The ODYSSEY is an epic poem of just over 12,000 lines. It is written in an ancient form of Greek that would have appeared to be from a bygone age even to the dramatists of the Classical period such as Sophocles (in this context Homer was to Sophocles what Chaucer was to Shakespeare). Although it is written, the poem is meant to be performed, or at least recited and perhaps even sung, by a bard accompanied by music. The story concerns the return journey of Odysseus from the Trojan War, hence the title of the poem. It is epic in form and structure in that it covers many story strands and its main story is very broad and covers a time period of ten years. The ODYSSEY also has numerous digressions and interludes that take us away from the main story. However, these diversions are always thematically linked to the main story, namely the journey home of Odysseus and his encounters along the way. The style of the poem ranges from the conversational and the comic to the poet’s dense use of language. The poem also uses long ‘epic similes’ that compare one action or event with another happening or situation in an extended and elaborate manner – for example, a squid clinging to a rock is compared to Odysseus holding onto his boat. The ODYSSEY is also an adventure story and a romance. Its moral and religious meaning is discernible but never explicitly presented. The influence of the ODYSSEY on Western literature, drama, storytelling, philosophy, politics and religion is inestimable.
The starting point for doing the ODYSSEY was always – ‘Let’s take this classic story and tell it as if Homer were an impressionist alive today and imagine what his ODYSSEY would be like with a cast of iconic celebrities such as Woody Allen, Pat Routledge, Homer Simpson and Tony Blair playing the characters. I think he would do it in this way because it is a great combination of his natural genius for telling a great story with an ability and gift for mimicry. And it is fun without ever being a send-up of the original and without ever really losing the essence of the tale’s power and meaning.’ It should be said too that there is something particular about the character of Odysseus that lends itself to a man of many voices. Essentially he is an archetypal Shapeshifter whose identity changes throughout the story. Odysseus is a human chameleon, a character actor and arguably the world’s first ‘impressionist’. His story, the ODYSSEY, is therefore a perfect vehicle for a modern day mimic.
No, not at all! The show presents the story in a very straight-forward way and there are certainly no obscure or clever references that only a Greek scholar would understand. In fact because the ODYSSEY is a great story and an action thriller to boot there is a real sense that those who do not know the story may enjoy it even more that those who do because those who don’t know the tale will want to know what happens next. STEVE NALLON’S BIG ODYSSEY is first and foremost an entertaining and funny show, but also explores other aspects of the classic tale. Many of the themes and ideas of the story such as the need to show respect to one’s host are self evident from the episodes in the tale. Sometimes in the show characters express an important idea in a key phrase, for example the theme of storytelling is established by the Queen’s comment “It is in the telling of the tale that we see its message” and the idea that hospitality to a guest had a quid pro quo element within it is neatly summed up by the modern expression used by Hermes “There is no such thing as a free lunch”. Occasionally further insights are offered to the audience on a particular theme or story development by making a comparison with films such as STAR WARS or THE DEER HUNTER.
STEVE NALLON’S BIG ODYSSEY follows very much the story of Homer’s ODYSSEY which, like any other Greek classic, includes themes of sex, violence and death, as well as comedy and adventure. However, in the presentation of the story there is no swearing or graphic display. In STEVE NALLON’S BIG ODYSSEY some is told and some is seen but much, much more is imagined. Fundamentally the performance is an adult entertainment and not a children’s show but that said, children as young as ten or so have thoroughly enjoyed it, particularly if they have had previous experience of theatre going. It is difficult to put an age restriction on the show but twelve and above with parental guidance and judgement for any age younger than twelve would be the suggestion. Some of the celebrity cast would be known to children, especially the cartoon characters such as Homer Simpson and Bugs Bunny, but many would not. That said, although some of the iconic cast may not always be familiar to them, children do enjoy the many voices and characterisations.
Most of the celebrity cast of STEVE NALLON’S BIG ODYSSEY are iconic figures from the world of film, television, politics and sport, who are burned into the public’s consciousness. For example in the original ODYSSEY the Cyclops is a fantasy figure, a large dim witted monster who will eat anything and so in STEVE NALLON’S BIG ODYSSEY Homer Simpson has been cast as the Cyclops (in fact in that episode of the ODYSSEY all the characters are cast from the world of animation and Odysseus gives himself the voice of that archetypal Trickster Bugs Bunny). Woody Allen plays the son Telemachus because, in the original story, Telemachus is immature, or at least he is not quite a complete or fully-fledged man. In some ways, this sums up the ‘Woody Allen’ persona. The intention is always to find the fun angle of the character, without losing the essential nature of his/her identity. Circe in the original is a powerful woman who entices men into her lair with food only to abuse them later. Appropriately enough perhaps the British Conservative politician Ann Widdecombe, whose nickname at Westminster was ‘Doris Karloff’, is cast as Circe with the added bonus that she is also portrayed as a sexual ‘Dominatrix’ in PVC and leather. Other casting is more in keeping with the setting and the environment of the particular episode. The royal family in the luxurious land of the Phaeacians is cast as if it were a British Merchant-Ivory style movie production and so the King and Queen are played by Sir Derek Jacobi and Dame Maggie Smith. At other times the casting borrows from contemporary culture, for example, the suitors who want to marry Penelope are introduced in the style of BLIND DATE by the television presenter Cilla Black, and the Singer of Songs is played by Barbra Streisand. In Hades, the Land of the Dead, all the characters are played by classical actors who are deceased, including Sir John Gielgud and Lord Olivier. In the process of the casting there is normally enough in the essence of the personality cast in the tale for the audience to gather how the original character was represented by Homer.
The show is in the tradition of a long line of other adaptations that have taken the themes and ideas of the ODYSSEY and reinvented them in their own original way for a new audience. A variation of the ODYSSEY in the movies is the Coen Brother’s hit comedy movie OH BROTHER, WHERE ART THOUGH? The film does not have the war background in its reinvention of the ODYSSEY but it does brilliantly take up the theme of the transgressor returning to the civilized community. Another famous updating is James Joyce’s novel ULYSSES. Other less well-known adaptations include NAUSICAA, the unfinished opera by Goethe begun in 1787, and ULEE’S GOLD, a 1997 movie starring Peter Fonda.
A father leaves for war and left behind is a son who grows up never knowing his father or how, or even if, his father is now dead. On a visit to an old man who knew his father at the time of war, the old warrior, a mentor figure, is able to offer some information on the father but tells the son if he really wants to discover more he must journey further afield. Is this STAR WARS or the ODYSSEY? Actually it is both. Another story. Someone tries to get back home. On the journey they encounter many obstacles in their quest, often magical figures and enchanted temptations. Several times, a special task needs to be completed before the next stage of the journey can be undertaken, and often close friends must be left behind. Of course, the final realisation is that home always comes before anything else. Is this THE WIZARD OF OZ or the ODYSSEY? Again, it is both. There are so many stories within the rich tapestry of the ODYSSEY that it is hardly surprising that it has been repeatedly ransacked over the years for its story and its themes. Circe is an archetypal temptress who lures a younger man into her captivity. The stories of “film noir” such as THE MALTESE FALCON, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, or DOUBLE INDEMNITY simply wouldn’t exist if the Circe element of their basic story was removed. And then there is Odysseus. Odysseus is an archetypal Shapeshifter and Trickster who uses disguise, fabrication and scams to get out of his difficulties. Remove these elements from the cartoons of Bugs Bunny and you have no Bugs Bunny cartoons. Every story of a distant parent, every epic search, every road movie, every tale of the ‘femme fatale’, every trick of the Trickster in some ways owes its inspiration and origin to Homer’s ODYSSEY.
In 1934 the sixty-year-old Slavonic bard Avdo Mededovic who could neither read nor write ‘composed’ a poem the length of the ODYSSEY in an improvised manner. The performance took fourteen days, the bard chanting for two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening. In total then it took just over fifty hours to perform. It may well be that Homer, like Avdo Mededovic, was unable to read or write and so composed his ODYSSEY partly from memory and partly from improvisation. In the ODYSSEY there are two bards, Demodocus and Phemius, and neither uses a text as such. The stories they sing come from inside their heads. Each poet is described as a ‘singer of songs’. Their words were accompanied by the music of the lyre, which the poets played themselves. In book eight of the ODYSSEY Demodocus is given a chair, his lyre and food and drink and chooses to sing the well-known tale of the dispute between Odysseus and Achilles. On another occasion dancers are part of the presentation and at this presentation the song is the slightly comic tale of the love story of Ares and Aphrodite. So then, in the light of this creative process, it may well be that Homer was the ‘author’ of the ODYSSEY but not necessarily the ‘writer’. In all probability, the art of the bard was passed from one generation to the next and clearly at some stage a written text emerged. However, in these circumstances it is difficult to say whether or not the writer of this text was necessarily also the author.
