Homer’s Iliad staged as a one-woman show? IN A BAR! It’s an outrage. A desecration of a founding work of Western Civilization™. A sure sign of cultural decline.
But wait…. What if McGill University classics professor Lynn Kozak’s performance returns the epic Greek poem to its origins, as a dramatic oral presentation for small audiences who were, quite possibly, inebriated, or at least a little tipsy? Kozak’s Previously on… The Iliad, described as “Happy Hour Homer,” presents its intimate audience with “a new, partially improvised English translation of a bit of The Iliad, all the way through the epic.”
The performances take place every Monday at 6 at Montreal’s Bar des Pins. Like the story itself, Kozak begins in medias res—in the middle, that is, of a chattering crowd of students, who quiet down right away and give the story their full attention.
Ancient Greek poetry was performed, not studied in scholarly editions in academic departments. It was sung, with musical accompaniment, and probably adapted, improvised, and embellished by ancient bards to suit their audiences. Granted, Kozak doesn’t sing (though some performances involve music); she recites in a manner both casual and dramatically gripping. She reminds us that the stories we find in the text are distant kin to the bloody serialized TV soap operas that occupy so much of our day-to-day conversation, at home, on social media, and at happy hour.
The liberties Kozak takes recreate the poem in the present as a living work. This is classics education at its most engaging and accessible. Like any poetic performer, Kozak knows her audience. The Iliad is a lot like Game of Thrones, “because of the number of characters that you have to keep up with,” Kozak tells the CBC’s As It Happens, “and also because of the fact that there’s not always clean-cut kind of villains or who you’re supposed to be rooting for in any major scene—especially in battle scenes.”
The performance of the “anger of Achilles” (top, with beer pong) conveys the moral complexity of the Greek hero. “He must be brutal and ready to risk brutality,” as UNC professor of philosophy CDC Reeve writes. “At the same time, he must be gentle to his friends and allies, and able to join with them in group activities both military and peaceful.” Is Achilles a tool of the gods or a man driven to extremes by rage? Homer suggests both, but the action is set in motion by divine agency. “Apollo was pissed at King Agamemnon,” Kozak paraphrases, then summarizes the nature of the insult and checks in with the young listeners: “everyone still with me?”
The story of The Iliad, many scholars believe, existed as an oral performance for perhaps 1,000 years before it was committed to writing by the scribe or scribes identified as Homer. But the poem “isn’t really a theatre piece,” says Kozak, despite its musical nature. “It’s really a story. It’s really a one-person show. And for me it’s just important to be in a place that’s casual and where I’m with the audience.” It’s doubtful that the poem was performed in its entirely in one sitting, though the notion of “serialization” as we know it from 19th century novels and modern-day television shows was not part of the culture of antiquity.
“We’re not really sure how The Iliad was broken up originally,” Kozak admits. Adapting the poem to contemporary audience sensibilities has meant “thinking about where or if episodes exist in the epic,” in the way of Game of Thrones. Each performance is styled differently, with Kozak holding court as various characters. “Sometimes there are cliffhangers. Sometimes they have resolutions. It’s been an interesting mix so far.” That “so far” extends on YouTube from Week 1 (Book 1, lines 1–487) to Week 14 (Book 11, line 461 to Book 12, line 205). Check back each week for new “episodes” to come online, and watch Weeks One through Four above and the other ten at the Previously on… The Iliad YouTube channel.