Several summers ago I was invited to the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab to evaluate the plays that were being developed. While there I was happy to run into longtime friend and colleague Lisa Peterson, who started telling me about a new play she was adapting with the wonderful actor Denis O’Hare. I was surprised, since I had only known Lisa’s work as a director, but immediately understood her desire to take some new chances. I myself had been bitten by the writing bug, a bug that continues to prey on me.
Lisa proceeded to tell me that she and Denis were trying to adapt The Iliad. I have to admit, my interest suddenly waned. Another play about war? I felt slightly numb. With so many movies, books and plays that have brilliantly depicted every situation from combat to politics to the effect on domestic life, it felt to me that little could be added to the topic of war. And a Greek war at that, one that took place thousands of years ago filled with characters who had lost much of their meaning to us.
Boy, was I wrong. An Iliad, Lisa and Denis’ new adaptation of Homer’s ancient tale, defies expectations both in the telling and the impact. Grounded in the simplicity of a single narrator, the play introduces us to a vaguely contemporary Homer, who staggers into the theatre under some unnamed obligation to tell us a fragment of the Trojan War. He is torn between his need to tell the story and a deep desire to keep silent; the war, in fact, lives in him, in all of us, and the reminding of that fact becomes a price we all pay.
The play requires an actor of extraordinary skill, someone who can marry great technical skill with a fierce intelligence and deep emotional access. Henry Woronicz possesses all these talents. He hasn’t been on our stage since the mid-1980s, so it’s a great pleasure for me to re-introduce him to our audiences (although many of you will have seen Henry perform at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in years gone by). In his capable hands we place this bold new play, under the direction of the co-writer, Ms. Lisa Peterson.
One of the things that drew me to the theatre was the utter delight of listening to stories that were hundreds and sometimes thousands of years old. Hearing those words, in translation, adaptation or even occasionally in their native tongue, has filled me with an immense sense of awe that writers from other times and other places, writing from a profound need to share their world, can speak to me in my own time and shed light on my own circumstances. They can reach forward in time with the words and emotion that may explain what I’m struggling to articulate. Their narrative can make sense of my own.
That constant search for meaning and understanding drives Berkeley Rep to enhance our pre- and post-show programs. We are well aware that our audience is one of the smartest in the country. Your insatiable curiosity has led us to constantly revisit the ways in which we can assist you in making each Berkeley Rep experience as meaningful as it can possibly be.
That is why we’ve expanded our docent program. Our docents provide preshow presentations at 7pm prior to all Tuesday and Thursday performances, and they now lead discussions following matinees so that audience members who are eager to discuss the production can engage in an active dialogue. Increasingly, docents are taking their presentations on the road to community libraries, senior centers and even to small groups of avid theatre-going friends.
We also offer post-show discussions led by members of our artistic staff and featuring artists from the production. And we email you Madeleine Oldham’s always insightful Liner Notes a few days in advance of your performance (if you’ve opted in to our emails). We also publish the entire edition of the Berkeley Rep Magazine along with additional resources online before the production opens for those that wish to learn more about the show in advance and at their leisure.
If you haven’t taken advantage of any of these programs in the past, I hope that you’ll do so in the future. I think you’ll find, as I always do, that the more I know walking into the theatre, the more satisfied I feel as I’m leaving it. Visit our website at berkeleyrep.org to find out about all of our programs and audience services.
by Julie McCormick
It is a central mark of our humanity that we work so hard to remember what has happened to us as individuals and as a species. In ancient times, storytellers encoded information in oral tales to share with future generations, and philosophers used their keen powers of observation to craft ingenious mnemonic systems. More recently, scientists have tirelessly studied behavior, psychology and the physical landscapes of our brains to better understand how we remember and why. As we’ve evolved from singing around the campfire to cloud storage, the ideas we wish to remember and the technology used to record them have grown evermore complex. While possible to document events in a detached and clinical fashion, the meaning only emerges for us when we can tease out a narrative from tangles of data. The desire to tell a story about what has happened to us remains the same. We want our wisdom to endure and to improve the lives of our children’s children, and above all, we want them to know and understand us, so we tell a story.
