play is that it’s endlessly cyclical: there will alwayss be somewhere, sometime, an Iliad.
Dr. Thomas E. Jenkins, Professor of Classical Studies, Trinity University