One Man Show: Poetics and Presence in the Iliad and Odyssey

  Kretler, Katherine. 2020. One Man Show: Poetics and Presence in the Iliad and Odyssey. Hellenic Studies Series 78. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.


Epic is not simply a stripped-down version of tragedy, some sort of primitive ancestor. Instead, the “half-acting” of epic creates an atopia—a placelessness, an uncanniness—in which the absent and the past take over the present, along multiple paths. The performance dynamic creates separate realms of action—present, past, divine, human, living, dead—on occasion layering these on top of one another. These boundaries, once in place, can be perforated, seen through, or obliterated.

Something of what Artaud says about drama applies to epic as well:

It is in the light of magic and sorcery that the mise en scene must be considered, not as the reflection of a written text, the mere projection of physical doubles that is derived from the written work, but as the burning projection of all the objective consequences of a gesture, word, sound, music, and their combinations. [1]

Performance is just as vital to the one-man show of epic as it is to multi-actor, masked, costumed, staged tragedy.

Through the script the performer can use a dialogue between two characters to modulate his relationship to the audience. He can also create the effect of merging with a given character. Here we move beyond space to factors such as ethics, awareness, reflexivity, wit, sympathy, and the various kinds of identification.

The divisions within the performer’s body and the space of performance have a fructifying relationship with divisions in the realm of poetics or in the story-world. This is true for the separate realms of the living and the dead (e.g., in Phoenix’s curses), or two centers of consciousness (Phoenix/Kleopatra), where performance at once gives body to these divisions in the world of the poem but also dramatizes their ruptures. Through the kinesthetics of his emotions and gestures, the performer can even make one story, with multiple characters, intrude into the space of another.

The Homeric performer’s situation informs the themes of the poem and is informed by them. For example, Odysseus’ disguise has an effect on what is happening (performance), but solo performance has surely shaped the theme of disguise and its use in the script. Once we have become attuned to the virtues of spaces such as Achilles’ tent or Meleager’s thalamos, we not only appreciate their effect, we may conclude that this effect is why the center of the center of the poem is set in Meleager’s thalamos.

The phenomenon of characters’ involuntary reenactment of their own and others’ actions dovetails with the performer’s own “mere reenactment.” The Iliad as a whole makes massive use of background stories, “reenacting” and “pre-enacting” them in its plot. Perhaps the Iliad’s strange reenactment of events from the entire war in the space of a few weeks is a product of the mode of performance. Perhaps reenactment is not simply a theme that epic inherits from hero cult; rather, both hero cult and epic bring forth the dynamics of reenactment in their own ways.

Even stories that lie in the background of the poems are interwoven with the dimension of presence. These include stories about trauma and suppressed fears, which lend themselves to actorly mediation. Stories deeper in the background concerned ghosts and resurrection. Did the bard enlist these stories because of the use he could make of them in performance, or did these inherited themes govern the kind of performance he was aiming at?

The Homeric one-man show aims at “reanimation,” not only at conveying significance or meaning. While any performance traffics in the uncanniness of human action, this peculiar poetry exposes the search for the source of action. It enacts the beginning of a tale both in the sense of plot and in the sense of the source of agency; but it also conveys to us, somehow, renewed access to this source. The script throws audience, bard, and characters into a strange feedback loop of causation, producing splits in the performer and in us. This is why Plato and Aristotle felt that it was particularly important in the case of Homer to articulate what was happening in the space of performance, because they found it disturbing and enigmatic. And that is why they resorted to mimesis.

But the play involved in Homeric performance does not entail that its meaning is slippery, that the poem is “unreadable” or carnivalesque or protean. Perhaps the playful nature of poem is ultimately like play itself: it fosters understanding, development, life, access to the source of thought and action. Acting and spectating put us behind the eyes and hands of another and expose layers of ourselves. That is why Plato only played at banning the poet, in affectionate imitation of Agamemnon’s banning of Chryses.

This gives us a fresh perspective on the poems’ ethical dimensions. The play of character is less protean than it is layered. The script is aimed at allowing suppressed perspectives and characters to emerge (Trojan Horse, Phoenix/Kleopatra; Eumaeus/Phoenissa), especially once and future slaves. This ethical awakening is just part of the “reanimation” that the poems convey through mimesis.


[ back ] 1. Artaud 1958:73.

[ back ] 2. See above, pages 192–193.

[ back ] 3. Brook (1968:13): “Some writers attempt to nail down their meaning and intentions in stage directions and explanations, yet we cannot help being struck by the fact that the best dramatists explain themselves the least. They recognize that further indications will most probably be useless. They recognize that the only way to find the true path to the speaking of a word is through a process that parallels the original creative one. This can neither be by-passed nor simplified.” Aristotle would approve of this performance/script unity. Brook is discussing written drama; epic is even more unified. The script is not to be embellished but reenacted.

[ back ] 4. Riffaterre 1987.