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The Iliad: is it Theatre?



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    Homer’s, or realistically, homers Iliad is a story of ancient fable, history, and creation. The story talks about arguments between gods and wars waged between nations. Though the story is only partially true, kings, and aristocracy preoccupied their time with the luxury of professional story performers. The goal is not to break apart the Iliad into its translated sense, but to prove that Homer’s Iliad is one of the earliest forms of reoccurring performance-based literature and fits the requirements to be considered theatre by reconstructing the performance space, distinguishing the difference between ancient Greek bards and rhapsodes, and analyzing Homer’s Iliad as it will fit in the later Aristotelian elements of theatre.

    Ancient Greek theatres were designed for acoustic purposes and large-scale audiences, seeing as the early theaters were also forms of news and politics. The ancient theatrical spaces were composed of a Skene, AKA an ancient structure of a scene shop, with the stage and orchestra in the front. The orchestra was the acting space, in which was surrounded by a tremendous Theatron, or “viewing place.” These spaces were built into the side of hills and mountains. Alternately, there were other buildings that had performance spaces. One of these places were known as the Megaron or Megara for the plural form.

    Megarons were used for all sorts of important events and are mentioned frequently in ancient Greek literature. Megarons were the principal rooms used for feasts, parties, important religious rituals, or receiving visits by kings or important dignitaries. (Sailus)

    The use during parties, weddings, and festivals is clear; however, the set-up within these great halls is unknown. Structurally, Megara were made sound, as made clear by a book titled The Megaron and its Roof by E. Baldwin Smith. E. Smith explains exactly how these ancient buildings were designed, “Some scholars have limited it to a large communal hall, entered through a porch at the short end, and hence, when they have attributed its origin to the flat-roofed halls of Minoan palace.” The Megara, being large banquet halls, were also supported by four pillars, with a hole within the ceiling, revealing the outside and allowing for natural light to fill the space. Figure one (below) is a rough adaptation of how Megara were designed. The front porch that leads into the front hall is the same as a foyer in a modern theater. Figure two, on the next page, is a painting to help the mental visualization come to thought.

    Megara, where kings, queens, and aristocracy would gather for their own delight, whether it be religious, social, or political. Many kings required forms of entertainment. These spots were filled with poetry, philosophy, music, and celebration wine drinking; as Rick Jones PhD compares to “Frat hive mind mentality,’ However, much is also unknown. How exactly did performances go, where did guest as well as royalty sit? Many questions arise when on what occurred within the walls. Upon personal reflection, the use of a megaron as a performance space would be much like theatre in the round.

    Audience on all sides, who stood upright, instead, of being seated. Apart from the highest royalty who most likely were seated closest to the performer, or toward the back end of the great hall. It was not until later that being seen was of higher importance than viewing the action taking place on stage. With Homer’s Iliad being written in roughly 762 BCE, give or take a couple of decades, means the acknowledgement of the first actor Thespis did not occur until roughly 2 centuries later. Actors did not formally have a title other than Hypokrites. The Greek word has a literal translation of ‘interpreter from underneath.’ There were other performers with other titles. Rhapsodes and Aoidos [OH-eh-Dos]. Rhapsodes were musically inclined performers that performed poetry and or musical entertainment. Aoidos were performers of another sort. Both Rhapsodes would go about memorizing stories and poems, word for word.

    The poem consists of twenty-four scrolls, containing 15,693 lines of dactylic hexameter verse. The entire poem has a formal rhythm that is consistent throughout (making it easier to memorize) and yet varied slightly from line to line (preventing it from being monotonous). (Mastin)

    The Iliad, as stated by Mastin, was memorized. Why would a story need to be memorized unless, of course, it was to be shown to an audience? What made Homer’s Iliad theatre and not poetry is how the story went about being told. Rhapsodes were those who recited poems and had the same performance constantly with no change. Aoidos were the predecessors to Rhapsodes, and though had Homer’s Iliad memorized, improved many parts of the stories depending on performance location. If the bard were to perform in Sparta, the spartan kings and aristocracy would not want to hear about how Sparta was losing to the trojans at first, they would want to hear the fables of victory over their enemies; as goes for Athenians and Thracians.

    Real warriors are interested in hearing about real wars … For this reason, it is like that the great cycles of myth surrounding the Trojan War and the war against Thebes do go back to campaigns waged in the Bronze Age. (Powell, pp. 54-55).

    For the Bards of early Greece, the improvisational skills were superb. The true difference between these two classifications has to do with the performances. To be exact on the differences one must understand exactly what Aoidoi do. Aoidoi were considered story makers, and tellers. Owen Smith, a professor and philosopher at Stephen F. Austin State University (SFASU) gave an accurate metaphorical comparison “Oral poets were like stand-up comedians with a repertoire of material, who varied the content and manner of expression of the material to the specific audience they are facing.” (Smith). Powell also supplies accurate metaphor as to how the profession was enacted, ‘Oral poets, Aoidoi, were like jazz musicians who do not use a written score and never play a given tune the same way twice.’ (Powell, p. 66).

    So in conclusion for the Aoidos, there are improvisational skills blended with music and historical story telling. The Rhapsode was slightly different, unlike written work with the added flare of improv with the work of the Aoidoi, Rhapsodes were focused on getting the content of their performance perfect, as Powell proves with, ‘“Rhapsodes did not compose songs, but rather memorized the written versions of the bardic songs and excelled at public delivery of these texts to large audiences. ‘Certainly, rhapsodic performance of epic song rapidly popularized Greek myths previously confined to the immediate small male aristocratic audiences of aoidoi who could never have been many in number” (Powell, p. 68). To restate, the difference between an Aoidos and a Rhapsode was the same difference between scripted Vs. non-scripted. It is important to know the most vital property of being a Rhapsode is consistency, and the Aoidoi with their improv.