In STEVE NALLON’S BIG ODYSSEY the presentation follows the most important aspect of the oral tradition in that it gives the audience a sense that the performance is happening and being created right there in front of them. Some of the cast, mainly ‘the gods’, are aware that they are in a performance (academics refer to this as ‘metatheatre’). Of course this is not the way Homer would have performed the ODYSSEY but the presentation style is working within what is essentially an improvised oral tradition. The main point though of the ‘Oral Tradition’ is that in ancient times every performance of the ODYSSEY would have been different. The poet would have a basic story structure in his head but many of the extended epic similes would undoubtedly have changed from performance to performance.
The situation at the beginning of the ODYSSEY is this: the long Trojan War ended a decade ago and all the Greek soldiers have returned home – except Odysseus and his men. Because Odysseus caused offence to the gods his journey to his home island of Ithaca became cursed and so it is destined to take ten years. That ten years of voyaging and exile imposed by the gods is now up. So, after several years of Odysseus being stranded on Calypso’s island, Zeus, with strong encouragement from Athena, allows Odysseus to complete the last stage of his journey. This decision of the gods to release Odysseus from exile is the ‘inciting incident’ that begins the main action of the ODYSSEY. Meanwhile back on Odysseus’s home island of Ithaca dozens of suitors for many years have been pestering Penelope, wife of Odysseus, and asking her to marry one of them so that the leaderless Ithaca will once again have a king. In the past Penelope tried a series of delaying tactics, including saying she would marry one of the suitors when she completed an embroidered shroud, only to then unpick it at night. Her options are now running out. However, a fresh delaying tactic is created when Telemachus, son of Penelope and Odysseus, is told by Athena to go in search of his father, who he has never known and who the suitors presume to be dead. Following this new initiative Penelope agrees to meet the request of the suitors. However, she insists that she will choose a new husband only after her son returns from his quest. Telemachus in his search discovers much about the cunning ways of his father Odysseus and returns to Ithaca hoping Odysseus to be still alive. The three main story strands then of the ODYSSEY are: one, the final stage of Odysseus’s journey; two, Penelope and the pestering suitors; and three, Telemachus’s search for his father. And because of the clever time frame of the ODYSSEY Homer is able to go from story strand to story strand because these three main actions – the completion of Odysseus’s journey, the delaying tactics of Penelope and the quest of Telemachus – all take place over the same two weeks and at more or less the same time. To borrow a term from cinema, Homer is able to do some ‘parallel editing’ between these three main story lines. The last leg of Odysseus’s travels takes him to Phaeacia. It is here that Odysseus tells the story of his famous adventures in a long ‘flashback’ sequence narration. The relating of these adventures, which include the visit to land of the Lotus-eaters, the tricking of the Cyclops, the discovery of the magical Palace of Circe, the help from the keeper of the winds and the visit to Hades, is the main centre-piece of the ODYSSEY story. The Phaeacians listen kindly to Odysseus and at the end of his story they give him ships to send him home to Ithaca. With Odysseus’s arrival back in Ithaca the three story strands come together when father and son act jointly to kill the suitors that are plaguing Penelope and the household. Odysseus is reunited with his wife and once again becomes King of Ithaca.
The forward motion of the ODYSSEY is not unlike a modern video game. There are a series of lands to visit (Hades, land of the Lotus-eaters) and a set of tasks to undertake (threading of the bow and the shooting of the arrow through the axes). Helpers aid (the keeper of the winds) and enemies hinder (Poseidon). Enemies can be won over (Circe) and then offer advice to the hero. Items and sometimes gifts are collected (the stolen wine in Ismarus) that are needed and used later on on the journey (tricking the Cyclops with undiluted wine). Sometimes the motion of the progression is three steps forward, two steps back, much like in the game of Snakes and Ladders (the loss of the bag of winds sends Odysseus back to the keeper of the winds). Within this complex structure though it is sometimes difficult to see a distinct and discernible pattern. However, what can be said in broad terms is that the adventures are a series of lessons from the gods. Each has its own subtle message and moral, though it should be noted that the Greek gods are not ethical or moral in the sense of the Western Judaic-Christian way of thinking. There is an arbitrariness about their behaviour that is at odds with modern thought about the nature of the divine. That said, the ODYSSEY can be seen as a series of lessons from the gods from which Odysseus must learn certain basic rules. One lesson is that he must leave behind his war-like nature and once more begin to respect the law of Zeus that a traveller honour his host (Odysseus’s behaviour in Ismarus soon after his departure from Troy shows his ill-judged and barbarous nature). Equally he must discover that his wife Penelope is his only love (hence he has to leave behind the sexual temptations of Calypso and Circe). He must also gain control over his temper (his boasting to the Cyclops costs him dearly in both ships and men). The ODYSSEY rarely if at all spells out these lessons in the way a Sunday school teacher would explain a parable or moral ‘Just So’ type story. It is far too subtle for that. Nevertheless an unstated but perceivable sense of learning from experience can be found in the ODYSSEY. It is possible to imagine the original audience discussing at length the poem’s meaning and purpose.
The simplest way to see the ODYSSEY is to think of it as THE WIZARD OF OZ meets The DEER HUNTER. This may make the ODYSSEY sound a bit frivolous but it gets to the heart of the ODYSSEY’s form and meaning. First of all the ODYSSEY, like THE WIZARD OF OZ, is in the form of a fantasy journey home. The quest for home in THE WIZARD OF OZ and in the ODYSSEY is the constant goal, but in both, there are a series of obstacles, tasks and temptations that hinder that quest and these are presented in fantasy form. In the ODYSSEY, Odysseus is offered a series of temptations represented in a fantastic way to take him from his path – drugs represented by special fruits in the land of the Lotus-eaters, unlimited sex offered by the eternal goddess Calypso, the lure and peace of death from the enchanting Siren voices and so on. Odysseus also faces a series of obstacles such as the storms at sea created by his enemy, the ocean god Poseidon, and a number of additional tasks such as his visit to the Underworld. The key point though in the meaning of both stories is that the basic lesson for Dorothy and Odysseus is exactly the same – before either can return home they must prove that they truly wish and deserve to return home. It is only when this is fully known to them that they can achieve their goal. Unlike Dorothy though, Odysseus is not just on a journey back home – he is also returning from a war. In the great tradition of the returning-war-hero plot what both the ODYSSEY and THE DEER HUNTER suggest is that the warrior must first learn to leave behind the killing ways of war before he can once again become the domestic lover. In the ODYSSEY this more personal ‘journey’ is subtly shown in the way the story is shaped. In the ODYSSEY every episode has its counter episode. For example, the barbarian of war who begins his journey by looting ironically ends his journey by fighting looters in his own home. The man who foolishly steals from his host in the cave of the Cyclops must learn to pay the cost and suffer the consequences but the man who wisely treats the hosts of Phaeacia with respect is rewarded with ships home. Homer’s audience would have understood these parallels and resonances in a way modern audiences and readers sometimes find difficult. In STEVE NALLON’S BIG ODYSSEY, these ideas are introduced mainly through the observations of the characters in the drama but occasionally also through the narration.
