By Vicki Yiannias
The cultural events and exhibitions at the Onassis Cultural Center are drawing progressively larger audiences. A five-actor dramatic reading of seven selected excerpts from Homer’s Iliad on May18 filled the Center to capacity (both sitting and standing). The size of the crowd indicated
not only the reputation for high quality events of the Center, but also, a vibrant public interest in Greek culture, being that the performance attracted a large non-Greek audience.
Voicing high praise for the performance, an exhilarated audience enjoyed an elegant reception in the Olympic Atrium. Also at the reception were viewers of the photographic exhibition Periplus, a presentation of the Center’s Contemporary Art Series, on view in the Olympic Atrium through June 6.
Ambassador Loukas S. Tsilas, Executive Director of the Onassis Cultural Center said to the Greek News that “This dramatic reading of Homer’s Iliad is the first dramatic reading of an ancient text that we have had. We had five professional actors; Professor Konstan from Brown University made the introduction, determined and read the text that connected various scenes from the Iliad. The dialogue was very well acted, and of course the main effort was to show that war is a horrible thing…that war brings the worst in people to the surface, but at the same time that during war, even in antiquity, human beings remains the same, with the same passions, the same fears, the same dignity, and affection. So this came across very strongly. Everybody loved it. Unfortunately, we cannot accommodate more people. You see that we have ninety percent non-Greek attendance. As well as the attendance from the Greek-American community, this is what we need to address ourselves to the American public also. We are very, very happy.”
The Iliad dramatic reading project was proposed by Mr. Stelios Papadimitriou, President of the Onassis Foundation, and organized by Ambassador Loukas
S. Tsilas, Executive Director of the Onassis Cultural Center, who brought into the endeavour David Konstans, Professor of the Classics and the Humanistic Tradition and Professor of Comparative Literature at Brown University. The choice of passages and translation quotes that separated each passage was essentially that of Professor Konstans. Konstans, together with the director of the reading, David Muse, from the Yale School of Drama, decided to use the translation of Robert Fagles. Robert Fagles, Peter Bien and Edmund Keeley, three of the most eminent Greek scholars of our era, read from their works at an Onassis Cultural Center event in 2000.
The five actors of the dramatic reading were: Daniel Oreskes as Hector, Sharon Scruggs as Helen/Andromache/Thetis, Robert Stattel as Agamemnon/Priam/Ajax, Michael Shtulbarg as Homer, Graham Winton as Achilles/Paris. All of the actors have performed prolifically; no one involved in the production is of Greek descent.
Professor Konstans first introduced the dramatic reading — which lasted about one hour and twenty minutes — saying that “The Iliad is a poem of war — the greatest war narrative ever written…The Iliad and the Odyssey are the foundation of ancient Greek culture. They were composed in their present form about 800 years before the birth of Christ, but even Christian writers a thousand years and more later felt that someone who did not know Homer could not be considered cultivated. Homer was the bard.”
He then took a seat on the stage, joining the seated actors, and took the
role of narrator, introducing each excerpt with a transitional quote between the reading of each of the 6 passages in order to bring coherence to the excerpts.
The succession of excerpts was as follows: passage 1 was the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon; in passage 2, Hector returns to Troy and meets Helen, Paris, and his own wife, Andromache and Paris and Helen speak; passage 3 was the duel between Hector and Ajax, one of the most powerful Greeks; in passage 4 Achilles is informed that his best friend Patroclus has been killed; passage 5 is the duel between Achilles and Hector, who killed Patroclus; and in passage 6, Hector’s father Priam comes to beg Achilles to return his son’s body for a proper burial.
When asked by the Greek News which scenes he found the most moving, Konstans replied “It’s hard to say, because the whole thing was very powerful and very beautiful in different ways. The actors brought it out very, very well. They brought out the passions, they brought out the rage, they brought out the kindness…we looked to bring out a range of emotions, so there was pity, there was anger, grief, love and loyalty.” He added, “This poetry communicates its power and grandeur and is extremely relevant even today. Let’s say that it beats the movie!”
Konstans went on to credit Ambassador Tsilas, saying that “Ambassador Tsilas suggested that we add a scene between Paris and Helen. He felt that would add something to it, another dimension. He was absolutely right in his choice”. He noted that the scene between Paris and Helen introduced a nice note of comic relief. The fact that this scene had the effect of comic relief was something neither he nor Ambassador Tsilas had predicted.
Ambassador Michael Sotirhos, Vice President of the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation (USA), gave his impressions to the Greek News, “It was spectacular. You could take any theatre, any place in the world, London, Paris New York, Broadway…these actors are talented, well-rehearsed, and they delivered a performance, which, don’t forget, was a reading…without spectacular lighting, they brought the Iliad to life.”
David Konstan is the John Rowe Workman Distinguished Professor of classics and the Humanistic Tradition and Professor of Comparative Literature at t Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. His books include “Roman Comedy,” “Sexual Symmetry: Love in the Ancient Novel and Related Genre,” Friendship in the Classical World”, “Greek Comedy and Ideology”, and “Pity Transformed “. He is currently working on what promises to be a fascinating book, “The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks”. As well as having received many fellowships, Professor Konstan was a reciepient of a Research Grant from the Alexander S. Onassis Foundation in Athens.
“The war takes place at Troy, located near present-day Istanbul. Troy had not existed for centuries when Homer was reciting his poems; indeed, it was only in the late nineteenth century that an archaeological site was discovered that scholars now believe corresponds to the locale of ancient Troy. Was there really such a long siege of the city by Greek forces, arriving in a thousand ships? Was it fought over the seizure or elopement of a beautiful woman, Helen, Menelaus’ wife? We do not know. Yet Homer did know things about that remote epoch. He knew that people back then fought with armor of bronze, not iron, as they did in his own time. He knew that there were great, fortified cities in Greece, not the small villages that dotted the landscape he was familiar with. And he knew the names of these ancient towns: Mycenae, Pylos, Troy itself. These memories were embedded in the traditional language of epic poetry. When a bard reached for an adjective to describe armor, it was bronze, not iron, that the meter and the diction required. And so information survived through the medium of poetry itself. How much is true, we cannot say; perhaps more than we imagine.”