If a play is like a set of Russian dolls, each size representing a distinctness; play, adaptation, casting, performance; then An Iliad has still another, still larger doll: the Homeric version of a story based on legend born of old (and who, even is Homer? -- the program asks, giving no definitive answer. A verdict is not in the cards).
It's easy to get wrapped up in the historical details, accuracy vs. invention, degrees of consistency with the conventions that are Homer, epic, Greek myth. It's easy to lose sight of the truth that remains at the crescendo of dramatic scale, the biggest painted wooden doll of all (or should it be the tiniest?), the essential story: how a universe, a community, a man reacts to the construct of war. Is there more? Smaller/bigger, more kernel/essence/universal theme?
Rage. The first word, so says the program, the Achilles heel in a play which, though it concerns Achilles and the proverbial fatal flaws, does not after all concern the heel of Achilles. He is, man/god, legendary warrior, godlike ideal of male beauty, valour; deeply wrong, deeply wronged, grief-wracked, petty, anguished, alone. He rages, and it does him in. (My translation's first word reads, 'Sing,' and this could be a conflict but the actor who plays Homeric bard/everyman/warrior/destroyed one comes onto the stage, singing of war, it occurs to me that we sing out with our anger, drum beat, trumpet blast, war story: these, are they all one?)
The play, coyly titled 'An Iliad,' is showing at Portland Center Stage. Blessed with press passes, I saw it with Mara a few days after I'd been asked to take part in a panel discussion initially called, War, hngh, What is it Good For. The "hngh" was dropped, but I was kept on despite my relative little heft when compared with the other panelists, one who is a classics professor at Reed College (known for its frenetic and obsessive scholarliness), another who is the author about a book on the cost of war. So: I came, to study.
The creators and the writers-of-the-program know what they want you to learn, and that is that war does things to people, even mild wars, even good people. War changes a man.
Is this a story of war, in the classic sense of battles, steel clashing on steel, blood spilled, bodies laying to rot? Yes, of course it is, and the carnage is no less visceral for its presence in the words, sweat dripping, raspy grunts and grrrrs produced from the considerable physical presence of Joseph Graves, the lead-and-only. The very fluids in his body are actors here. His weapons are coat, wooden chair, dried flowers; they are no less fearsome for their more usual metaphorical nature. When Graves plunges dried chrysanthemums into the imagined gut of Hector, you flinch, you pale. Still.
Even as the play's creators invoke the muse of classical Greek, of oral history in which art and truth have melded into an alloy (at once stronger, unrefinable), modern wars are recited, confusing and illuminating the issue. Are these contemporary warriors, the Oregon National Guard, the Sierra Leone child soldiers, the Prussians, the Crusaders -- are these good men, too, good men about which you can say: what, tears? Anguish? Just a shaking of the head? Does a Greek tragedy applied to all wars, present, recent and ancient past, tell us anything about what should be done in the future?
What I see here is the baseness of heroes, the flesh-lust of anyone, given a battlefield and an enemy whose orders are to have your head. All of us, from Menelaus and Hector to Achilles and Agamemnon to General Petraeus to Private First Class Bradley Manning to this woman here, her wool tights paid for by a complicated expensive foreign war over oil in which she doesn't believe; we're all mad with rage, hungry enough to eat our fellow man, screaming blame from the battlements. We're all here, scraping our throat with our vengeful song, repeating every day, every day, what's past.
Know history, don't know, gouge our own eyes out with our fingertips, with pokers: it doesn't matter, we're doomed always to war. We shout at these people, scream, rage for peace, all the while holding our infant sons up -- Andromache on the wall of Troy, shouting to Hector -- and telling these forever warriors, "have you no pity for your helpless son? ...and the destiny that weighs me down, your widow?"
Sons and wives destined, helpless, orphans and widows even while these soldiers live, breathe, and fight glorious: this, I cannot help but think, is what war is good for. And this: war is good for inevitability. Barely breathing, the taste of blood and sweat on my tongue, I walked down a cold rainy street in Portland that night, loving, and hating, and soul doing mad cartwheels through the air above me.