Both Homer’s epic poems the ODYSSEY and the ILIAD are stories concerning war and as long as war exists these stories will have a contemporary relevance. The ILIAD is concerned with individual human strife within the context of the ongoing Trojan War (Ilium is another word for Troy). The story climaxes with the reconciliation of two men on opposite sides sharing grief. The war itself does not end but the individual strife is brought to a conclusion. The ODYSSEY is also concerned with war but its story concentrates on the after effects of war and the consequences of war on those who are left behind at home. When looking at the after effects of war it should be understood that the ODYSSEY is working at a metaphorical level. What it is saying in the most basic terms is that if you go to war, do not expect your return to domestic life to be easy. In the story of the magical journey, the ODYSSEY is pointing out the huge difficulties there are to be faced by the returning soldier before readjusting to ordinary life after the experience of war. The psychological phrase that modern military psychologists use to express what Homer metaphorically suggests in Odysseus’s ten year long journey is the need for the returning soldier to “emotionally decompress”. Just as the sea diver needs time to adjust from the compression of the ocean to that of the atmosphere there is now an understanding that soldiers need time to slowly change their emotional state of mind from war to civilian life. At the end of most wars right up to the present day soldiers are often simply told to “go home, get drunk and forget about it”. However, soldiers of modern wars who had seen their comrades die in their arms discovered they could not forget about it on their return home. Alcoholic oblivion was not a solution and merely added to the problems rather than solved them. The result for many soldiers was clinical depression. The technical medical term now used for this illness is Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD. The film JACOB’S LADDER explores this state of mind at a semi-fantastical level. Even if the soldier does not suffer from PTSD he is still a victim of war because his old world will have moved on and he will find he no longer belongs or fits into that new society. TAXI DRIVER is the most well known example of this situation in modern cinema though the post-World War Two movie THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES also deserves a special mention. The ODYSSEY, at least in part, is a warning from ancient times that any war will necessitate a major readjustment on the part of the soldier if he is to once again rejoin society. Of course Homer does this in a metaphorical rather than a literal manner but nevertheless the modern relevance is clearly present in the heart of the story. Another aspect of any conflict is the domestic consequence of leaving one’s family behind when one goes to war. While he is at war, Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, is courted by other men but she is steadfast in her devotion. This was not the case for all wives of Greek soldiers. Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon, not only took a lover but on Agamemnon’s the first day back from Troy she killed her husband. His immediate return ironically proved far less wise than did Odysseus’s ten return journey home. War results not only in Odysseus losing contact with his wife but also in Odysseus saying goodbye to his baby son, Telemachus. As he grows up, Telemachus is forced to discover his father second hand through the reminiscences of others. Unlike Agamemnon and his son Orestes (who kills his own mother as a result of her murdering Agamemnon) Odysseus and Telemachus are eventually reunited. However, the reuniting is not easily achieved. In the ODYSSEY, Odysseus does not know his son on his return nor does the son know him. To Telemachus Odysseus is a father he has heard much about but has never actually known. There must have been many men who returned home after six years of war in the 1940s who had similar experiences with their own sons. A further modern relevance concerns the accepting of refugees into the community. The obligation of host to the traveller is strong feature of the ODYSSEY. The next step up from inviting the stranger-traveller into your community is accepting the stranger-refugee (supplication became one of the major themes explored in the dramas of the Classical period). Odysseus never claims the rights of a supplicant. However, he is a refugee of fate and, although a victor in war, his situation reflects many a modern-day political migrant.
The stories of the modern world and the way the modern world presents its stories differ greatly from the Homeric approach. We now live in a culture where the ‘story world’, meaning simply the stories we see and experience across most media, is dominated by realism and literalness. The stories we see on television, film and even at the theatre are, on the whole, real and literal. Realism in story telling is found both in the story itself and in the telling of the story. First, the story told is usually real in that there is a clear understanding that the events portrayed can and do happen, they may be fiction but they appear factual. The story may even be based on real historical events that are known to have taken place. The dominant rule for stories such as these is that the ‘story world’ must be credible, possible, believable and appear factual. Second, the way the story is presented, meaning simply the way it looks and sounds, is as close to what is real and actual as can be achieved. The acting is naturalistic, the locations or sets are authentic and the costumes are accurately recreated. All energies are geared towards verisimilitude. The move in the direction of realism can be traced to the emergence of cinema (especially the development of sound and “the talkies”). There was also an influence from the theatre, especially in the work of Stanislavski and Chekhov. Of course there are notable exceptions but the basic point is that all media that present stories to the modern world are dominated by factual realism both in content and presentation. This has lead naturally enough to a literalness in the approach of those who experience the ‘story world’. What this means in practice is that audiences see and understand the meaning of the story only at its surface level. All that is required for full comprehension are the facts. Because a story is factually real, or at least appears factually real, there is no need to delve into its hidden meanings since there are no hidden meanings. All this of course sounds very sweeping. It is without doubt a very simplistic summary, which ignores more complex stories and the many ways of telling a story. However, since there are people whose main criticism of HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE was that it wasn’t very good because “none of what happened could happen in real life”, it is fair to say that realism has had a strong and not always positive influence on modern audiences. People who responded to HARRY POTTER movies in this way may well be few in number but the basic point is that the context within which we as a contemporary audience experience the ‘story world’ is totally different from that of Homer because Homer’s ‘story world’ had little understanding of either factual realism or literalness at a surface level. Yes, Homer’s audience may well have believed in the gods and, yes, they may well have also believed in giant monsters. However, the point is that they would have regarded the magical journey as truthful mainly because the journey has a truth to tell. Whether they regarded it as wholly factually correct in the way we see the opening of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN as the accurate recreation of a factual event is disputable. Facts and historical accuracy are modern obsession, they are not the stuff of Homer’s ‘story world’. It is also worth pointing out that the way the ODYSSEY presents its images is not thorough clinical factual descriptions but by means of extended epic similes that use one thing to suggest another. All this leads to a far more important point and that is the ability of ancient audiences to approach stories from a non-literal level. The ancients’ approach to story was to ask what lay behind the surface events and what point was Homer trying to make? It isn’t so much that we today are unable to do this, it is just that because the dominant nature of our ‘story world’ is factual realism we are less adept at approaching stories at a non-literal level.
A dictionary definition of a ‘myth’ would probably state something along the lines that “a myth is a narrative set long ago concerning supernatural beings or the intervention of supernatural beings in human life that was accepted as a true explanation by an early society of the creation of natural phenomena and or the development of the customs of that society.” This definition gives myth quite a large berth. One can see how it could include the Genesis Creation Myth, the British King Arthur legend of chivalry, the Babylonian Gilgamesh quest for immortality and, of course, Homer’s ODYSSEY. However, such a cold definition of myth doesn’t really tell us why the ODYSSEY is mythic. Instead then of trying to define what is a myth, let’s look at what makes a story mythic. The first point to make concerns the nature of the dramatic conflict within any story. Dramatic conflict can be internal conflict with one’s own mind and body, personal conflict with other people and external conflict with the environment. All three are present in most ordinary stories but there is one area of conflict that is essential to the mythic nature of the ODYSSEY that hasn’t been listed and that is conflict with the cosmic forces of destiny. The acceptance of a cosmic force that has purpose and design is the key starting point to understanding the mythic nature of Greek drama and poetry. The Greek myths, then, are mythic because they are concerned with the forces of destiny. (‘Ananke’ is a Greek word that is best translated as the “design of fate”.In Greek culture, ‘ananke’ was a greater power than even the gods.) In the ODYSSEY, Odysseus accepts his fate but that does not make him a passive character because as well as accepting his fate he must fulfill it with his own actions. Another way of looking at the mythic quality of a story is to see how the tale presents truth in an unreal fantastical form. What this means in practice is that in a mythic story universal conceptual values are made ‘flesh and blood’ within the form of a fantasy. Take STAR WARS as an example. The universal conceptual value at the heart of the STAR WARS trilogy (episodes four to six) is spiritual growth. On screen, this involves taking the farm boy Luke Skywalker and transforming him into a Jedi. In the ODYSSEY the conceptual value (or one of them) is that the Warrior must change and once again become the Lover before he can be accepted back into civilized society. The ODYSSEY, by creating an arduous and ten year-long journey home, shows how truly difficult such conceptual values can be when made real. It is possible that the conceptual value of a myth may not always be positive and the setting of the fantasy may not necessarily be “long ago, in a galaxy far away”. For example, PETER PAN has a very modern psychological idea as its conceptual value and that is the inability to move on from emotional distress, and this involves the creation of a boy who, by choice, “would not grow up.” PETER PAN was set in Edwardian England (at the time, of course, the “present day”) and is one of the few modern myths to take hold on our culture. So then, all mythic stories will have a conceptual value at their core even though it is presented within the form of a fantasy. What will dilute the mythic quality of a story however is the nature of its conceptual value. As soon as the conceptual value becomes trite, too specific, or even mundane, the power of the myth will diminish. Imagine a version of STAR WARS where the conceptual value is not spiritual growth but learning to like your adversary, an emerging sexual maturity or pursuance of greed. These might all well still work on their own terms but would WHEN JABBA MET SOLO, CARRIE IN SPACE or IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD GALAXY ever have the deep mythical quality found in STAR WARS? Related to this point is the degree of change that takes place or indeed doesn’t take place in the main character of the story. The transformation of a farm boy into a Jedi and the changing of the Warrior into the Lover are transitions of enormous degrees. The ‘negative change’ or refusal of Peter Pan to grow up gives a modern twist to its mythic quality. However, what is central to all three stories is an essential aspect of myth and that is the underlying rites of passage in the story. Rites of passage are concerned with the various stages of human growth and the passing from one state of human life to another. Many are marked with some sort of “rite”, for example the Bar Mitzvah, the marriage service, the degree ceremony or the sacrament of Confirmation. To see how all this connects with the mythic story we must go back to the three basic elements of dramatic conflict – inner, personal and environmental. Where the scale and nature of the dramatic conflict is concerned with a universal struggle, and where this conflict leads to a transformation from one state of human life to another, then the story could be said to be a ‘rite of passage’ tale at a mythical level. In STAR WARS the central universal struggle that stretches across the whole trilogy is the conflict of father and son. This conflict eventually leads to reconciliation, redemption and the father’s physical, though not spiritual, death. It is this aspect of the story as much as anything else that raises it to the level of myth. In the ODYSSEY one of the personal conflicts is not just with a witch, but with a witch that represents and personifies a universal struggle. For example both Calypso and Circe are manifestations of the struggle with our desires for sexual gratification that tempt one from the path of faithfulness and fidelity. Many of the characters of the ODYSSEY can be seen on this level. A problem arises in our present day story culture because we are not used to seeing or discovering for ourselves this level of meaning in the mythic story. We can see the literal mechanism of the story in terms of its events and characters but not the conceptual value that created it. Put another way, and from a slightly different point of view, to understand the allegorical nature of myth one must have the capacity to take a literal story and construct a conceptual value from it. On the rare occasions that this does happen the effect on the audience is tremendous. For example, the film THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION has a literal prison but what many people have done who have seen the movie is take that literal prison and construct from it the conceptual value of ‘entrapment’ and apply it to their own personal lives. Hence the film is described by many as “mythic”. However, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION is a rarity. What we have lost for the most part today is the capacity to construct mythical meaning either as creators of myth or as an audience for myth. The two go hand in hand. However, when a creator has a Homeric understanding of the nature and power of mythology and presents it to a hungry audience they will find there is still a need for such stories. As George Lucas will testify.
