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Home > Blog > May 2017 > 3,000 Years of Homeric Fan Fiction
Performing Arts Blog

3,000 Years of Homeric Fan Fiction

May 3, 2017 by New York City Center

A Florentine desco da parto depicting the Judgment of Paris, c. 1430. (National Museum of Bargello)

Artists have never been able to resist the siren song of Homer. Since their canonization in the eighth century BC, the epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey have been retold, reinvented, and shamelessly pillaged by everyone from James Joyce to the Coen brothers to Prince. For classicist Edith Hall, Homer’s influence runs even deeper. “The Odyssey is the mother of all story,” she says. “It’s the first romance, the first road movie, the first sci-fi tale, the first biopic.” With a revival of the Homeric musical The Golden Apple opening soon, we spoke with Hall about the power of Homer’s poems, why Odysseus is the quintessential American hero, and why Telemachus needs to get laid.

CITY CENTER: In your book The Return of Ulysses, you write that Homer’s poems represent “the birth of theater.” What did you mean?
EDITH HALL: I think that they’re really pregnant with the art of theater, for various reasons. When Greek bards performed the poems, they would accompany themselves on stringed instruments, variously known as lyres or citharas. They probably intoned the poem rather than actually singing it. The fascinating thing is that more than 25% of the Homeric epics are direct speech, which means that the bard had to pretend to be Achilles and Odysseus and Penelope. He had to become an actor. Also, there’s so much disguise in The Odyssey: people are constantly dressing up as beggars or swallows, or getting rejuvenated in order to look 25 years younger. “Who’s behind that mask?” is a continual question. Playing these stories out onstage with actors was the next logical step.

The Golden Apple reimagines Odysseus as an all-American hero. What do you make of that?
Odysseus has gone over very well in America; he always has. One reason is that he’s a comeback kid. Americans love the archetypal story of somebody who undergoes great ordeals and ultimately triumphs in a violent showdown. It’s the plot of every Clint Eastwood movie ever made. Another crucial thing about Odysseus is that, unlike the mighty kings of Thebes and Argos and Mycenae and Troy, he is a self-sufficient farmer. Ithaca is a peasant farm; he’s only got forty pear trees. The myth of the homespun frontiersman has always had an incredible appeal to Americans, and Odysseus is an eternal wanderer. He can’t keep still.

Kirk Douglas lashed to the mast as Odysseus in the 1954 film Ulysses. (Photofest)

He also has a very American disregard for indigenous people, which The Golden Apple satirizes.
(laughs) It’s incredibly problematic, isn’t it? Odysseus’ disregard for indigenous people didn’t really get noticed until 1939, when the African-Caribbean poet Aimé Césaire wrote Return to My Native Land. Césaire was very troubled by Odysseus’ treatment of the cyclops, which he saw as a metaphor for primitive people everywhere who are persecuted by European imperialists. That was a particular historical moment when people started questioning the exploits of Odysseus, and seeing it as a colonialist epic.

So many works have been deemed outdated and tossed from the canon, but The Odyssey is impossible to dismiss. There’s always more to find in it. Why do you think it’s been so resilient?
These poems were performed in 700 BC at festivals for the entire populaces of cities, from the kings down to the slave women. The poets liked popular acclaim, so I tend to think that each of the successive composers of The Odyssey was deliberately adding something for everybody in the audience. The range of characters that you can identify with is extraordinary; there are even interesting slave women. Compare that to the history of theater since the Renaissance, which was all about kings and nobles. Nobody bothered to give a working-class person an important part until [Georg Büchner’s 1837 play] Woyzeck. The Odyssey was composed for ordinary people. The Greeks lived in 2,000 different cities dotted across the Mediterranean and the Black Sea; they took these poems with them and every child learned them. They could recite entire books by heart. These are the stories that made up the ancient Greek psyche, and that’s why they’re so inclusive.

Ulysses dashes off to war in the 1954 Broadway production of The Golden Apple. (Cornell Capa)

In one ancient variation on The Odyssey, Odysseus tries to dodge the Trojan War draft. In another, Penelope sleeps with all 108 of her suitors and gives birth to the god Pan. Were these versions developed to appeal to a specific audience at a specific moment in time?
Absolutely. People tend to forget this, but these stories were already being told by the Mycenaeans in 1600 BC, and they continued to develop until the Roman Emperor shut all the pagan chapels in 391 AD. Within that time, there were endless different versions of The Odyssey. Everybody loved parodies, everybody loved burlesques. Odysseus’ story was eternal, like an episode of “Star Trek” or “Doctor Who”—you always knew that the hero was going to be all right at the end of the adventure.

