Despite its ancient origins, The Odyssey is an epic for modernity. The Greek poem gives us the hero as a homesick wanderer and uprooted seeker, an exile or a refugee, sustained by his cunning; he even comes across, writes scholar Deirdre McClosky, as “a crafty merchant type,” while also representing “three pagan virtues—temperance, justice, and prudence.” He’s a complicated hero, that is to say—most unlike Achilles, his antithesis in the prior epic The Iliad, the “foundational text,” says Simon Goldhill, “of Western culture.”
Goldhill, a Cambridge classics professor, introduces an undertaking itself admirably epic: a reading of The Iliad featuring “sixty-six artists, 18,225 lines of text” and—on the day it took place, August 14th of this year—an “audience of more than 50,000 people across the world, watching online or in person at the Almeida and the British Museum.” Now you can watch all 68 sections of the marathon event at the Almeida’s website until September 21, 2016. (Access the videos on pages One, Two, and Three.) Just above, see a short video that documents the making of this historic reading.
Goldhill goes on to say that the epic poem, “puts in place most of the great themes of Western literature, from power to adultery.” In a way, it’s fitting that it be a huge communal event: If The Odyssey is novelistic in many ways, as James Joyce’s Ulysses seems to have definitively shown, The Iliad is like a blockbuster comic book film. Achilles, writes McClosky, “is what the Vikings called a berserker”—his motive force, over and above companionship or love—is kleos: fame and glory. The one question that drives the “whole of The Iliad,” says Goldsmith, is “the question of what is worth dying for. For Achilles, the answer is simple.”
Undoubtedly we admire Achilles even as we cringe at his fury, and we celebrate all sorts of people who run headlong into what seems like certain death. But we also find figures who embody his violence and certainty disturbing, to say the least, both on and off the battlefield. Though crafty Odysseus temporarily stays Achilles’ rage, the warrior eventually kills so many Trojans that a river turns against him, and his abuse of Hector’s body makes for stomach-turning reading—or listening as the case may be. Pragmatic Odysseus may have given us the modern hero, and anti-hero, but power and glory-mad strongmen like Agamemnon and Achilles may be even more with us these days, and The Iliad is still an essential part of the architecture of Western grand narrative traditions.
After Goldhill’s introduction, see “greatest stage actor of his generation” Simon Russell Beale pick up the text, then younger actors Pippa Bennett-Warner and Mariah Gale, followed by gruff Brian Cox. (Find the readings on this page.) Few of the readers are as famous as Scottish film and stage star Cox, but nearly all are British theater-trained actors who deliver stirring, often thrilling, readings of the Robert Fagles translation. See the remaining 63 readings at the Almeida Theatre’s website here.