See The Iliad Performed as a One-Woman Show in a Montreal Bar by McGill University Classics Professor Lynn Kozak

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear What Homer’s Odyssey Sound­ed Like When Sung in the Orig­i­nal Ancient Greek

Hear Homer’s Ili­ad Read in the Orig­i­nal Ancient Greek

One of the Best Pre­served Ancient Man­u­scripts of The Ili­ad Is Now Dig­i­tized: See the “Bankes Homer” Man­u­script in High Res­o­lu­tion (Cir­ca 150 C.E.)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.