Story structure is concerned with the organisation of events in time and the revelation of important information by characters within the story and by the narrator to the audience. The ODYSSEY begins ‘in medias res’. This is simply a literary expression meaning that the story begins ‘in the midst of things’, a traditional approach with the epic form. What this means in practice two things. First, the story starts off in the middle of activity, specifically the argument on Mount Olympus regarding the future of Odysseus. Second, a great deal has already happened in the history of the characters. The movie STAR WARS famously begins with a spaceship being chased by another spaceship. This is very much in keeping with this epic tradition of starting the story in the middle of activity or “in medias res”. It is clear straight away to the audience that much has already occurred in the history of the characters and this sets up an expectation that at some stage this ‘back story’ will be explained and revealed. However, even though much has already occurred in the history of Odysseus there is still a beginning to the main action in the ODYSSEY and that is the decision of Zeus to release Odysseus from his confinement on Calypso’s island. This inciting incident leads to the main action of the ODYSSEY and that is Odysseus’s return to Ithaca from Calypso’s island. On this specific final stage of his journey Odysseus arrives in the land of the Phaeacians. Here he eventually reveals his true identity to the King and Queen of Phaeacia and then relates the story of his adventures so that the ‘back story’ of Odysseus’s travels becomes an integral part of the poem’s construction. There is also a second major inciting incident in the ODYSSEY and that is the instruction of Athena in the guise of Mentor to Telemachus to go abroad in search of his father. The third story strand of the ODYSSEY is Penelope’s continuing struggle to keep the suitors at bay. This strand of the story is a continuing action and has no ‘beginning’ or ‘inciting incident’ within the strict boundaries of story structure of the ODYSSEY. However, after many years of being put off by Penelope the suitors have reached the end of their patience. They wish to set a date for the marriage of one of them to Penelope. By this stage Penelope has more or less run out of options and so agrees in principle to their demands but she has one last strategy to play: she says the suitors must wait until her son returns from his search before her final decision is taken. What this does in terms of the story structure is set a clock against the action of Odysseus’s return. Now consider an alternative structure to the poem. The ‘ODYSSEY’ begins with the Trojan War just ended. Odysseus sets off on his journey from Troy to Ithaca. He goes to one land. He has an adventure. He then goes to another land. He has another adventure. He then goes to yet another land and has yet another adventure (and remember there are at least seven more years before we even get to the suitors’ arrival at Odysseus’s home to pester Penelope). What Homer has done with his structuring of the plot is essentially take a ten year meandering story and make it sharp and focused. By having three story strands working in parallel he is also able to go from one crucial event in one location to another crucial event happening in another location and yet still keep the story in real time. In POETICS Aristotle cautions the tragic dramatist against this kind of structuring of events but there is no doubt that Homer’s techniques of parallel story strands and the ‘flashback’ have massively influenced storytellers not only in literature and the novel but also across all the media of dramatic performance.
Story shapes are related to story structure but they are more concerned with the direction and motion of the story line than with the arrangement of events in time or revelations of important information in the plot. Basically then, a story shape is the direction and motion of the story. The questions to ask are: Does the story move directly to its goal or does it meander aimlessly? Does it move quickly or does it sometimes seem to stand still and take stock? Does the line of the story sometimes veer off in an apparent digression? All these different outlines of the story path can create numerous story shapes. The most popular or most recognizable story shape is the ‘linear narrative’. Put simply this means the shape of the story is a single straight line of connecting events where the first event causes a second event and that event in turn causes another event until a final event takes place where whatever desire that was brought about by the initial event is achieved (this is what is meant by ‘unity of action’). The ‘linear narrative’ is characterized by a strong action drive on the part of an individual protagonist who will not stop or falter in his movement towards his goal. So what you get in the traditional linear narrative is a single track desire creating an over-riding action that propels the story quickly and directly from one event to the next. If it were to be drawn on paper this story shape would be a straight line. However, the ODYSSEY isn’t quite as simple as that. For one thing Odysseus doesn’t actually appear until book five. The first four books are taken up mainly with Telemachus’s search for Odysseus and also in part with Penelope’s attempt to stall the suitors. And when Odysseus does appear he is soon shipwrecked in the land of the Phaeacians. Here the ‘action of desire’ seems to stop completely. Yes, Odysseus requests conveyance home but what follows is a long section where Demodocus sings of a quarrel between Odysseus and Achilles. Then there are the games. Then another song. And then yet another song, this time concerning the Trojan horse. This leads to the revelation that the stranger is Odysseus and then there follows the long ‘flashback’ concerning Odysseus’s earlier adventures. Even within this flashback narration there is an episodic stop-start outline. The pattern or shape that is emerging is far from linear and far from a single line. What then to call it? First, it should be acknowledged there are three basic lines of action: Odysseus’s, Penelope’s and Telemachus’s. Its story shape is a convergence of lines that only meet towards the end of the story. If the story shape of these three story strands were flowing waters and you were to see them from above then they would look like three streams or tributaries coming together at the end of their separate journeys to eventually form a single river. The second point is the direction of each single line. Notably, the Odysseus ‘line’ stops and explores a particular happening instead of moving directly on to the next event. In effect the ‘line’ goes off track into a spiral shape, for example the games or the songs of Demodocus. Once it has explored that event to the full the line begins again. This may all sound as if this is a criticism of the poem but it is not. The problem is we are so used to the clear, direct single-track linear narrative that when first presented with an alternative and unusual story shape we may find it difficult at first to see its purpose. The purpose of such story shapes is certainly not to propel the action forward. However what these ‘spiral’ sections or so-called digressions do achieve is an added depth, richness and context to the story. For example, exploring all the levels of society in Phaeacia from its games to its poetry gives a tremendous depth of understanding of how a truly cultured and Utopian society can live. These sections of the story also offer variety and illuminate themes and ideas that are central to the meaning of the tale. They may appear to “slow things down” in the context of modern storytelling but what we are talking about here is an epic poem that probably took fifty or more hours to perform. The audience’s greatest concern was not the speed of the action or “cutting to the chase”. What is also interesting about many of these spirals is that they involve a storyteller telling his story, adding to the important overall theme of storytelling in the ODYSSEY. Another story shape used in the ODYSSEY can be seen when Odysseus tells his long flashback. Here, the seemingly directionless meander of the physical journey matches that of the psychological. Of course, if this was how the ODYSSEY unfolded from the start, it would indeed be a pointless meander. But, because this shape is told within the context of the final stage of Odysseus’s journey (where other events are known to be taking place) it works because Odysseus’s ultimate goal is always paramount and at the forefront of the audience’s mind.
