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The Once And Future ‘Iliad’

This is a rebroadcast which originally aired on May 6, 2013.

On Memorial Day, war and the human condition.  A raw one-man performance of the Iliad makes Homer’s war epic new.

Denis O'Hare in "An Iliad"

Denis O’Hare in “An Iliad” (Joan Marcus)

“Sing, O muse, of the rage of Achilles,” begins the Iliad, Homer’s great epic of ancient war at the gates of Troy. And we are instantly swept away to a time of chariots and swords, spears and shields, gods and men and battle.

But there is nothing purely ancient about war, says my guest today, Denis O’Hare, actor and co-creator of a new Iliad for the stage. A one-man show that goes to the walls of Troy, then brings Homer forward, through centuries of war after war. Brings the Iliad right into our laps.

Up next On Point: an Iliad for our time, and the human rage for war.

– Tom Ashbrook


Denis O’Hare, star and co-creator — with director Lisa Peterson — of the one-man play “An Iliad,” which just ended a run at ArtsEmerson’s Paramount Theater in Boston. (@denisohare)

Live Performance

O’Hare performed four excerpts from “An Iliad” live during our show. Listen:


From Tom’s Reading List

The Boston Globe: A One-Man ‘Iliad’ Comes To ArtsEmerson — “When actor Denis O’Hare and director Lisa Peterson began developing their theatrical adaptation of Homer’s ‘The Iliad’ in 2005, the United States was embroiled in two simultaneous wars halfway around the world. Yet the duo never intended their update of Homer’s ancient epic poem, about the brutality of the Trojan War, to be an antiwar jeremiad. Indeed, the collaborators came to the project, ‘An Iliad,’ with differing passions and perspectives about the seemingly insatiable human thirst for violence and destruction.”

The Daily Beast: Denis O’Hare Talks About One-Man Show “An Iliad” — “Our original impulse was to write our version and then walk into a bar and see if we could get anyone to listen to us. Or stand under a bridge or in a coffee shop. Our narrator, the Poet, enters a room and starts talking. It can be any room. Think back to bardic tradition and storytelling tradition, and that’s all it ever it was. One-on-one entertainment.”

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  • debhulbh

    Nothing human is alien to me…
    The war that rages inside of each and every one of us, is not just on some faraway battlefield, it rages INSIDE of us and in each and every moment with – relationship battles..life.
    the field of spousal war, brother/sister, mother/daughter battles that rage thru generations, father/son..
    What is it you ask Tom, look inside of you, inside of each of us….we all possess it, in varying degrees, some do a better job at juggling it, controlling it, others not so good, 
    We all battle every day with one another.
    Yes we should smile and hug and care for, love each other, but such is the human condition, such are the slights, insults, injuries, perceived or otherwise that we all wrestle with…and which leads to all out family wars, war of words, war war war ….all of it war…
    we don not need to go to a battle field to know the horror of ripping another apart, whether with words, or weapons…all of it is weaponry…used for what….
    We can do better…
    such is life and such is what we all strive for…

    • justanopinion13

      Your argument is over simplified. What non-human species do is not war. I would characterize war as a human activity characterized by pre-meditation.

      • brettearle

        I don’t agree.  And I suspect neither would debhulbh.

        Debhulbh is trying to say, it seems to me, that our everyday conflicts are a microcosm for the full expression of legalized murder–through violence against another group, region, or country.

        While war may often–though not always–be pre-meditated, it is still dependent on grievance, effrontery, or feeling threatened….all of which were strong emotions that were often experienced well before the actual War was waged or declared.

        • debhulbh

          I had responded to justanopinion13…tku

          What non-human species are you referring to? I made no mention.

          On keeping it simple.
          What ARE wars fought over? an insult, a slight, an injury, a perceived one…all through the ages, getting back to the very kernel of the problem.
           The Hell of this war was fought over a woman(the Iliad) thats about as simple and idiotic as you can get….would you not agree?

          On oversimplification…
          Yes  keeping it simple…in use of language or other: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. “To be or not to be?” asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story (as it is for Kurt Vonnegut)is in “Eveline” and is this one: “She was tired.” At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.
          Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. …such as …the following…well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: “In the beginning.. created the heaven and the earth.”…I could go on… but…

          • brettearle

            Appreciate your thoughts. 

