Christopher Carroll, The Unbearable Truth of War
Simone Weil once wrote that “nothing of all that the peoples of Europe have produced is worth the first known poem to have appeared among them.” She was referring to the Iliad, and, judging by the recent raft of translations, adaptations, and novelizations of the poem, we would seem to agree. Four new English versions, all published within a few months of each other, enter a market already glutted with Iliads, many of them—like Richmond Lattimore’s recently reissued classic 1951 translation and Robert Fagles’s widely used 1991 rendering—still vital. Now, the New York Theatre Workshop has staged An Iliad (up through April 1), a play that compresses the entire epic into a one-man, hundred-minute performance.
While translations abound, dramatizations of the Iliad are fairly uncommon. Of course the poem has inspired countless plays—Aeschylus, for instance, called his tragedies “scraps from Homer’s banquet.” But these typically focus on a single episode, like the Greeks’ efforts to persuade Achilles to return to battle in Book 9. The entirety of Homer’s text runs to over 15,600 lines and would take about 24 hours to recite from beginning to end; it also has hundreds of characters—men, women, gods, demigods, a crying baby, and two immortal, talking horses, among others. Remarkably, An Iliad’s ultra-condensed script—co-written by the actor Denis O’Hare and the theater director Lisa Peterson—not only attempts to encompass almost all of this, but it also places that burden on a single character.
Photo: Denis O’Hare as The Poet in the New York Theatre Workshop’s An Iliad