The ancient Greeks always placed a far greater emphasis on the spoken word than on its written form. Even as late as the Classical period Plato was dismissive of the written word, essentially seeing it as a intermediary between the writer and the reader. However, at some stage in its creation the ODYSSEY was written down (a speculative theory even suggests that the Greek alphabet was created in order to write down the orally preserved poetry of Homer). There is evidence that a written version of the ODYSSEY existed as early as the sixth century BC. The first textual criticism of the ODYSSEY was probably carried out at the famous library at Alexandria in the third century BC and it seems that during this period the ODYSSEY was standardized and divided into the twenty-four ‘books’ that is the arrangement we still have today. This Alexandrian version was then copied onto papyrus rolls and in later times onto more durable parchment. However, only fragments of these manuscripts exist today. The oldest complete versions of the ODYSSEY that have survived are from the medieval period, though these seem likely to be based on the Alexandrian version.
The traditional hero in ancient times cares about glory, ceremony, achievement, honour and physical ability. Such heroes usually care passionately about what other people think of them and so if they fail in their task they are shamed (anthropologists and mythologists refer to this sort of world as a ‘Shame Culture’). The downfall for many of these types of heroes is Pride because when you are proud you become indifferent to shame and how others see you. Pride in ancient times is especially dangerous if you become indifferent to the gods and ignore their wishes and follow your own path. (The modern concept of pride in the achievements of others is not included in this context). Pride is one of Achilles’s main flaws in the ILIAD, his infamous sulk indicative of his supreme indifference to how others perceive him. The problem with the character of Odysseus though is that he doesn’t quite fit into this model of hero at all. He doesn’t seem to care much for glory, honour or ceremony and his physical abilities are rarely mentioned. And he certainly isn’t proud in the way Achilles is proud. If he has a flaw it is that he is accident prone and clumsy. And he speaks before he thinks. Another problem with Odysseus is that one can picture a hero such as Achilles – manly, physically beautiful, agile and perhaps with an facial expression betraying his intemperate nature – but how does anyone conjure up a picture of Odysseus? If one was making a movie about the Labours of Hercules or the journey of Jason and the Argonauts then Hercules would probably be played by a big burly guy and Jason by a dark olive-skinned romantic lead but no immediate image springs to mind in the casting of Odysseus. First of all this is because Odysseus spends so much of his time disguised as someone else. He is a human chameleon, an archetypal Shapeshifter. Second, Homer offers us few physical descriptions of Odysseus. Instead he tends to identify him in words that sum up his nature such as ‘wily’, ‘crafty’ or ‘cunning’. Of course creating a clever hero as opposed to a brave one is a major development in western storytelling for Odysseus is the first hero to win battles and overcome obstacles by using his intelligence rather than brute strength – the Trojan Horse, for example, was his idea. It is this aspect of Odysseus that Athena, goddess of wisdom, probably finds so attractive. But how do we picture or cast ‘clever’? And ‘cleverness’ and ‘craftiness’ leads on to another more important problem because the other side of the coin of calling someone ‘crafty’ is that what you are really doing is calling them a liar. Cunning and craftiness after all is only the sunny side of lying and downright dishonesty. There are many Hollywood action heroes such as Tom Cruise or Sylvester Stallone who would more than likely simply refuse to play Odysseus because he is a deceitful fraud who ultimately only cares about himself. So perhaps Odysseus isn’t really a hero at all but instead more an anti-hero. Again this makes him a very modern sort of hero. Perfect ‘Hollywood casting’ would be to combine the chameleon talents of Robin Williams, the sophisticated intelligence of James Mason and the deceitful traits so brilliantly portrayed in the acting of Kevin Spacey. Throw in a bit of Bugs Bunny for good measure, and then, and perhaps only then, would you have the perfect yet ever enigmatic Odysseus!
‘King’ is the usual translation of ‘basileus‘, the Greek word used by Homer in the ODYSSEY for ‘ruler of his community’ – ‘annax‘, another choice upon occasion, means simply ‘boss’ or ‘supervisor’. However, the social structure of the world of the ODYSSEY was probably not at a state or even city-state (‘polis’) level. ‘King’ therefore, although used by most translators, isn’t quite the right description for the role Odysseus performed within his community. A better word might perhaps be ‘Lord’, ‘Chieftain’ or even ‘Thane’, drawing on a natural and more appropriate comparison with the social structure found in the world of Shakespeare’s MACBETH. King Odysseus was probably not a ruler in our modern sense of the word but more an overseer of land and the workers of the land. And so if two Kings were to meet at the time of Odysseus it is more likely that they discussed the best way to maintain a disease free vineyard or the comparative attributes of their cheese makers rather than whether to sign a treaty of non-aggression or the changing nature of sovereignty.
When Agamemnon came home from the Trojan War within hours he was dead at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra who, during her husband’s absence, had taken a lover. In the Greek world Clytemnestra became a byword for murderous and treacherous adultery. Penelope, wife of Odysseus, is at the other end of the spectrum. Her name became synonymous with fidelity and steadfast love. We also see in considerable detail Penelope coping with the problems of war from the point of view of those who are left behind. She is not just a passive figure waiting at home for her husband to come home from doing the manly actions of conflict but a real person suffering the hardships of war on the domestic front. Homer draws her as an intelligent woman who is cautiously diplomatic in her dealings with the suitors who wish to marry her and take the place of Odysseus. And Penelope proves herself to very clever and tactful in putting off the suitors without alienating them to take over her household by force. In some ways she has all the intelligence of her husband plus the wisdom and thoughtfulness he lacks. An obvious parallel in English history is Elizabeth the First who had to survive in a man’s world without a husband and yet always proved herself capable of dealing with those who wanted to use her for their own advancement.
Anthropologists have loosely classified human social development into five basic categories: the Wilderness, the Village, the Town, the City and the Oppressive City. The social world of Odysseus is somewhere between the Village and the Town. In terms of a time period the Village development is usually in parallel with the ‘Bronze Age’, roughly 2000 – 1000 BC. Another way of expressing this cycle in history and one that is more appropriate to the world of the ODYSSEY is to describe it as the ‘Heroic Age’. Culturally what holds this world together is kinship and bonding through the giving of gifts (gift-giving is an essential feature of the ODYSSEY, kinship, an important element of the ILIAD). Ideas and attributes often associated with the ‘Heroic Age’ are glory, physical ability, doing well, honour, unspoken emotion, strength, ceremony and remembrance of past heroes. However, there is also a hint of the modern man in Odysseus because he also has to learn the values of reliability, working together, doing right and faithfulness, all of which are features of the Town culture development.
In ancient times strangers from outside one’s immediate community had to be welcomed into the homes of the host people. This was the law of Zeus. To borrow a phrase from STAR TREK, our more modern epic journey of sorts, one might even say that the welcoming of strangers was the ‘Prime Directive’ of Zeus (strangers could include both travellers and refugees). The relationship between the stranger-traveller and the friend-host was essentially one of trust but it is important to note that it was founded on divine law. And those who broke divine law would be punished. This ‘Prime Directive’ was first and foremost a practical issue. For people moving from place to place in ancient times there had to be a social and religious custom that guaranteed their safety and welcome. The welcoming community also needed guarantees that the guest would not behave badly towards the host. The guest therefore was equally obliged to the host and had to show the proper respect. When looking at the ODYSSEY one sees that this rule is rarely kept. At the beginning of his journey Odysseus is thinking not as a guest but as if he is still at war: ‘I am a warrior so I can do anything and if that means enjoying a bit of piracy and looting then because I can, I will. Might is right’. However, as a result of this behaviour the gods send him off course and there then follows a series of adventures where hospitality is the main theme (for example, the episodes with Cyclops and Circe). Food, including being eaten and being turned into pigs following a meal, is often a main element of these stories. In the adventure with the Cyclops, Odysseus foolishly eats the food of his host without permission and in the tale of Circe his crewman accept her food without due consideration of the possible consequences. Both stories illustrate the modern phrase that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Apart from the practical aspects of the stranger travelling abroad the complex relationship between guest and host is also concerned with the cementing of ties between different peoples. To what extent the guest-host relationship reflected the political ties between city states in either Homer’s time or at the time of the Trojan War is much disputed. However, what can be said is that from this special bond of guest-host eventually grew a complex political social system that eventually led to obligations on the part of both guest and host that went beyond just offering shelter and food.