Linguist Walter J. Ong has done extensive research into oral cultures all over the world. He divides societies into two main categories: societies that have had no exposure to written language, and groups that have incorporated writing into their social fabric. In the wake of globalization, very few communities have had no contact with the printed word, but some cultures have a higher “oral residue” than others. The ancient Greeks in the days of Socrates and Herodotus lived in a society with a significant oral residue. Though a Greek alphabet had existed for some time and the Greeks had contact with numerous other literary cultures, written documents had not yet been fully embraced either as an art form or as the most effective means of recordkeeping. Plato records a fascinating story from Socrates about the Egyptian god Theuth’s (Thoth) gift of letters to the king Thamus:
‘This invention, 0 king,’
said Theuth, ‘will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their
memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.’
But Thamus replied, ‘Most ingenious Theuth…this invention will produce forgetfulness
in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not
practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external
characters which are not part of themselves will discourage the use
of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir
not of memory but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the
appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom.’
In other words, writing is a prop and a poor substitute for actually learning something. Socrates goes on to assert that it is an impersonal and incomplete way of connecting or acquiring information, because a text cannot provide the context or flexibility that a conversation with another person can.
To the literate 21st-century mind, this stance is boggling. Just imagine for a moment a world in which we had to constantly hold in our minds everything we wanted to remember. Imagine if all of the information that we had ever acquired or ever shared with another person through writing—from newspapers, books and blogs to letters and emails—had instead been transmitted out loud and face to face. It would be impossible for us to live with the global sensibilities that we do now without being able to write things down.
But the world was much smaller in the fourth century BC, in the days of the great orators who could recite entire epic poems and plays from memory (The Iliad is 15,693 lines long) or deliver stirring and complex speeches without any notes. Though early speakers may not have had the luxury of index cards or Teleprompters, they did have the incredible powers of a mind trained in the art of memory.
In her excellent book, The Art of Memory, Frances Yates explores mnemonic devices throughout history. She begins with the Greeks, and the famously prodigious capacity of the orators to remember large amounts of information. Only a few texts on the art of memorization survive from the Greco-Roman period. Our understanding of these works, like so many records from this time, is incomplete, but Yates has nevertheless been able to draw some fascinating conclusions.
The Greeks distinguished between two kinds of memory: natural—what our minds just happen to remember, like scenes from childhood or a delicious meal—and artificial—the memory that we seek to cultivate. When you deliberately memorize a poem or your bank account number, it is the artificial memory that gets exercised.
There were many different approaches to mastering this system, but perhaps the most interesting are the memory palaces. According to legend, this practice first began with the poet Simonides. While he was attending a banquet, the roof collapsed and crushed everyone else in the room. Even though their bodies were unrecognizable, Simonides was still able to identify each guest based upon where they were sitting. Memory palaces function in a similar way—using location and spatial reasoning to remember facts and ideas. In your mind’s eye, you are to picture a familiar architectural space in great detail, even paying attention to lighting and temperature (one text recommends empty civic buildings, but your house would do too). In each room, you place an object that symbolizes something you want to remember. For example, you might signify Hektor, the Trojan prince and “tamer of horses,” using his horsehair plume helmet. As you walk through the palace in your mind, you pass each scene or object in a particular sequence, allowing you to remember long chains of information. If truly a master of this system, one can move in either direction through the imagined palace. In an impressive display of mental agility and showmanship, Seneca could recite 200 randomly called out lines of verse in the opposite order he heard them in.
Of course one could use other systems—an ancient thinker famous for his “divine” memory used the signs of the zodiac to store his notes, and another advocated actually writing down the speech one wanted to remember and then imagining how the words physically looked on the page (or in this case, wax tablet). In the medieval era in Europe, occult charts and archaic biblical references were the media of choice. Even today we have popular mnemonic devices: acronyms like HOMES to remember the Great Lakes (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior), or tapping the knuckles on a fist to remember how many days are in each month.
As our scientific capacity to study the mind has increased, many of the observations that the Greeks and Romans made about memory have actually proven to be surprisingly accurate. Though some of the specifics differ, the big ideas—that the most effective way to remember something is to break it into smaller pieces and associate each with a striking image or scene—have remained the same.
We now divide memory into two main categories: short-term and long-term memory. This distinction has a lot to do with the anatomy of the brain. Short-term memories exist in fleeting neural messages in specific parts of the frontal lobe. Long-term memories entrench themselves more deeply in the mind by creating connections between neurons in many different parts of the brain. So, the idea of the brain as a palace is fairly accurate, though perhaps an entire city is a better analogy for long-term memory. Each building is a memory that is connected to many others through a grid of streets, power lines and pipes, and the more roads and connective tissue to a memory, the more firmly situated it is in the mind.