    Break for the time being and jump a few decades more, the arrival of Aristotle of Stagira caused a commotion that upset and advanced the philosophical world as well as the realm of theatre. Aristotle had written The Poetics,

    In part Aristotle’s response to his teacher, Plato, who argues in The Republic that poetry is representation of mere appearances and is ,thus, misleading and morally suspect. Aristotle’s approach to the phenomenon of poetry is quite different from Plato’s. Fascinated by the intellectual challenge of forming categories and organizing them into coherent systems, Aristotle approaches literary texts as a natural scientist, carefully accounting for the features of each ‘species’ of text. Rather than concluding that poets should be banished from the perfect society, as does Plato, Aristotle attempts to describe the social function, and the ethical utility, of art. (Aristotle: Poetics).

    Among all things written in The Poetics, Aristotle’s six elements of theatre or performance will be used to demonstrate how Homer’s Iliad can constitute as theatre. Aristotle’s six elements are as follows: Plot, Character, Thought, Diction, Music, And Spectacle.

    Plot asks, is a story present? And as for Homer’s Iliad, the story couldn’t be any more prominent. The story takes place at about 10 years of raging war between the Greeks and Trojans. Apollo brings about plague on the Greek army after Agamemnon takes one of his priest’s daughters as a prize. This is reflective to the origins of the war in which Paris, a trojan, had stolen Helen, original wife to king Menelaus of Sparta. Achilles is angry and too prideful, in which he refuses to fight, giving his friend Hector his armor to wear into battle. Hector is killed, and Achilles is torn, and in response chooses to fight back, eventually leading the Greeks to victory, returning the body of his friend, and allowing for proper burial. In later Roman writings, we find Achilles is later killed by taking an arrow to his ankle, the foretold only weak spot on his body as says Virgil in The Aeneid.

    Characters are widely present as well with only a few listed here: Achilles, Hector, Apollo, Zeus, etc… The characters within Homer’s Iliad all come across obstacles and overcome said obstacles. Personality and the showcasing of Achilles’ hubris is ever present, as well as other personality attributes. Monologues of man and gods is constant through Homer’s Iliad, As example in the beginning of the story, the use of a utilitarian character, Nestor, supplies us with a monologue and a few wise words directed toward the central characters,

    “Of a truth,’ he said, ‘a great sorrow has befallen the Achaean land. Surely Priam with his sons would rejoice, and the Trojans be glad at heart if they could hear this quarrel between you two, who are so excellent in fight and counsel. I am older than either of you; therefore be guided by me. Moreover I have been the familiar friend of men even greater than you are, and they did not disregard my counsels. Never again can I behold such men as Pirithous and Dryas shepherd of his people, or as Caeneus, Exadius, godlike Polyphemus, and Theseus son of Aegeus, peer of the immortals. These were the mightiest men ever born upon this earth: mightiest were they, and when they fought the fiercest tribes of mountain savages they utterly overthrew them. I came from distant Pylos, and went about among them, for they would have me come, and I fought as it was in me to do. Not a man now living could withstand them, but they heard my words, and were persuaded by them. So be it also with yourselves, for this is the more excellent way.

    Therefore, Agamemnon, though you be strong, take not this girl away, for the sons of the Achaeans have already given her to Achilles; and you, Achilles, strive not further with the king, for no man who by the grace of Jove wields a sceptre has like honour with Agamemnon. You are strong, and have a goddess for your mother; but Agamemnon is stronger than you, for he has more people under him. Son of Atreus, check your anger, I implore you; end this quarrel with Achilles, who in the day of battle is a tower of strength to the Achaeans.’ (Homer)

    Thought furnishes the ideas or theme to the story. Does the Iliad provide theme? Herbert Jordan, writer and owner of the website provides every theme present in Homer’s Iliad,

    Anger, Rivalry, Jealousy, and Revenge, Honor, Courage, and Heroism, Patriotism and Politics, Duty, Loyalty, and Family Devotion, Chance, Gods and Fate, Irony, Seduction, Humor, Joy, Tenderness, and Sorrow Pride and Humility Aging and Death. (Jordan)

    Diction is written in the scansion of the Iliad. Written in Epic meter, the words have flow and rules to follow. LA Tech has an educational insight about the Iliad and has best explained the style the story was written in,

    Epic poem. A long, nationalistic poem in dactylic hexameter. A hexameter has six metrical feet. Dactylic hexameter consists of six dactyls or spondees. A dactyl is a long syllable followed by two short syllables. A spondee is two long syllables. (LA Tech) The Iliad was primarily sung, with the use of lyres, or small harp-shaped string instruments. Either the Rhapsode or Aoidos would have accompaniment or would play the lyre or Phorminx themselves. The Perseus Encyclopedia defines the Phorminx as,

    An ancient Greek stringed instrument [see lyre]. Associated in Archaic vase paintings with Apollo and Artemis (also see Homeric Hymn to Apollo 3. 182-85), ‘phorminx’ as a term used rather interchangeably with ‘kitharis’ (kithara) in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. (Perseus Enc.)

    The Iliad: is it Theatre?. (2021, Aug 30). Retrieved from

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