Gift giving is closely linked to the special relationship of guest and host. It was part of the process that established certain responsibilities and obligations between interdependent parties. In political terms it prevented wars and cemented allegiances. In the ODYSSEY it is seen as part and parcel of how the civilized world then operated. Apart from those working in diplomatic circles today it is perhaps difficult for most people to understand the importance of the gift giving tradition as presented in the ODYSSEY. Also, as with much in the ODYSSEY, it is not certain exactly how much the procedure that is described in the poem actually reflected real behaviour and events. It is possible to see the convention of gift giving as more of a metaphorical portrayal of the need for ties that bind rather than as a factual description of specific actions. Further, it is also difficult to say whether or not it was a tradition that originated at the time of Odysseus or reflected instead Homer’s contemporary world. However, whatever the case, the gift giving in the ODYSSEY clearly stresses the importance of building trust and confidence between peoples of different cultures and backgrounds. From this point of view it has much to offer the modern world.
Today we see the Greek gods as manifestations of different aspects of the human character. Psychologists and anthropologists look upon the ‘gods’ as exaggerated personifications of specific areas of the human psyche. The gods are simply conceptual ideas such as ‘the need to find wisdom’, human urges such as ‘the desire for sex’ or external environmental forces such as the ‘the energy of the wind’ simply made incarnate in exaggerated human and animal form. However, for the Greeks the gods were not metaphors, they were very real. They were an integral part of everyday life. The Greeks believed in the gods and feared them for their superior power. Human motivation, insight, sexual appetite, aggression could all be put down to the inspiration of the gods. The gods were thought to work mainly through dreams, prophecies, oracles and omens, but for them to come down from Mount Olympus and take human form would not be considered surprising. The Greeks were quite happy to accept that this sort of interference from the gods happened on a day to day basis. Deities, though usually visible when in human form, could make themselves invisible if they so wished. However, although powerful, they were not all-powerful. Because they were so many, conflicts with each other often arose. In the ODYSSEY, Athena can help Odysseus, but she cannot just magic him back to Ithaca because Poseidon, her uncle, has vowed to hinder Odysseus’s return. In fact, ‘magic’ is rarely used in the ODYSSEY, an obvious exception being the flower given by Hermes to Odysseus to protect him from the enchantress Circe. However much the gods inspire the humans in the story of the ODYSSEY they do not dominate the narrative. In no sense do they robotically control humans, preferring to leave them to find their own destinies.
In appearance Athena is more majestic that beautiful. She is the virgin goddess of Wisdom who is also more than capable of holding her own in battle (she is usually portrayed wearing a helmet). Her main function in the ODYSSEY is as a guide to Odysseus, occasionally offering him wise inspiration. Her motivation in doing this is simply that she finds Odysseus very attractive. One might almost say it is a schoolgirl crush. Athena is sometimes more than just a guide to Odysseus and as the episode of his arrival in the land of the Phaeacians illustrates she occasionally actively changes the circumstances to benefit her favourite. If Odysseus is a wiser man at the end of the tale than he was at the beginning then his spiritual and character growth is down to Athena. The goddess has a lesser role to play towards Telemachus but in some ways her function here is seen in a more direct way because she takes the form of a character called Mentor (giving us our most common word for teacher and spiritual instructor) and instructs Telemachus to go in search of his father. In STEVE NALLON’S BIG ODYSSEY, the show draws a parallel between this scene and the many scenes in the STAR WARS trilogy where the mentors Obi Won Kenobi and Yoda advise their tutee and protégé Luke Skywalker.
The simple difference between the epic poem and the drama is that the first is narrated and the second is acted out in front of an audience. Aristotle’s POETICS is concerned primarily with the distinction between these two story forms (these were the main performance-based narrative forms known to the Greeks in ancient times though there were strolling players who probably performed puppet shows for children). Both the epic form and the dramatic form (tragedy) needed music and although dance was an essential part of the tragic play in theatre performance dance was an optional extra in the presentation of the epic poem. Aristotle in his famous POETICS discussed the relative merits of each form and came down on the side of drama because of its immediacy. Drama or more specifically the performance of tragedy, he argued, was not mediated by a narrator and therefore was the superior medium or form of presentation. However, what we do not know is exactly how either was actually presented and performed. It could be that the bard when singing in character speech perhaps ‘acted’ his part more than we might give him credit for and it could be that the actor in his dramatic performance in the theatre ‘recited’ his lines in a more dispassionate way than we might think. If so, then we could have a blurring of the two styles of performance where the epic poet or ‘reciter’ acts, and the ‘dramatic actor’ recites. The truth is, very little about the style of performance of either the poet or the actor is known for certain. And style when applied to performance is always very difficult to pin down to mere words. Just consider what the nineteenth century melodrama style considered to be ‘real’ compared to the ‘real’ method acting of contemporary cinema. In both Homer’s epic ODYSSEY and Sophocles’s tragedy PHILOCTETES Odysseus is a character who disguises himself. Would the bard and the actor have changed their voice in the same way to represent this deception? This question is almost impossible to answer with certainty and even if we make the assumption that the actor changed his voice more than the bard did we will never know the degree of difference. What can be said is that by the very nature of STEVE NALLON’S BIG ODYSSEY there is far more distinctive characterisation and acting in this version for it to be considered totally within the traditional style of the Homeric bard yet there is too much narration for it to be thought of as a play. So whether STEVE NALLON’S BIG ODYSSEY is a dramatised epic or a narrated play is an interesting question but the answer lies not in classifying it as one or the other but in recognising that since the days of Aristotle the boundaries of form have become less rigid and compartmentalised than they were two and half thousand years ago.
The ODYSSEY is a series of stories within one big story. In the ODYSSEY many characters tell the story of their life within the bigger picture of the main structure of the story. These are not mere digressions to fill out the epic but instead part of the integral concept and meaning of the ODYSSEY. It is as if the epic is saying, ‘In order to understand your story you must first tell it.’ After listening to Odysseus’s story the Queen in STEVE NALLON’S BIG ODYSSEY states this idea in a very simple and direct way when she says, “It is in the telling of the tale that we see its message.” The actual ‘Odyssey’ of Odysseus led to failure but once he had completed the telling of his tale he is then able to move on at last to his home. This is very much a personal view of the ODYSSEY but this way of seeing Homer’s tale is clearly present in the structure of Homer’s original. Theatrically what the audience are seeing in STEVE NALLON’S BIG ODYSSEY is the storyteller telling a story, the ODYSSEY, about a storyteller, Odysseus, who within this story tells the story of his own journey or ‘Odyssey’. The structure of the story-within-the-story and the-storyteller-within-the-storyteller are both central to understanding a main theme of the ODYSSEY and that is the need for all of us to tell our story to truly understand its meaning. A modern reading of the ODYSSEY might even go as far as to suggest that it is an early version of ‘narrative therapy’. In this sort of therapy the teller tells the story of their life and they are encouraged to see the positive rather than the negative aspects of the life story. This idea is developed in STEVE NALLON’S BIG ODYSSEY when the Queen sees Odysseus’s continuing love for his wife Penelope. Despite his failings, she suggests, his love has always been constant. Perhaps a more romantic and certainly a less fashionable way of seeing the storytelling theme in the ODYSSEY is to think of it as simply a chain in the DNA of human kind. Just as human beings need DNA to pass on genetic material from one generation to the next, so too does a story need to pass on its codes. Perhaps then we should see storytelling as the DNA of human kind. ‘Story DNA’ passed down through the centuries contains all the themes, ideas and warnings that human beings need to live their lives.