There are many subdivisions within long-term memory, each operating in unique parts of the brain. We can access many memories deliberately, like details from our lives, information about a specific event, abstract concepts and the ability to recognize a place we have been before. Some memories come to us without any conscious effort at all; for example, our bodies can automatically remember how to walk or sing a particular note.
Each of these types of recollection are enhanced through associating the memory with other senses. Memory palaces use spatial reasoning and visual symbols to recall specific events, and oral epics use rhyme and meter to create unique sound patterns. Music can also be a powerful tool. On a very basic level, there is the unforgettable alphabet song, but there is also Vedic chanting, which employs complex recitation patterns and a series of tones that correspond to syllables to help students memorize astoundingly long texts with incredible accuracy. Smell has one of the most powerful links to memory, and by extension, so does taste. The distinct odor of latex paint or the singular taste of a strawberry can instantly transport one to events long past. Perhaps the reason for this strong link between smell, taste and memory is out of survival—our early human ancestors were more easily able to identify safe and unsafe food to eat.
While both scholars and scientists of memory agree that deliberately creating associations helps us to remember more easily, some people’s brains create these links involuntarily whenever they encode information. This condition is called synesthesia, and about 1 in 20 people have some form of it. Some of the most common examples are linking letters and numbers to color, or music to numbers. There are also more rare forms, such as the synesthetes who link taste and touch, or sound and temperature. It’s not that their perceptions are altered—they don’t see and hear things that are not there—but rather, that multiple senses are simultaneously stimulated. Many artists, such as the painter Wassily Kandinsky, Duke Ellington and Vladimir Nabokov all had some form of synesthesia. In fact, the artistic world recognized this concept long before the scientific one did; the ancient Greeks wondered about the connection between music and color, and Simonides closely linked poetry and painting. The Greek goddess of memory, Mnemosyne (whose name gives us the words “memory” and “mnemonic”), gave birth to the nine Muses who were patrons of the arts and sciences.
These connections between senses, whether purposeful or involuntary, not only assist with memory recall, but also have had a profound impact on art. For instance, the composition of epic poems like The Iliad, The Odyssey, Beowulf and the Ramayana actually make them easier to remember. Figurative language similes (his shield was as golden as the sun) and metaphors (his shield was the sun) create links between the senses and describe abstract concepts, while other poetic devices like repetition, alliteration and antithesis add further aural harmony. Verse creates an underlying backbone. The meter helps you to lock into a rhythmic pattern, rhyme offers clues about what word comes next—it is easier to remember the word “mountain” when you know that you need a two-syllable word that rhymes with “fountain,” particularly if you bolster it with the image of a spring gushing out of a rocky crevice.
Yet it would be extremely difficult to have the same kind of encyclopedic memory for literature and drama that the ancient Greeks did, because our novels, poetry and plays grew out of a global society that largely depends on writing. They are not built to be spoken aloud or remembered by rote. Back in the misty days of yore, the only way to remember something was to pass it down orally, so only the most important, elemental aspects of a culture would be transmitted. Ancient epics may give us an insight into the world of their composition, but rarely do they give us a sense of the individuals who lived there. Technological advances in the past 150 years or so have made it possible to include a diverse range of personal stories in a greater historical narrative; even though it’s no longer necessary to preserve information orally, there still seems to be a need to hear what someone has to say. In the 1930s, for example, the Civilian Conservation Corps traveled around the country recording the oral accounts of people who had survived slavery or the American Civil War. Today, initiatives like StoryCorps make professional-quality recordings of ordinary Americans telling their life stories. From immortal legends about the Trojan War to the words of an anonymous veteran on a Depression-era recording or the video blog of a soldier fighting abroad, our stories are a profound point of connection to our earlier selves and to the rest of humankind, both now and in the future. We want to remember, and we want others to remember us too.
by Julie McCormick
Much of what we know about the Trojan War comes from Homer’s epic poems surrounding the conflict: The Iliad, a snapshot of a few weeks towards the end of the war, and The Odyssey, which describes one warrior’s long journey back home. Over the millennia, the events of the Trojan War have been re-imagined countless times in poems, songs, dramatic works, visual art, novels, films and video games.