            I’m an enormous fan of Joyce–especially, “The Dead”.

            Vonnegut, himself, kept it simple while being profound.

            True genius.

            Camus, too, I think.

            Perchance to Dream….

          • debhulbh

            Have just completed Ulysses…what a journey…

      • debhulbh

        What non-human species are you referring to? I made no mention.

        On keeping it simple.
        What ARE wars fought over? an insult, a slight, an injury, a perceived one…all through the ages, getting back to the very kernel of the problem.
         The Hell of this war was fought over a woman(the Iliad) thats about as simple and idiotic as you can get….would you not agree?

        On oversimplification…
        Yes I love to keep it simple…in  my use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. “To be or not to be?” asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story (as it is for Kurt Vonnegut)is in “Eveline” and is this one: “She was tired.” At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.
        Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred.
        Also. well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: “In the beginning… created the heaven and the earth.”…I could go on… but…

  • Barbara Moore

    There’s something in the mood of this discussion that to me sounds disturbingly close to glorification of the subject -or is that just me?  After all, lying, stealing, cheating, sexual abuse are also all eternal features of human behavior, but we don’t ask why.  And after all, the Iliad depicts people behaving in the most petty and squalid ways, utterly dishonorably – just like lying and cheating.  There’s an irresistable tendency to dress up war as something glorious at the same time as wringing our hands over it.  Read “Mother Courage” or “Troilus and Cressida” for a more dry-eyed depiction of war

    • brettearle

      Men seek glory, by testing their Machismo via life-or-death Courage.

      That can often trump all Reason.

      It seems to me that certain features, in The Iliad, that depict the motivations of men–at War or going to War– underscore this inherent `business’ in Men, of Glory and Heroism.

      It ought to be identified as misdirected.  But it isn’t.

  • StLeonards

    Every religion, every boundary, every law, even slavery, has all been decided by war. War is absolutely necessary, as without it we would remain in a perpetual impasse

    • brettearle

      I would argue that sometimes–not always–War could be averted.

      But often the Human Nature of power; of primitive emotional demand; of Ego victory; of destructive stubbornness; and of self-righteous morality…..these traits prevail over Reason.

      Reason is impossible when the only actual option is War:

      If a deranged individual, such as Hitler, could have potentially conquered a Continent, then there is no choice.

      If one country is truly zapping a vital resource, from another, and refuses to stop, that could very well be another intractable situation–where War is essential.

      But my guess is that the overwhelming number of the wars and conflicts, listed near the end of the program, could have been averted, had cooler heads prevailed, where mature dialogue could have commenced.

      • StLeonards

        The fundamental misconception in your argument is the belief that war is a consequesce of anger, or uncivil discourse. IT ISN’T. It is a true and tried system for resolution.

        When stags, horses, or lions, decided to go to war, there is no malice, primitive evil, nor curruption. War for them is the ONLY way to ensure the wrong are prevented from moving forward in evolution. It is in fact a brilliant design.

        If we did not have a war that ended slavery decidedly, it perhaps never would have. Keep in mind, both sides were equally civilized in what they believed to be true.

        • brettearle

          The fundamental misconception in your response to my argument is that you need to see Human Nature as a consequence of Higher Ideals……

          ……as if primitive emotions are suddenly obviated, or deemed irrelevant, when the larger picture for Resolution is based on some kind of quote, `brilliant design’, unquote.

          The subtext for your concept–which you will likely never admit–is based on some sort of warped reverence for Honor and its relationship to some Grander Idea or Ideal.

          That’s often ridiculous–though not always. 

          Primitive emotion of revenge, hatred, rage, effrontery, fear–and any number of basic emotions that often drive men and groups and nations out of control–are the underpinnings that steer Ideas…..Ideas that can be adulterated and warped by these primitive emotions.

          We will never know how many wars and conflicts have been averted, through reason.

          I’d to have you as my commanding officer. 

          The likes of you would make decisions that would finish us off, in seconds.