Disguise is part and parcel of Odysseus’s guile. We may not always respect and admire such behaviour today but for the ancient Greeks cunning was an attribute to be celebrated. As I’ve said, Odysseus is a human chameleon and an archetypal Shapeshifter. He is one of the first of such archetypes in literature and drama and many more were to follow in his footsteps, ranging from Hamlet and Sherlock Holmes to Sergeant Bilko and Bugs Bunny to name only a few. During the Trojan War, Odysseus becomes a spy and poses as a beggar to enter the city, a prefigurement of what he must do once again to take over his household at the end of the story. The disguises of Odysseus are therefore sometimes needed as a strategy within the plot. On his return home it would be far too dangerous to simply announce his arrival. And not only does his beggarly disguise form part of his plan to defeat the suitors it also acts as a way of testing the loyalty of members of his household. Most important of all though is the dramatic irony that is created in this situation in that only by Odysseus becoming a beggar in his own home can he once more be King in his own home. The poet has a major advantage too with a character in disguise: it gives him a chance to compose a recognition scene, and such scenes were very popular with Greek audiences. One of the most famous is the episode where Argos, Odysseus’s aged dog, recognizes his master and then dies. Another aspect of Odysseus’s disguises is the tales he tells once he is ‘someone else’. These tales are more often than not total fabrications. Odysseus is the first ‘unreliable narrator’ in the history of storytelling. This story teller character recurs occasionally in the world of the story and he was brought up to date in the role Kevin Spacey played in THE USUAL SUSPECTS. But one of the problems of having an unreliable narrator as your hero is how does one know when they’ve stopped lying? One way of seeing the ODYSSEY, or at least the story Odysseus tells the King and Queen, is that it is all a complete fabrication. He makes it up merely to gain sympathy and the ships he needs to get home. He may even believe the truth of his own lies. Perhaps though this reading is too cynical and Pirandellian even for a modern audience.
There is a tradition that Homer was blind. This is mainly based on the belief that the character of Demodocus, the blind singer of songs in the Phaeacian section of the ODYSSEY, is Homer making an ironic reference to himself. There is certainly evidence to suggest that many bards or singing poets in ancient times were blind but here tradition in saying that Homer was blind is being perhaps a little romantic in its thinking. The truth is there are no real hard facts about Homer the man. Indeed there is much academic dispute about whether or not one man composed both the ODYSSEY and the ILIAD. Also perhaps we should distinguish between ‘author’ and ‘writer’ for many bards might not have been able to even read and write (this is certainly the tradition among modern Slavonic bards who are the nearest contemporary figures to the ancient bards). And because the composition of the poems is within an organic oral tradition many now think that both poems had numerous ‘composers’ or ‘authors’ because as the poems were passed down from one generation to the next, additional hands might have added to the oral composition and perhaps even to the written text. There is also a modern belief that because so many of the female characters in the ODYSSEY are so sympathetically presented, Homer was, in fact, a woman. That said, the Greeks of the Classical period certainly thought of and wrote of ‘Homer’ as if he were one single person. And since we have no other name it seems only fair to continue to call ‘him’ (or ‘her’) Homer.
One tradition is that Homer came from the island Chios (now Khios), one of the Aegean islands off the western coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). It should also be said that many islands and cities claim Homer as their own but because both the ILIAD and the ODYSSEY use a form of language that combines or blends Ionic and Aeolic dialects it is likely that Homer did originally come from this area of Asia Minor. Exactly when his works were brought to mainland Greece is another area of conjecture though sometime before or during the sixth century BC seems to be the accepted ‘guestimate’.
Homer’s influence on all the arts is simply inestimable. That Matt Groening chose the name Homer as the name of the head of the family in THE SIMPSONS is indicative of the place that Homer has in the world of the storyteller no matter what the generation, or who the intended audience. Groening’s further debt to the ancient Homer can even seen in the title of the third episode of series one of THE SIMPSONS , “Homer’s Odyssey”. Homer, as represented in THE SIMPSONS, is now a name synonymous with the eating of comfort food – and in a very self-referential piece of casting of Homer’s ODYSSEY there is ‘Homer Simpson’ as the Cyclops, the one-eyed monster who eats several of Odysseus’s crewmen. Perhaps the most important influence Homer had on the storyteller is a belief in the ability of ‘Story’ to carry meaning and ideas beyond its basic narrative. Although the ODYSSEY and the ILIAD are great yarns they are also something more than just stories. They are ways of seeing and experiencing the complex world of human desires and human contradictions. They cover all areas of human life whether it is religion and philosophy or comedy and pathos. The characters of the poems with their desires and their sufferings are as real now as they ever were. By telling a fantastical story that was never anything but truthful in its nature, Homer set a standard for all time.
Nearly every literary and storytelling device imaginable can be found in the ODYSSEY: the flashback (Odysseus’s tale of his adventures to the King and Queen of Phaeacia); the foreshadowing of future events (the prediction of the death of the suitors); the descriptive motif or epithet (the seemingly ever present phrases such as “the goddess with the flashing eyes” to describe Athena or the daily appearance of “dawn in her rosy majesty”); the unreliable narrator (the numerous false stories told by Odysseus such as his claim to Eumaeus to be the son of a wealthy Cretan); the use of dramatic irony (the structure of the story that suggests the King must first become a beggar to once more rule in his own house) and the epic simile (the numerous extended comparisons such as the description of Odysseus clinging to a rock at sea “Strips of skin are torn from those fingers as thick as the fractured pieces of stone that squid rip from rock when they are severed from their lair”) – in fact every known trick of the writer’s trade can be found in the ODYSSEY.
The Deuteronomistic Historian was the writer of many of the historical books of the Old Testament such as SAMUEL and KINGS. In these books is not uncommon to see phrases such as “David did what was right in the eyes of the LORD” or “David did what was wrong in the eyes of the LORD”. Such a style of narrative commentary is often called the intrusive narrator. On the whole Homer is not in this category. Rarely does Homer the storyteller make himself or his views known in the narrative. Unlike the Deuteronomistic Historian, Homer is not an intrusive narrator forever passing on his moral comment or judgement. A notable and endearing exception is Homer’s attitude to Eumaeus. Clearly Homer so liked the character of the swineherd he speaks to him in the narrative instead of about him – “And you, Eumaeus, prince among swineherd replied to Odysseus saying, ‘Stranger, it is the law of Zeus not to turn away strangers and beggars.'” In STEVE NALLON’S BIG ODYSSEY as a general rule there is not too much commenting on the action but occasionally some help is offered to the modern audience in order to guide them through the ideas and themes of the story that perhaps a Greek audience would have taken for granted.
To answer this question depends on what one means by ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’. A modern reader would likely classify any real war that took place between Greeks and Trojans as ‘fact’, whereas the interference of the gods in the outcome of the war is ‘fiction’. But the problem is Homer makes no such distinction. And nor did his audience. The problem we have is that we live in a modern world where everything we experience is explainable, factual or literal. We are no longer used to interpreting the world metaphorically, and this ‘literalness’ also stretches to the stories we tell. But consider the literalness of the ‘real’ war as it is presented in Homer. A married woman runs away to a foreign country with a man she has only just met, and the known world sets off in hundreds of ships and spends the next ten years fighting for her return. The horrendous complications of this man’s involvement with the woman is ultimately a result of an angry goddess’s tantrum when she wasn’t invited to a wedding. To question whether the war is real from this perspective though equally misses the point. Homer in telling this tale is surely a poet concerned with the power and bonds of kinship in times of trouble, rather than a CNN war correspondent. If there was a conflict between peoples it was more likely to be in a vein similar to Odysseus’s looting of the Ciconian people as described in book nine. An obsessional search for factual reality will, as sure as night follows day, take one away from the story and its meaning. The ODYSSEY meant something to its audience in ancient times, it influenced the writers of the Classical period such as Aristotle and the Greek dramatists and it still has resonance today because its themes are universal and not because it is an eye witness account of a war. Another problem when asking ‘Was there an actual war?’ is that there is no concrete evidence outside the myth tradition that a war or rather a siege ever took place in Troy. Oddly enough there is now geological evidence that a flood of some kind took place in Mesopotamia, backing up the story of Noah and his ark and the flood myths of the Babylonians, but nothing of real evidence has emerged from outside sources to prove the factual reality of a ‘Trojan War’. Digging up such ancient ruins in the 19th century, Heinrich Schliemann made the famous remark, having kissed the death mask he had dug up, “I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon”. This excitement turned out to be rather fanciful. If something similar were to happen today, it would be the equivalent of a modern archaeologist digging up an ancient burial ground near Dover, and claiming to have found King Lear. But, that said, a boar’s tusk helmet described in book ten of the ILIAD has been found at a number of sites and a bronze arrow head was discovered in an archeological dig at a location considered by many to be ‘Troy’. However, such evidence says only that people wore helmets and fired arrows, not that a war lasting ten years over a woman’s infidelity actually took place.
