Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Myth?
In all the productions I’ve attended over the past several decades, I’ve never seen a playwright attack the play he was adapting in the program notes. Jay Ball writes that when director Jed Allen Harris asked him to collaborate on a production of Homer’s eighth century BCE epic poem “The Odyssey” for Quantum Theatre, he replied, “I wasn’t buying it. I wasn’t buying Odysseus. I said so, in no uncertain terms.” In elaborating why, Ball explains, “I consulted the major translations — all of which happen to be written by well-educated white men like me. Their consensus seems to be that this ancient story’s central character — a serial liar, cheat, thief and killer — serves as a master surrogate for the human condition. He is a hero, overcoming the challenges of life.” Ball ultimately concludes that the Odyssey “has a cracked moral foundation.”
Then an ugly thought occurred to me: Is it possible that “The Odyssey” has been cancelled? But why? This is a fictional story, about a fictional character, and composed by a fictional (non-white, illiterate bard or bards, who in fact may have been female), and furthermore it’s a myth — not some didactic morality tale — from an archaic, migrant culture originating in Asia Minor, and it’s been fused into world consciousness for the past three millennia. So surely, it would be silly to try to ban such a non-Western, amorphous work, right?
A quick internet search provided the answer. Yes, indeed, “The Odyssey” had recently been targeted for removal from school curriculums and, in fact, this effort created such a controversy that publications from the Greek City Times to the Wall Street Journal reported all the hullabaloo.
The publications described how on the influential #DisruptTexts Twitter feed a teacher from Lawrence, Mass. tweeted, “I want to remind y’all that this disruption work is a marathon, not a sprint. Be like Odysseus and embrace the long haul to liberation (and then take The Odyssey out of your curriculum because it’s trash).” To which another teacher, from the Sommerville, Mass. school district replied, “Hahaha — very proud to say we got The Odyssey removed from the curriculum this year!” The sentiments of these two women elicited allusions to book burning, counter charges of racism and accusations of disingenuity against #DisruptTexts, which claims to be against the banning of books.
But director Ball’s assumptions that 1) Odysseus serves as a surrogate for the human condition, and 2) as that surrogate, he doesn’t deserve our attention as a hero because of his “moral” ambivalence, are anachronistically biased and historically unsound. In short, who says Odysseus is the master surrogate for humankind? Certainly neither Homer, nor the pre-literate culture in which he lived. Odysseus was a great king, part of the aristocratic class; furthermore, he was semi-divine, the great-grandson of the god Hermes, not an average Joe who ascends to heroic status based on good acts like a Hollywood action hero. He is no more a universal surrogate than the Old Testament’s King David, or Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet. And to denigrate him and this entire epic poem on moral grounds is to completely misunderstand the ancient Greek conception of the “hero,” which is very different than the modern meaning of this word.
As the acclaimed classical scholar M.I. Finley explains in “The World of Odysseus,” to the ancient Greeks, “‘Warrior’ and ‘hero’ are synonyms, and the main theme of a warrior culture is constructed on two notes — prowess and honor. The one is the hero’s essential attribute, the other his essential aim. Every value, every judgment, every action, all skills and talents have the function of either defining honor or realizing it.” To further emphasize this point, Finley concludes, “The heroic code was complete and unambiguous, so much so that neither the poet nor his characters ever had the occasion to debate it.”
Even Webster’s Dictionary differentiates between the ancient and modern meanings of “hero,” defining the former as “a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability; an illustrious warrior,” and the latter as, “a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities.” So it’s important not to confuse an ancient hero like Odysseus, with a modern hero, like John McClane, the cowboy cop in the movie “Die Hard.” They live in different moral worlds, literally.
That said, even if I may take issue with the playwright’s conceptual premise, I salute the quality of his work. For “An Odyssey” is a witty, entertaining spectacle, not just in the writing, but in the direction, staging, acting and all technical aspects. And one should not forget that this is actually Quantum’s second major live “pandemic” show, produced, again, under all the COVID limitations, when most theater companies in the world are still silent. For this we owe them a tremendous amount of gratitude.
Utilizing the outdoor ice-skating rink in Schenley Park as the setting is a brilliant conceit: The hard grey surface has the implicit resonance of ancient marble, and using the entire rink with its deep field of vision gives one the sense of a world, not just a stage. Theater-goers are so used to experiencing distance as an illusion; however, when you take your seat at this show you feel like a character from a Renaissance perspective painting leaping free of the canvas and watching the space spool away from you.
Scenic designer Narelle Sissons’ stylistic motif is uncluttered, with just two small tents for the actors to utilize, some clotheslines, and randomly placed tiny pillars, about the size of the Stonehenge models seen in the film “Spinal Tap.”
As the show begins, the sun is setting through the trees in front of you, the sound of waves can be heard, and the characters appear gradually, playing with a beach ball and hanging laundry. All of this conspires to create a languid, seaside mood, and you actually believe that you’ve been transported to a Greek island.
Playwright Ball replaces the goddess Athena — the traditional guide of Odysseus — with the mortal Nausicaa, intriguingly played with bemused insouciance by Erika Strasburg. This has major implications, however, because, as psychologist Julian Jaynes explains in “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,” in this era, “The Gods take the place of consciousness. The beginnings of action are not in conscious plans, reasons, and motives; they are in the actions and speeches of the gods.”
