Odysseus as Sacred Monster
Notes on a neo-Romantic adaptation of Homer's Odyssey

by Dennis Douglas
Shoestring Theatre
E-mail: 100544.31@compuserve.com

When I started work on the Odyssey I did so in the awareness that Odysseus cannot in this day and age be held up to public regard as an exemplary being whose attitudes and behaviour should be copied. He behaves disgracefully. He is a liar, a cheat, a murderer, an unfaithful husband, a pirate and a sacker of cities. He is not lacking in charm or intelligence or shrewdness, but his two sides, the attractive side and the unscrupulous side, are present in every ancient text we have that mentions him. I wanted my Odysseus to be not a hero but an anti-hero, a morally blemished being; he is not a man who overcomes with ease every challenge he confronts, but is at times profoundly inadequate.

I noticed, for example, that Odysseus achieves very little without the help of his patron goddess Pallas Athene. Without her intervention he could never have left Calypso's island. When he is shipwrecked on Phaeacia a sea nymph provides him with a scarf that saves him from drowning. When he lands on Ithaca Pallas Athene magically ages him to prevent his being recognised. Odysseus survives his confrontations with the Sirens, Scylla, Charybdis and so on because of Circe's good advice, and he wins Circe's aid because of Hermes' good advice.

The poem ends with Odysseus effectively rebuked by Zeus himself for a very foolish act, and this further justified my focus on Odysseus' faults. When Penelope's suitors are dead and their relatives have gathered to take revenge, Pallas Athene intervenes to stop the battle. The men of Ithaca recognise Pallas Athene's divine authority and obey Zeus's edict. They retreat. Seeing them retreat Odysseus raises his spear and shouts 'Charge!!!' So Zeus sends a flash of lightning and a great peal of thunder to shut Odysseus up. It is as though the last words of the poem were a reminder of its hero's fallibility.

That episode convinced me that whoever else might want to regard Odysseus as a paragon of Mycenean virtue, Homer himself did not portray him as cunning beyond the possibility of error, but as a very ordinary man in many ways. And of course that choice is consistent with the story-telling skill of the bards who contributed over two centuries and more to the text we have. A fallible, imperfect hero adds sympathy and suspense to any narrative. The audience is never sure that he is going to survive the testing encounters he confronts, and they identify more readily with his confusions than if he saw with perfect clarity through every problem he faces.

The critical element in my interpretation came out of something that you do not notice about the Odyssey unless you look at the text with a certain scepticism. The poem makes a false claim for its hero. In the first lines we are told that Odysseus visited many cities and learnt their ways, but in the text we have of Homer's poem we never see him doing it. Instead we see him attacking cities. We see him being attacked in cities. We see him being hidden in a mist by Pallas Athene as he passes through the streets of Scherie so that the inhabitants will not insult him. He doesn't seem to get on very well with cities and city people. And the cities of the poem are few and far between.

The Odyssey does not celebrate the life of cities. The people the poem was written for were profoundly suspicious of cities and of the things that in their eyes cities stood for. This is not a new discovery. M.I.Finley's book The World of Odysseus, which has been in print for decades, offers a complete sociological analysis of the 'culture' of Homer's audience, and of how different the later culture of Greece became, when the cities were rebuilt and trade and the arts and imperial institutions began again.

Odysseus's own society is based on communities of local landowners who accept the rule of a chief landowner as their king because he happens to be gifted in the arts of war. The local landowners have aristocratic status and numerous dependents, some of whom are slaves. There is a system of local assemblies to which grievances can be taken, but these assemblies are not councils or parliaments in a modern sense. They do not take decisions. They enable people to state grievances and they enable matters of common interest to be discussed, but the King is not under any obligation to heed the representations made in the assemblies. This is the world we see when Telemachus summons the people of Ithaca to hear his case against the suitors, and the assemblies of the Greeks at Troy in the Iliad operate in precisely the same way.

Ithaca as Homer portrays it is a group of what we might think of as manor houses, each with its own independent lord. As well as having a hierarchy amongst themselves based on military skill these lords seem to glory in a national reputation for expeditions against other regions. Military conquest is an occupation the community at one time heartily approved of and is still, perhaps despite certain misgivings, willing to go along with. All of these details match the picture that was put together forty-odd years and more ago by a number of different historians working in different countries of Europe, as well as in England and the U.S.A., of the 'Post-Mycenean Dark Ages'.

