Now. Hear. This.”
Bellowed onto a bare stage in New York’s West Village, the words are an order, an incantation, and a greeting. They are a shout across time, an introduction to a story that has been told for almost 3,000 years, the story of the anger of Achilles and the prelude to Troy’s fall. Homer’s Iliad is a primeval tale that never seems to grow old, a source of ancient legend and contemporary truth. It is one of the monuments of our culture, a core text, venerable and venerated, and yet, despite the passing of millennia, it is a saga that remains fresh enough to be reexamined, retold, and reworked
This is what the British poet Christopher Logue has been trying to do with his own extraordinary “accounts” of Homer’s epic. These are not translations (Logue knows little Greek), but reimaginings, based on what has come before, but not confined by it. And no, they are not an example of today’s usual crass modernization, the “updating” staler than the classic it is designed to replace. Logue’s work is steeped in the past, but unafraid of the present. Angry goddesses, he tells us, “had faces like ‘no entry’ signs [as] they hurried through the clouds.” And somehow, we know what he means.
In War Music, a show playing at New York’s Wings Theatre until March 30th, Verse Theater Manhattan is now presenting an adaptation of Logue’s work. It is a stark, unencumbered production (no scenery, no props). The audience’s attention is focused on what matters — the words. War Music is a performance that hovers somewhere between a poetry reading and drama. Moving, brutal, and chilling, it succeeds as both.
The play picks up the story at the point where the Greek warrior Patroclus has gone to try and convince Achilles, his friend and commander, to rejoin the fight against Troy. Patroclus fails, but succeeds in persuading the sulking hero to lend him his armor and his troops. A living El Cid, Patroclus dons Achilles’s armor, terrifies and then routs the enemy.
Nothing was left of Hector’s raid except
Loose smoke-swaths like blue hair above the dunes,
And Agamemnon’s ditch stained crimson where
Some outraged god five miles tall had stamped on glass.
But Patroclus himself will not survive the day. With the god Apollo against him, he is brought low before the walls of Troy and then butchered by Hector, the city’s most formidable defender. Looking to avenge the death of his friend, Achilles then manages a grudging reconciliation with his fellow Greeks. The army is rallied. War Music draws to a close with this greatest of heroes setting out in his chariot for battle.
The chariot’s basket dips. The whip
Fires in between the horses’ ears;
And as in dreams, they rise,
Slowly it seems, and yet behind them,
In a double plume, the sand curls up,
Is barely dented by their flying hooves,
And the wind slams shut behind them.
Hector, we now know, is set to be slaughtered.
I attended the premiere of War Music in Manhattan just over six months ago. One of its producers is a friend, and the warm summer evening was a celebration of a successful debut. More than that, it was an affirmation, a tacit acknowledgement of the West’s fragile, yet triumphant cultural continuity. Crossing the years and an ocean, this age-old tale of heroes and gods had been brought from the Aegean to the Hudson, to be performed in a city that, as Troy once was, is famous for its towers. Four days later, two of those towers were gone, vanished, like their predecessors, into fragments and history. Carnage had come to visit, concealed, once more, in reassuring camouflage: in airliners, this time, rather than a wooden horse.
The Wings Theatre is not that far from where the World Trade Center used to stand. In the aftermath of the attacks, the theater’s neighborhood was cut off from traffic. With the exception of some benefit performances for the Red Cross, the play was suspended. This current production is a re-launch, lightly tuned up, but heavy now with additional meaning, its savage story of battle, sacrifice, and courage inseparable from images of GIs fighting in faraway mountain caves or of firemen gathering in the lobby of a doomed skyscraper.
The main change to the play since September is that the actress who played Achilles has been unable to resume her role. The actress? An actress playing Achilles? Ah yes, perhaps I should have mentioned this before. All the roles in War Music are divided up between three women, a casting decision that might have surprised old Homer, but brings a fascinating additional dimension to this production. It is a device that succeeds, except when the actresses attempt a war cry. Women cannot roar. Helen Reddy was wrong.
The war cries are themselves a rare example of (attempted) realism in a play that goes to some lengths to avoid it. The sex of its cast is only one example. War Music is as stylized as a Doric frieze; the performers move across the stage in precise geometrical patterns, remorseless as destiny. The three women (an echo, perhaps, of the three Fates) seem to both play and preside over their characters, leaving an impression of individual dispensability in the service of the rules of a greater drama. This sense is reinforced both by the occasional use of third person narration when within character, and the fact that each woman plays more than one part.
This is not to reduce the actresses to ciphers. Far from it. All three give strong performances. Two moments, particularly, stand out.
The first, early on, shows Patroclus imploring the reluctant Achilles to rejoin the fray. It is a delicate, cleverly drawn scene, made more intriguing by the fact that both men are played by women. As a woman, the attractive, strong-featured Jennifer Don can show us both Achilles the warlord and Achilles the lethal, pouting primadonna without ever descending into the high camp that would almost certainly dog a man asked to perform the same role. Similarly, the slight, short-haired and somewhat androgynous Jo Barrick conjures up a convincing portrayal of Patroclus the warrior and Patroclus the coy flirt in ways that a male actor, burdened by contemporary notions of masculinity, would find extremely difficult — at least within the confines of a single character. The conversation between Achilles and Patroclus is, at one level, an exchange between soldiers, and, yet, at another it is clearly much, much more. In Agamemnon’s military only a fool would need to ask, and it would be quite unnecessary for anyone to tell.
The second highlight also features Barrick, this time as the goddess Hera, Zeus’s wife (and, the audience is reminded, his sister too). It is a performance that illuminates the horror at the heart of Homer’s vision, a glimpse into a universe where divinity is not, as twenty-first century man might fear, absent or indifferent, but is, instead, actively malevolent. Cajoling, cunning and cruel, Barrick’s Hera seems to come from Hell not Olympus, as she sweet-talks Zeus into abandoning his son Sarpedon to death at the hands of the Greeks. Later on we see a return to this theme as the goddess incites Menelaus (“the redhead?” asks Zeus indifferently) to further acts of slaughter, pointing out random victims for destruction, with a casual, capricious joy.
King human. Menelaus. If you stick
Him, him, and him, I promise you will get your Helen back.
And yet despite these repeated and destructive interventions, it is striking how mere mortals continue to persevere. They accept the notion of an unkind fate, yet attempt to defy its reality. That is their tragedy, and their glory. These are men who want to be remembered well.
War Music’s fierce, terrible beauty makes it a text for our times, and so do the circumstances of its restaging. The return of this play to the vicinity of atrocity is yet another victory over the barbarians. In a small way, it echoes the greatest of all Homer’s epics: not the poems themselves, but their very survival. Preserved for nearly thirty centuries, his stories still speak to us, and because they have endured to do so, they are a reminder of what our culture’s traditions and memory can mean.
Without knowing our past, we are nothing, and in honoring the past, we give our civilization a future.