Despite its enduring place in our cultural memory, we’re not really sure whether or not the Trojan War actually happened. We don’t know if Homer really composed The Iliad and The Odyssey; we don’t even know if an individual named Homer actually existed. It is entirely possible that these epic poems originated with someone else, or are a compilation of many other poems that some unknown scribe recorded hundreds of years later. If Homer was indeed one person, it’s likely he lived sometime in the eighth century BC. Where exactly he lived is another mystery. Homer is a Greek name, but the detailed descriptions of flora and fauna in The Iliad suggest that he was likely from a Greek-speaking colony on the Ionian Peninsula in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). This means that Homer could actually have lived in the landscape where the Trojan War supposedly took place. There is another theory that Homer was a Babylonian slave brought to Greece; yet another theory posits that The Odyssey was composed by a young Sicilian woman.
Though shrouded with uncertainty and troubled with millennia of scholarly debate, a (somewhat) agreed-upon understanding of the legend of the Trojan War has emerged, and goes something like this:
At the wedding of Peleus and Thetis (Achilles’ parents), the goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite had a competition to see who was the most beautiful and asked Paris, the mortal prince of Troy, to be their judge. Each goddess offered him a reward should he choose her, but the gift from Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was too tempting to ignore: the hand of the most beautiful woman in the world. Unsurprisingly, Paris announced Aphrodite the winner, and went to claim his prize.
Helen, daughter of Zeus and a mortal woman, was indeed the most beautiful woman who ever lived, but she also happened to already be married to Menelaus of Mycenae. During a visit to Menelaus’ palace, Paris and Helen stole away in the night (along with plenty of gold from the treasury) and sailed across the Aegean to Troy.
Menelaus was enraged by the betrayal, and went to his brother Agamemnon, king of all Greece, for help. Agamemnon agreed to pursue the pair to Troy, and so tens of thousands of Greeks sailed across the Aegean to win back Helen for Menelaus. Thus began a 10-year siege that was to claim the lives of thousands of warriors and civilians. Homer’s Iliad starts near the end of the war, when the Greek hero Achilles decided to lay down his arms, and the Greeks, losing badly without their best warrior, tried everything to get him back on the battlefield.
After the Iliad’s conclusion, the fight continued to rage fiercely on, aided and abetted by the bloodthirsty Olympian gods. Finally, heartily sick of the butchery and longing to return to a barely remembered home, the clever Odysseus of Ithaca ended the fighting once and for all with a stunning deception. The Greeks surrendered to the Trojans, and appeared to sail away. As a parting gift, they left an enormous wooden horse, a nod to the Trojans’ famed horsemanship. The Trojans opened wide the gates to the city and dragged the horse inside, celebrating their victory long into the night.
Unbeknownst to the Trojans, a small Greek fighting force led the by the wily Odysseus was hidden within the hollow statue. Once everyone had fallen asleep, the Greeks poured out and laid waste to the city. They looted, raped, murdered, pillaged and kidnapped until there was nothing and no one left, then burned the once-beautiful Troy to the ground.
After 10 years of carnage, their ships laden with loot and slaves and the skies black with the ashes of the dead, the Greeks sailed for home. This is where The Odyssey begins. It recounts the wild and improbable adventures of Odysseus and his crew as they desperately try to get home. Guided by his patron goddess, Athena, Odysseus battles sea monsters, sirens, the witch Circe, takes a trip through the Underworld. He spends seven years in the arms of the sea nymph Calypso before he finally sails back to Ithaca, only to discover hordes of suitors attempting to remarry his wife and take his throne.
Other sources provide details of different moments in the war, as well as offering intriguing narrative alternatives. At one time there was an entire cycle of epic poems about the fall of Troy (not all by Homer), but they have since been lost. In one version, for example, the story goes that Helen was not actually at Troy during the war, but rather in Egypt.
Though many of the details surrounding the content and composition of The Iliad remain uncertain, this mystery does not keep us from appreciating the beauty of the words, or its enduring insights into the human condition. Art comes to us from a place beyond facts, relying instead on intangible connections and deeper emotional truths. Whether recited aloud in ancient Greek or read silently from a glossy paperback, The Iliad continues to reach out to us across time and language.
Troy, also known as Troia, Ilion, Ilios, Ilium and Wilusa was an ancient city in northwestern Anatolia—what is today part of Turkey. According to legend, it had been utterly destroyed during the Trojan War described in Homer’s epic poems. The Romans built a new city on top of the ruins, but that too crumbled away over time.