          • StLeonards

            You have built a mountain
            on a flawed and fictitious belief: People do not go to war as result of
            primitive emotions. Not as a rule. The need for freedom, self-defense, or
            ending oppression is not a primitive or as implied, outmoded emotion; it is a
            fundamental need.

            The absurdity of your
            position comes from the one-sided view of the West waging war on others.
            Nowhere have you considered that those being attacked had an obligation to
            defend themselves.

            You regrettably also make
            the assumption that Humans don’t first try to diplomatically resolution.

            A great recent example
            comes to mind; after India got its independence form British
            rule 1947, it asked the Portuguese pilferers to do the same- to kindly remove
            its army from southern India. They would not have it, so the Indians
            took the mater to the Hague- who ruled in the favor of the
            Portuguese. This diplomatic volley went on for 10 years- a decade, before India took decisive military action and
            got its freedom.

            In your self-serving
            scenario there was no good reason for war and diplomacy always prevails.

          • brettearle

            I am referring to Prior Restraint.

            If one side has to defend itself, then there wasn’t prior restraint.

            If one side goes to a recognized Court or Authority–such as when the US did, before it went into Afghanistan–then it has met a prior obligation.

            The Taliban and Al Qaeda, clearly, weren’t going to.

            Same with India, in regard to the Hague.  

            You are ascribing positions to me that aren’t true.

            I am not saying that Diplomacy must, or should, always prevail.

            Usually, it is one of the two parties, who can’t compromise. Not both.

            I am saying that Men and countrymen are too often at the threshold of aggression–without Prior Restraint.

            The people who go to war–because they are the oppressed minority–have a legitimate grievance if they are typically dismissed, time and again, before battle.

            But, for example, if Hitler had recognized Chamberlain, the destiny of the 40′s might have been different.

            And Stevenson might have become President.

  • rholway

    For the integral role of women in the war culture reflected in the Iliad, see http://pages.shanti.virginia.edu/becomingachilles/

  • 65noname

    This is more of the glorification of the “if I’m right-minded I don’t have to be intelligent” mode of anti-warism, falling back on commencement speechesque platitiudes and non-truths that are never challenged because they are supposedly high minded and to challenge them would be critizied as being pro-war..

    for instance, it is NOT true that only humans go to war.  In species from chimpanzees to wolves to ants and everything in between “tribes” go to war against other “tribes” go to war over turf, food, sex, etc. So the whinny, “why, oh why, do only humans got war” is intellectually empty.

    Humans go to war for millions of different reasons, but in almost all cases,because societies are  organized so that those with power had something at stake and helped build a climate where war could be described as  an appropriate response.  And, of course the only winners turn out to be amoungst those who owned the most power at the beginning of the war. 

    And, by the way, I can tell the difference betweent the Vietnamese people’s war against amerikan imperialism and the amerikan government’s waging war against those vietnamese people. 


  • brettearle

    If Men and Women became violent, as the result of responses to verbal insults, countries all over the world would be employing millions of people to build millions of Prisons.

  • StLeonards

    I am suprised at the disparagement of animals. No animal ever fights for perverse reasons. It is usually a part of their grand design that ensures the survival of the best. The inverse, would ensure the survival of the wrong and demise of the right. 

  • StLeonards

    Should the North and South have gone to war and abolished slavery? The simpletons will say that no they should have held talks. They did endlessly with no fruition. There had to be another way to prove the South was wrong- who in their minds felt they were. Here’s a new saying; only war and history can tell who has it right.

  • kevnorth

    I am flabbergasted by the caller who claimed that only men create war, then went on to admit that Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth waged war. To claim that only men create war and to  to create excuses for every situation in which women engage in war is sexist and wrongheaded. Women are people, too, and are just as subject to great rage as any man.

    • brettearle

      Here, here.

      [Although, supposedly, when women attempt suicide they do it in less non-violent ways than men....if one can actually parse out methods of suicide, based on severity of violence] 

    • Barry Kort

      I’m pretty sure Margaret Thatcher was a female Prime Minister when she went to war in the Falkland Islands.