Ignoring this crucial point — that the characters of archaic Greek epic poetry do not think for themselves — leads to the very kind of ethnocentric misjudgment that our current age of tolerance supposedly abhors. There is no Homeric word for decision, or an act of choice. As E.R. Dodds explains in “The Greeks and the Irrational,” “Homeric man does not possess the concept of will (which developed curiously late in ancient Greece), and therefore cannot possess the concept of ‘free will.’” Philosopher Ernst Cassirer, one of the strongest interpreters of mythical thinking, also holds that it is only with the much later development of Greek tragedy that we find “man as an independent agent, responsible for his acts.”
In the traditional story Odysseus enters at an earlier point, encountering Nausicaa only after escaping the clutches of the nymph Calypso, who has held him on her island as a sex slave for the past seven years. But Ball’s adaptation is not just selective, it’s highly satirical — he doesn’t want you to admire Odysseus, he wants you to be entertained by him — hence the tone is farcical, and the dialogue snappy, full of pop culture references and puns, like the best kind of television writing, (e.g., “I love an amphibious assault in the morning”). Even funnier is Odysseus’ line, “You expect me to mock the sacred rite of theater? Never.” Which has a kind of multi-dimensional, Shakespearean irony, as theater hasn’t even been invented yet.
And Ball inverts many of the established story traditions: His Odysseus is a fop, not a complex and brilliant strategist (It was he in “The Iliad” who came up with the Trojan Horse, for example). Even in the first moment we encounter him on stage, when he has just been washed ashore, he is behind a sheet, backlit, and we see him like a shadow puppet, being punched in the testicles repeatedly by the female characters, in the manner of a boxer hitting a speedbag. It gets a good laugh, but the Freudian implications of the playwright’s intent are obvious: This isn’t Fantasy Island, it’s Feminist Island.
Sam Turich, who plays him, is too intelligent an actor to let the character slip into caricature. And this is what really gives this show its energy — the acting is superb across the entire cast. Director Jed Allen Harris pulls all these disparate elements together — the non-traditional set, the revisionist story, the outdoor technical challenges and the pandemic limitations — to brilliant effect, like those master chefs who must produce a gourmet meal from a random shopping bag of ingredients.
Other than the two principal actors, the rest of the cast play multiple roles, and one of the things that distinguishes superb companies, such as this one, from mediocre ensembles, is seeing all the moments in fractional parts that are executed with intensity and precision. It’s as if each actor created their many backstories with the passionate focus of film director Mike Leigh months before the show.
Sam Lothard gives Polyphemus, the Cyclops, a ferocious vulnerability which fits playwright Ball’s revisionist depiction of him not as the terrible monster who scoops up Odysseus’ men and eats them like buffalo wings, but as a sad and lonely inhabitant of his island who is victimized and blinded by our dastardly protagonist. And his blinged-out portrayal of Hermes, the messenger god who carries, wait for it, a designer Hermès bag, is hilarious.
Catherine Gowl — in the roles of Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, and Circe, the sultry temptress — exudes the gravitas of an Allison Janney, with the torch-song-sexiness of Michelle Pfeiffer from “The Fabulous Baker Boys.” Her rendition of Portishead’s “Glory Box” is mesmerizing and, augmented by the technical excellence of the sound and lighting, the scene comes off with the slickness of a music video.
Which speaks to the sonic quality of the production in general. The acuity of Joe Pino’s sound design not only allows the characters to be heard in one of the most non-acoustic environments imaginable (comprising wind, trees, cement, glass, hills, echoes, immense space, other park-goers, etc.), but it allows the actors to employ subtle and nuanced textures in their speech, which is rarely achieved even in the most well-designed indoor theaters. And there are no visible microphones or body transmitters to distract the audience like little Brechtian alienation devices.
C. Todd Brown’s lighting keeps the visual impact arresting as the park fades into the slithery darkness. And Mindy Eshelman’s costumes add a mystical Aegean luminance to the ancient personae who wear them.
Shammen McCune, Grace Vensel, and Nancy McNulty play several supporting roles with remarkable synergy — at times serious and at times as campy as Charlie’s Angels — like three columns metaphorically supporting each scene.
I won’t disclose how Odysseus’ journey ends, but as you might guess, with so many alterations embedded in the script, expect a big reversal. And it works. The playwright and director have culled a small number of characters and scenes from this 24-book adventure to create a compelling play from one of our oldest stories. But at what cost?
In his seminal “The Birth of Tragedy,” Nietzsche emphasizes the importance of “an aesthetic audience” to theater, but as parts of our culture have abandoned this concept in recent years, are we instead becoming a “moral” audience? And is this a good thing?
Let’s hope that productions like this one will encourage more people, especially teachers and students, to read the great, ancient myths as artistic works, instead of rejecting them, out of ethnocentric smugness, in the name of disruption. It would be a tragedy if in the future we are seen not as the era of a New Tolerance, but remembered instead as the age of the New Philistines.
“An Odyssey” continues through Sept. 5, staged at Schenley Park Ice Skating Rink, $38-55. 412-362-1713 or www.quantumtheatre.com.