In 1865, an English archaeologist named Frank Calvert began digging in a field near the modern city of Hisarlιk, which he suspected was the site of the ancient city of Troy. He was joined a few years later by Heinrich Schliemann, a German archaeologist who took up the excavations and is largely credited with the discovery of Troy’s ruins. They found the remains of many cities, one built on top of the rubble from another. The seventh layer, or Troy VII, is commonly held to be the historical equivalent of Homer’s Troy both for the timing (the city fell sometime in the 13th century BC when the events of The Iliad supposedly took place), and for the evidence of the city’s destruction by fire.
by Madeleine Oldham
Just like the original Homeric epic, Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s adaptation of The Iliad has traveled up and down the country over the past few years. The production at Berkeley Rep starring Henry Woronicz is a co-production with La Jolla Playhouse. There have been many previous incarnations, from the Pacific Northwest to Princeton to Chicago, and now, the West Coast. Though some of the details might alter from production to production, and though the face of the actor playing The Poet may change, the heart of the play and the powerful sense of human connection it inspires remains the same.
Director Lisa Peterson, who won an Obie Award for the co-adaptation An Iliad you’re about to see, kindly took a few moments to share her thoughts about the project’s journey from Homeric Greece to 21st-century Berkeley with Madeleine Oldham, Berkeley Rep’s resident dramaturg.
Can you tell us a little bit about where the idea came from and how the project got started?
It was 2003 and we had just invaded Iraq—I started thinking about war plays, and remembered a friend telling me that she teaches The Iliad as the first play in her world drama course. That had always stuck with me, because I love The Iliad, but had studied it as a poem, not a play. But I began to read about Homer and the Singers of Homeric verse, and started to see that in fact these were spoken-word events. This is before the invention of drama by the Greeks in 400 BC; this is hundreds of years before that, when these singers would travel from place to place, telling the story of the Trojan War using a structure that was partly memorized and partly improvised nightly. I called up my friend Denis O’Hare, who is an amazing actor and a very political and articulate person, and asked if he’d be interested in exploring some kind of re-creation of that ancient practice.
You and Denis O’Hare created the text together. How did that process work?
We really had to just feel our way along, since neither of us considers ourselves a traditional playwright. We’d get together whenever we were both in New York, and we’d read one book of Robert Fagles’ glorious translation, and then we’d talk about it and tell it to each other in our own words. One day, Denis brought his video camera, and we started recording our conversations, and that was a real turning point. Over a few years of short development retreats, some wonderful interns at New York Theatre Workshop and at Sundance Theater Lab transcribed our conversations. Those transcriptions, combined with the Fagles verse, formed the backbone of An Iliad. At Sundance, we also began to actually write—creating the character of The Poet, creating the arc of the evening and putting many of the encounters between the story characters in a contemporary vernacular.
Stories don’t get much more epic than The Iliad. How did you reach the decision to convey such a gigantic world with only one actor?
It was our interest in finding a contemporary way to recreate what we imagine would have been the experience of hearing The Iliad back in 1200 BC. It was the original solo performance. We became as interested in the experience of telling the story as the story itself: what does that cost emotionally? How is it possible? Why does the human race need these stories, some of which are still resonant 3,200 years later?
What surprised you in rehearsal? What did you find challenging about mounting this production?
The biggest challenge, I suppose, is helping the actor build the stamina, and the memory, to tell this epic by himself. It isn’t easy, and it’s always amazing for me to watch one guy, like an athlete, train himself to be able to hold the stage and tell this giant story in a taut 100 minutes. The biggest pleasant surprise was our decision to add a live musician—a string bass player—when the production got to Princeton. Mark Bennett, the composer, and Brian Ellingsen, the player, have been with this production ever since. And it lends it a depth and aliveness that is always astounding to me. Plus, it makes the actor just a little bit less lonely.
As you move on to direct other shows, and the memory of your time working on An Iliad fades, what about this process or production do you think will stay with you?
For me personally, working on An Iliad was a great reminder that it is possible to build something from a tiny seed of an idea—when you don’t even know how to talk about it clearly—to an actual event that people respond strongly to. I have all kinds of other idea seeds that have been hanging out in the bottom of my pockets, and now I’m encouraged to get moving and make those happen, too. The other thing I’ll take away with me is a sense of awe that a piece of storytelling which has existed for thousands of years can still move people today. That’s deep.