When a high civilisation (such as that of the Mycenaeans) collapses, communities are isolated by the disruption of trade routes and lines of communication. Only two activities enable people to survive, primitive agriculture and primitive violence. There is no rule of law. Those communities that cannot defend themselves are wiped out. In the end it is the well-defended manor houses that create the right conditions for a culture to begin to re-establish itself, but only if there are enough of them in a given small area to combine in self-defence against raiding parties. And self- defence requires leadership.

The negative side of this kind of culture is that it can only exist in a permanent state of war, and all over the Aegean Sea people who thought of themselves as related to the men of Ithaca developed the habit of making regular raids on neighbouring coastlines. Because they needed warlike skills their cultural traditions were based on them. Their poetry was about battles and sieges, about rituals of single combat between tribal heroes, about the shrewdness of one legendary leader, the strength of another, the great exploits of a third. That is the poetry of the epic hero that we find in the Odyssey and Iliad.

This world of heroes is not much fun for anybody else. It is not even much fun for the heroes. Homer's verse returns again and again to the human cost of the epic struggle. Again and again people in the Odyssey weep when they hear bards recite the exploits of the heroes. Odysseus himself breaks down at the court of Alcinous when a bard sings of the siege of Troy.

Homer's Odysseus could not have the level of historic awareness I wanted to give my Odysseus, not only because Homer could not see into the future, but also because of the nature of the classical vision of the world. It is fairly safe to say that the classical age saw personality as something that did not change much, and that responded to quite immediate pressures, not vast metaphysical issues or long-range vistas. The kind of historic awareness I wanted Odysseus to have is a modern invention.

The epic hero does not behave with any great respect for moral considerations. He kills without compunction, and his victims include children. He destroys cities, priding himself on dividing up the womenfolk between the captains of his army with scrupulous fairness, fairness towards the captains that is, not towards the women. The women's point of view is heard only in the form of distant echoes of their grief.

I was tempted to reject the brawny maculine bloody-mindedness of Homer's Odysseus. It would have been easy to travesty him as a Fascist, but it would have been too easy. On the other hand it would also have been too easy to be seduced by Odysseus's brute vitality into suggesting, as so many writers do, that the poem's original morality represents an adequate attitude to the problems of the world then and now. Homer's vison of heroic action, with its emphasis on strength without compassion belongs to a stage in the development of mankind which we desperately need to put behind us, but which somehow or other clings like a limpet, and is always threatening to return and take over. Odysseus is the sacred monster who haunts our cosy twentieth-century dreams.

I wanted the Shoestring adaptation to have more of the post-Romantic Bildungsroman about it than most readers think Homer's poem has. I wanted Odysseus to learn more than most readers think Homer allows him to, and I cheated a little by having him learn from the women in his life. He lives seven years with Calypso, a year with Circe. Why not give those relationships an overt thematic role? At the beginning of each love affair I gave Odysseus a firm and plausible statement about the way life is, and by the end of the relationship I had him take that statement back.

There is a trick that nineteenth century popular dramatists learnt from Sophocles and Euripides, the trick of surprising the audience by turning the central situation in the play upside down at the halfway point. This reversal of the audience's sympathies became one of the hallmarks of the French 'well-made play'. I wanted to do something like that with Circe. I wanted to build on hints and suggestions in Homer's account of the situation by portraying Circe as more than Odysseus's equal in shrewdness, in wisdom and in strength; and I wanted Odysseus to under-estimate her, so that when he learns much later that she has always been one step ahead of him, that new awareness will make him more willing to learn other things too.

My overriding aim was to place Homer's text in the light of certain scholarly findings regarding the religious life, the culture and the texture of existence in the period in which the poem came into being. For theatre people as for Classical scholars there is very little that is wholly original or earth-shattering about those findings. Cacoyannis set the siege of Troy in the Mycenean Dark Ages when he made his film of the Iphigenia two decades ago. In the late thirties Thompson's Aeschylus and Athens emphasized the residual matriarchal institutions of ancient Athens. And in many other ways, as in presenting Odysseus as an anti-hero, in treating Circe as a nature goddess, and even in challenging the cult of violence the text is sometimes thought of as defending, the provocative thrust of my script developed out of elements present in the original poem that some commentators (but by no means all) have preferred to overlook.

The end result owes more to the spirit of the age of Beethoven than of Birtwhistle, but I suspect that an anti-militaristic Odyssey in which Circe is a wisdom figure, from whom Odysseus learns that a totally secular view of the world has many limitations, from his women may seem very provocative in some of the circles we move in.

Dennis Douglas
Shoestring Theatre
E-mail: 100544.31@compuserve.com