In Homer’s poem, Penelope is something of a cipher. You even write that “no modern reader can find her emotionally plausible.” How do you think she comes off in The Golden Apple?
Her depiction feels terribly 1950s to me—straight from the era of marriage, family values, and women being put back in the kitchen. You almost expect her to bake an apple pie. What saddens me is that it’s a bit of a retrograde step from the Penelope in Monteverdi’s opera Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, from 1640. That was the first musical theater version of The Odyssey, and it was completely revolutionary. What Monteverdi did was upgrade Penelope’s role immeasurably. Of course, she doesn’t get to sleep with anyone, but what she does get are all the best tunes. She became the emotional center of The Odyssey for the first time.

There’s also a fascinating work that you mention briefly in your book: Kurt Weill’s musical Ulysses Africanus, about an American slave journeying back to his plantation after the Civil War. A few songs were written, but the project was abandoned after Paul Robeson turned down the lead role; his wife said that Robeson wanted to “play a Negro who does exist, who has something to do with reality.”
I wonder if perhaps somebody should go back to that score and try to do something new with it, post-Hamilton. It’s tragic that that never made it to the stage, because slavery is a hugely important theme in The Odyssey. When Odysseus is inventing fictions about where he’s been all those years, he says that he was a slave, kept in captivity. Of course, that was exactly what happened to numerous people sailing around boats in the Mediterranean—they really were captured by pirates and sold into slavery for profit. I’m sad that Paul Robeson didn’t do it. But I never really saw Odysseus as a basso profondo person. I think he’s more of a light baritone.

Last November, Handspring Puppet Company mounted a marionettized revival of Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse. (John Hodgkiss for Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival)

Your book The Return of Ulysses is an exhilarating rabbithole of riffs on The Odyssey. My favorite was an opera called Barks, in which ten singers are chained up like dogs and communally enact Argos’ death scene. Is there any gap in the poem that’s still begging to be filled in? What Odyssey shadow narrative do you want someone to write?
I think probably it would be Telemachus not getting laid. (laughs) Anybody listening to the first few books would immediately think that the narrative is about the growing up of a hero. Telemachus goes to Sparta, and Helen receives him. She has a very, very important role in that she gives Telemachus, poor lad, a beautiful negligee for whenever he intends to get married. Of course, who wouldn’t want a nightgown from Helen of Troy? If you get something like that at the beginning of an epic poem, it means that you’re an initiation hero. You’re supposed to grow up, and one of the things you have to do to grow up is lay your first woman. And he never gets a woman! He actually ends up killing the handmaidens, to whom he might conceivably have been allowed to lose his virginity. His storyline is just aborted. I would quite like to hear the Freudian story of Telemachus wanting to get laid.

It could be a teen movie—American Pie set in ancient Greece.
He’s got to be incredibly angry. Especially since his father gets all these women over the course of the poem. I speak as someone whose father is 88 and has gone on an incredible priapic binge. My mum died last summer, and he’s marrying a woman twenty years younger than him now. But do you know who I really feel for most? My elder brother, who never really got a woman and is finding his father’s current potency unbelievably difficult. (laughs) I think the son who has to watch his father getting endless sex has a pretty hard time of it. The brother is 62, by the way.

You need to go on sabbatical and write this.
I know. I’m going to wait until my father dies, I think, and then the memoir will happen. It’s even funnier because he’s an ordained minister in the Church of Scotland. The whole thing does have a je ne sais quoi. Anyway, don’t you think Telemachus wanting to get laid is a good musical? You might have to give him some sign of hope at the end. Maybe once dad’s gone off again, Telemachus gets a final aria, singing, “I know what to do; I’ve got a ticket here to Aeaea. I’m getting married in the morning.”

The “poor lad” himself in Angelica Kauffmann’s oil painting The Sorrow of Telemachus, 1783. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In your Twitter bio, you write that you “wanted to be in musical theatre.” What went wrong?
I totally couldn’t sing. (laughs) Well, I could sing a bit, but I couldn’t dance. Tragically enough, I turned out to be far, far better at ancient Greek. But I do love a good amateur Gilbert & Sullivan role when it comes my way. And it’s given me a lifelong love and admiration for the theater. Last night I sat watching Mozart’s Mithridates, King of Pontus, just so jealous of the wonderful women onstage singing those arias. Frankly, giving a lecture to 500 people at the British Academy doesn’t come near.

Matt Weinstock edits the publications at New York City Center.