As I’ve written here before, I have a bit of a fascination with war. It began my freshman year in college, when I took a seminar called, “The Iliad and Memories of War,” with the intoxicating and quirky professor, James Tatum. Tatum later turned that seminar into a book.
The first week of my freshman year in college, Tatum assigned me and my ten classmates to read The Iliad, the 16,000-line epic poem by Homer. It was a daunting task. Yet read it, I did. Upon completing it, I was both buoyed by the accomplishment, and hooked on memoirs of war. We went on to read a dozen more books, from ancient times to modern, about men at war.
Last night, Tanner (13) and I attended An Iliad at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. It’s a breathtaking one-man play, in which actor Stephen Yoakum plays the poet, but also at times incarnates other characters in the drama. When the play was on Broadway in 2010, the NY Times wrote,
“It’s a good story,” says our narrator, a battered-looking fellow carrying a suitcase who confides that he has been singing this story through the ages: in Mycenae, in Babylon, in Gaul. A cracking good yarn it certainly is. The fierce trash-talking between the Greek leader Agamemnon and the great warrior Achilles; the death in battle of Achilles’ great friend Patroclus; the culminating combat between a raging, mournful Achilles and the Trojan hero Hector: these are tales that captivate in any form and continue to provide meaty fodder for popular culture.
Indeed, The Iliad is a timeless story of rivalries and pride and bloodlust. It does not glorify war, as so many claim it does. Instead, I think, it both shows the allure of war to imperfect men, and shows war’s ultimate folly.
The most breathtaking part of the show come near the end, when the Poet recites a litany of wars since that archetypal war over Troy. It’s a list that takes five minutes to complete, and is spoken in rapid but flat tones. To hear them all listed like that, back to back to back, provoked in me a feeling of helplessness, even as I guessed the last one in the list: “Syria.” Because, of course, when An Iliad is staged next year, or when Tanner is taking a child of his own, that list will be even longer.