    • StLeonards

      Yes its very illuminating that so many have labeled war as “Male machismo”. These are somewhat selfish folks who are not familiar with history and reasons for war. Such as the fact many wars were fought to gain independance. Would that also fall into the gross grenralization of Male bravado?

  • http://www.facebook.com/barbara.harshav Barbara Harshav

    Norman Mailer once argued that wars are fought because young men (he didn’t say women, of course) enjoyed the rush of battle and the glory of being heroes.  Never mind the ostensible reason for going to war (Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin posits murder, no matter how high-sounding the ideology).  What Mailer proposed was that we set aside some remote area of the world and let anyone who wants to fight go there and do it.
    Another way to look at this is that old men(and women) send young men (and women) to fight wars.  Today I see that John McCain has gone to Syria to meet with the rebels, so that we can join another war we don’t know anything about and can only muck up more than it is.  Could a good dose of Viagra solve this part of the problem?

  • Barry Kort

    The War on Terror

    Terrorist vs. Anti-Terrorist establish their mutually agreeable terms of engagement.
    Terrorist: You have sown fear in me. Now I will repay you by sowing fear in you. 

    Anti-Terrorist: I will hunt you down and annihilate you and your kind. 

    Terrorist: I am not afraid to die. My violence will strike anywhere, anytime, when you least expect it. 

    Anti-Terrorist: I am not afraid of your terrorist attacks. I will redouble my efforts to bring you down. 

    Terrorist: There are more where I came from. We will continue to fight your violence with our violence until the end of time. 

    Anti-Terrorist: Our violence is holy. We are using authorized and sanctioned violence under the color of law to fight your unlawful, evil violence. 

    Terrorist: I believe in my violence even more than you believe in yours. It is my true religion. I have no compassion for your lawful violence. 

    Anti-Terrorist: I have no compassion for your unlawful violence. 

    Terrorist: Then we are in agreement. Our mutual lack of empathy and our mutual fear ensures that our drama will continue forever and ever. 

    Anti-Terrorist: Suits me fine. 

    Terrorist: Me too. It gives meaning to my life. 

    Anti-Terrorist: Mine, too. 

    Terrorist: Then we’re in agreement. We will escalate the mutual and reciprocal violence forever and ever. 

    Anti-Terrorist: Roger that. 

    • debhulbh

      brilliant and spot on

  • Ed75

    St. Paul tells us that we’re not fighting flesh and blood, but ‘Powers and Principalities’. Until the parousia, they will not be removed from the world.

  • mollymalone2

    We go to war because the people who declare war don’t fight the war.  Old men proclaim war, young men go off to fight.

  • mollymalone2

    when the people who wage war fight the war, maybe war will end.

  • http://synapse9.com/signals Jessie Henshaw

    Tom, You do ask just the right question: Where does that tormented rage come from that begins every war?  

    There actually is beginning to seem to be a scientific answer, in the common human practices of endlessly building up ever greater expectations,… with no end but capitation to their moment of horrible failure.   In finance, in politics, in love, we do it all the time, but are not yet quite smart enough to appreciate how raising expectations in a healthy environment  creates an ever more tenuous environment of liabilities too!
    If you made lists of the cases where people systematically build up expectations till they fail, evidently not quite knowing that’s what they’re doing, I think you might be able to deduce the essential mechanism too.   It’s something like paying with promises, the common formula for disaster with money.    

  • HonestDebate1

    This was a very interesting show. I have a lot or respect or Mr. O’Hare.
    I disagree with the underlying theme that wars are waged because of rage. I don’t think that is ever a valid reason. Mr. Ashbrook made a point to say that as we go from war to war, through history, thinking every one is justified many people die. Tell that to six million jews in Germany. Tell that to the folks in Syria or N. Korea today. Or the million Hussein killed. 

    The show actually inspired me to consider one more project I’ll probably never get around to. That is, a fictional account of a world where we did not fight the Revolutionary War, or the Civil War, or WWI, or WWII. No one ever seems to weigh the cost of not going to war.

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An American is beheaded. We’ll look at the ferocity of ISIS, and what to do about it.

Aug 21, 2014
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