As with the ‘reality’ of the Trojan War there is much controversy about how real is the geography of Odysseus’s travels in the ODYSSEY. Many scholars have tried to plot Odysseus’s journey from ‘Troy’ to the island of Ithaca on a modern map. For example, in book five of the ODYSSEY Calypso tells Odysseus to watch the skies and keep a wary eye on Orion making sure it is always to his left. Navigationally this means that to travel home to Ithaca Odysseus must have travelled east. Calypso’s island has therefore been identified as one of the Maltese islands. The Goat Islands off the east coast of Sicily have been suggested as the home of the Cyclops (as has Sicily itself). Locals will even tell you that the rocks of Formica, Porcelli and Asinelli are all that remain of the ‘giant boulders’ that the Cyclops threw at Odysseus as he escaped to sea. The volcanic islands of Lipari just off the ‘foot’ of Italy are thought by many to be the ‘crashing rocks’ and the island of Corcyra (modern Corfu) off the north western coast of Greece has for many years been identified as the land of the Phaeacians. Much of this though is guess work, wishful thinking or, indeed, accurate, but again, as with the literalness of the Trojan War, the modern obsession with factual events ignores and misses the true journey of the ODYSSEY – that within Odysseus himself.
Achilles -The greatest hero of the Greeks at Troy. Odysseus meets Achilles, who was killed by an unnamed soldier at Troy, in the Underworld. Achilles observes in one of the famous quotations from the ODYSSEY that despite having a hero’s death on the battlefield he would rather be a slave on earth than rule over the breathless dead in Hades. A popular and well-known story is that the heel of Achilles was his only vulnerable spot and this area of exposure led to his demise. This tradition had it that his mother Thetis bathed the baby Achilles in the Styx, the river of Hell, whose waters had the power to make those who washed in them invulnerable. Needing something to hold on to, she held the infant by his heel and so the waters never touched and protected this area of his body. As a result of this oversight when he was at Troy an arrow shot by Paris was supposedly guided by the god Apollo into the heel of Achilles, thus causing the ‘invulnerable’ Achilles to die. However, this particular story is not in Homer and originates at a much later date.
Aeolus – Keeper of the winds who gives Odysseus control of three winds leaving only the west wind to help him return directly home. However Odysseus is careless with this gift and Aeolus is saddened to discover the gift is squandered at the last moment.
Agamemnon – Commander of the Greek forces at Troy. Although he survived the War he did not live long on his arrival back on Greek soil because on his return he was brutally slaughtered by his wife Clytemnestra who had taken a lover, Aegisthus, in her husband’s absence. Agamemnon makes an interesting comparison to Odysseus. His return from war is quick, perhaps too quick (in the play AGAMEMNON by Aeschylus no sooner has the war ended than Agamemnon is suddenly standing once again on his own doorstep). On his arrival home he insists on bringing into his household the spoils of war, namely his concubine Cassandra. His actions contrast with one of the main ideas of the ODYSSEY, that the journey from warrior to lover should be long and hard and involve leaving behind all that war represents before or upon one’s return to civilization.
Anticleia – Mother of Odysseus who, unknown to Odysseus, has died and gone to the Underworld whilst he has been on his long journey. Odysseus’s encounter with his mother in the Underworld is one of the most moving sections of the ODYSSEY.
Athena – Goddess of Wisdom and Battle. She is Odysseus’s protector and Telemachus’s ‘Mentor’. Her motivation in helping Odysseus is never really made clear, the gods are in any case usually somewhat arbitrary in their nature. However, many see Athena, a virgin goddess, as having a sort of crush on her ‘favourite’.
Calypso – A sex starved nymph who imprisons Odysseus and takes him as her lover. Although Calypso offers Odysseus immortality Odysseus chooses instead to risk a dangerous voyage home to his mortal wife Penelope.
Circe – An archetypal femme fatal who entices Odysseus’s men into her lair with food and wine only to turn them into pigs for her own amusement — proving there is no such thing as a free lunch.
Cyclops – The one-eyed monster who eats several of Odysseus’s crew but is later blinded by Odysseus. His world and culture is one of isolation, cut off from his fellow creatures. The dangers of this way of living are demonstrated when his cry for help as he is blinded is ignored by the other Cyclops. His call though to his father, the god Poseidon, to bring vengeance on Odysseus adds to our hero’s troubles getting home.
Eumaeus – The loyal pig farmer. Uniquely Homer, when describing Eumaeus, speaks to him directly, rather than about him.
Eurycleia – The aged nurse to both Odysseus and Telemachus. As Eurycleia bathes the disguised Odysseus on his return home she recognizes the scar on his foot. This ‘recognition scene’ is famously discussed in Aristotle’s POETICS.
Hermes – Messenger of the gods. Hermes is the herald who announces to Calypso the decision of Zeus to release Odysseus. Hermes also returns to advise Odysseus how to resist Circe’s powers.
Ino – The friendly sea creature who points Odysseus to the land of the Phaeacians.
Mentor – Mentor is the aged protector of Odysseus’s property in his absence. He is also ‘mentor’ and guide to Telemachus, though here his identity is more often than not assumed by Athena.
Nestor – Nestor is the wise counsellor of the Trojan War. Telemachus visits Nestor in his search to find Odysseus and discovers more about the character of his father.
Odysseus – The hero of the tale. Although his journey to Ithaca is cursed by the gods, with the helping hand of Athena and his own cunning he eventually makes it to his home. Odysseus is a man of contradiction. He is a liar and yet faithful, sometimes a boastful fool and at others a clever strategist. He is, as the opening words of the ODYSSEY make clear, the Everyman-Hero.
Penelope – Wife of Odysseus. Penelope is steadfast and faithful in her love for her husband Odysseus but she is no empty headed girl waiting for the return of her prince. She is shrewd and clever in her own right as she demonstrates so often in her dealings with the suitors.
The Phaeacians – The people of Phaeacia are the most hospitable and cultured in the ODYSSEY. They know only of war through poetry and combat through sport. Their way of living is a utopian existence that many in the twenty-first century would envy.
Poseidon – God of the sea. Poseidon seeks revenge on Odysseus for the blinding of his son Cyclops. Athena noticeably keeps out of the way when Poseidon is on the scene.
Scylla – The six headed monster who eats six of Odysseus’s men.
The Suitors – The suitors are the group of men who have arrived at Odysseus’s home in Ithaca with the intention of marrying Penelope and taking over Odysseus’s household and land. Until Penelope chooses one of their number they say they will remain within her household eating and drinking the supplies. The group is usually referred to en masse but a few are individually identified. All the suitors are slaughtered by Odysseus and Telemachus, even the ones who behaved relatively courteously towards Penelope.
Telemachus – Son of Odysseus. Odysseus left for war when Telemachus was born and so Telemachus has never known his father. However, in his search Telemachus learns much about the ways of his Odysseus and when they are reunited in Ithaca both act together to kill the suitors. In many ways the clearest character growth comes from Telemachus who begins the ODYSSEY on the brink of maturity and ends the ODYSSEY as an authoritative character.
Zeus – God of gods. Zeus’s ‘Prime Directive’ (to borrow from STAR TREK) is that mortals must offer the traveller and the stranger such as Odysseus shelter and welcome in their homes and in return the traveller must show respect to the host. Much of the ‘ODYSSEY’ of Odysseus is spent learning this lesson. At the beginning of the story Zeus’s decision to release Odysseus from imprisonment on Calypso’s island that is the inciting incident of the ODYSSEY.
Ed Curtis – Director
Ed Curtis graduated from the University of Birmingham with a First Class BA Hons in Drama and Theatre Arts and is now an established theatre director and writer. With co-writer Guy Jones Ed wrote MARLON BRANDO’S CORSET (Richard Jordan Productions/UK Tour), and with Danny Brocklehurst wrote the book for the musical NEVER FORGET (Savoy Theatre, West End), which featured the music of Take That. Ed’s directing credits include I DREAMED A DREAM (UK Tour), JOLSON & CO (UK Tour), MARLON BRANDO’S CORSET (UK Tour), CONSPIRACY (Nominated for 2005 Perrier Award, Edinburgh Festival and UK Tour), CALAMITY JANE (UK Tour & West End, NEVER FORGET (UK Tour & West End).
Sorry Comments are Closed.
Web Design: NewTimeMedia