In books, on film, and now on the stage, the story of the Trojan War has been experiencing a renaissance in recent years. But what is it about a war that occurred thousands of years ago that remains so resonant today? An Iliad director Lisa Peterson supposes that there’s never really a wrong time to take a new look at the world’s oldest war story. “Somewhere in the world, people are always at war,” says Peterson.
However, some times are more right than others to revisit the infamous conflict—particularly as it’s told through Homer’s classic tale, The Iliad. “This particular moment, I think, is unique,” Peterson says. “The Iliad begins nine years into a war that may have lost its underlying meaning.” It’s a situation that mirrors what many see in the current American military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the midst of the second Iraq war, Peterson found her own interest in dramatic responses to war sparked anew. As she was researching the topic and discussing it with colleagues, a friend made the argument that The Iliad was not a poem but a dramatic work. “It was a remnant of the oral tradition, it was an out-loud story; it was never intended to be something that you just read on paper. And I was really interested in that,” says Peterson. “I had studied The Iliad in college, but… I had never thought of it as a play, and I don’t think most people do.”
Peterson was also intrigued by the opportunity to put a unique theatrical spin on a literary classic. After taking a long hiatus from helming the adaptations that marked her early career as a director, she was eager to return to adapting work, though not in a traditional manner. “I wanted to work on something as an adapter, and I was really interested in working directly with an actor instead of with a writer,” Peterson says. “I was interested in the idea of Homer as a traveling storyteller, as opposed to someone who sits and writes, and so it made more sense to go to an actor friend.”
Peterson began collaborating on the work with friend and performer Denis O’Hare, initiating a multi-year process. Last spring, An Iliad premiered at Seattle Rep. While their original idea was an improvisational piece that would change slightly with every performance, “It did end up getting written down and codified…and now it is a script, but we are still trying to capture that sensation that he’s making it up on the spot,” Peterson says. “We’re trying to create the kind of feeling that might have been in the room thousands of years ago when Homer was telling the story.”
Instilling that sense of awe at the spoken word in a modern audience is no small order. Peterson and O’Hare’s adaptation emphasizes the wide-ranging appeal of the tale and of storytelling, making An Iliad a bridge of sorts between the ancient and the modern. “We are imagining that our poet…has been around for millennia. He was there during the war, and he is doomed to walk the earth and tell his story. And over the years, he has adapted, always, to be wherever he happens to be.”
As the development process on An Iliad moves ahead, the original continues to surprise Peterson. “Almost every day I find something…that I feel like I’ve never read,” Peterson says. But not every surprise can be brought to the stage. In crafting a 90-minute one-person show from an epic poem, choosing what aspects of the story to explore can be difficult. Ultimately, An Iliad focuses on exploring the source material’s meditations on the nature of war. “We dug until we found the core of the story,” Peterson says, “and for us that core is the conflict between two great warriors, Hector and Achilles.”
Originally Published in Seattle Repertory Theatre Magazine, reprinted with permission.