The Performance of Homeric Epic

Performance Dynamics and the Internal Audiences of the Odyssey

Lillian Doherty
University of Maryland
E-mail: Lillian_E_DOHERTY@umail.umd.edu

When we talk about the dynamics of bardic performance--the interplay of bard and audience in the live performance setting--we tend to emphasize the consensus such performances create between the bard and his listeners, and among the audience members themselves. Scholars have cited the use of the verb thelgein in the Odyssey to describe the bard's almost magicalhold over his listeners. With the aid of comparative anthropology, Albert Lord, John Foley and others have argued convincingly that the traditional formulas and themes of oral epic constitute a special language to which audiences must be attuned and indeed acculturated. Yet as our own culture becomes increasingly oral, and we observe the spell that television and videos cast over our children, our students, and ourselves, we may also find ourselves worrying--I know I do--about the very dynamic we tend to celebrate in our studies of Homer. Today I want to examine one facet of this dynamic: the way in which differences among audience members--a potential obstacle to audience consensus--are handled by the poet of the Odyssey. Without ignoring the rest of the early hexameter corpus, I will focus on the Odyssey because it offers both the fullest acknowledgment of audience diversity and what I consider the canniest strategy for moving a diverse audience toward consensus.

What were the potential differences among members of the audience for early Greek epic performances? If we assume a festival context like that described in the Homeric Hymn to Delian Apollo, where women and children are explicitly mentioned (146-54), these differences will have included gender as well as age, class, and familial or regional origin. Most members of the lower classes will have lacked the resources to travel to panhellenic festivals, but they will have attended local and regional gatherings. Slaves will also have been present at festivals, as attendants if not as participants. In a class-stratified society where many activities were segregated by gender, such status differences must have produced very different perspectives, even if most people accepted their assigned roles without question. And in fact, some early hexameter poetry focuses on such differences. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter, for example, dramatizes the potential conflict between husband and wife over the arrangement of a daughter's marriage, while Hesiod's Works and Days offers a vivid image of the abuse of class privilege in the fable of the hawk and the nightingale (202- 212). In other cases where conflict is lacking, special attention may be paid to the viewpoint of a group the poet wishes to address. The Hymn to Delian Apollo makes a direct appeal to a group of Delian women, whose own skill in choral performance is praised, and who are offered the 'public relations' services of the hymn's bard if they will praise him in turn. Surely it is no coincidence that this hymn, which addresses women explicitly, focuses on the perspectives of the female figures who attend Apollo at his birth.

But the Odyssey goes farther than any of these texts in systematically anticipating the class and gender interests of its audiences. It does this by portraying a range of internal audiences for epic performance and by dramatizing skeptical or conflicting responses to some such performances. At the same time, harmonious and mutually profitable relationships between bards and their audiences are modeled, especially in the episodes involving Demodocus. Finally and most decisively, the epic hero is himself portrayed as a bard who addresses and charms the full range of internal audiences, from the godlike Phaeacians to his own slave Eumaeus. His successful performances enlist these various audiences on his side in his struggle to return home and defeat the suitors. Most members of the external audience will have found their perspectives represented in this array, and could be induced to 'take Odysseus' side' in their turn.

As examples, I have chosen three members of the epic's internal audiences who represent dramatically different perspectives: Telemachus, Eumaeus, and Penelope. Each of these characters has an important role to play as a listener, making it easier for members of the listening audience to identify with them. Each is also predisposed to be an ally of Odysseus, but must be won over by him personally in interviews that (at least in the cases of Eumaeus and Penelope) involve exchanges of stories. Thus the potential resistance of different kinds of listeners is both acknowledged and overcome within the narrative itself. I would caution that the reactions of actual audiences can never be equated with those of a model audience; but it may be that the success and survival of the Odyssey owe something to this canny strategy on the part of the poet.

The first appearance of a bard in the epic, when Phemius sings to the suitors at the end of Book 1, provokes a typical and almost emblematic conflict between two listeners, Penelope and Telemachus. To Penelope, the song of the Nostos Achaion is a source of pure grief; to Telemachus, it is the latest and most popular song, which the bard can hardly be blamed for singing. At least two differences between the listeners are relevant here: Penelope's age and experience of pain are contrasted with Telemachus' youth and inexperience; but he is also portrayed as asserting himself (for the first time, as it happens) as a male against a female, as he explicitly says: muthos d' andressi melesei,/ pasi, malista d'emoi (1.358-59). I will return to Penelope's role in a moment; but I find it interesting that Telemachus is first shown asserting his authority as an interpreter and defender of poetic performance.

Indeed, throughout the Telemacheia he is cast primarily in the role of listener, as first Athena,then Nestor and Menelaus (and Helen) fill him in on the history he needs to know to assume his place as a king's son. These are not epic performances properly speaking, but the stories are drawn from the epic repertoire, and most are told in the setting that the Odyssey portrays as normative for such performances, that is, a banquet in the hall of a prince. Telemachus' role as listener, combined with the largely sympathetic portrayal of his naivete and burgeoning self-confidence, would make it easy for young men in the audience--especially men of his class--to identify with him. I do not mean to suggest that others, including women, could NOT identify with him--merely that he vividly represents the perspective of a young male aristocrat on the poem's unfolding action.

To what extent is Telemachus resistant to the stories he hears? Although he daydreams of his father's return, he expresses skepticism even about being Odysseus' son (1.215-16), and frames his questions to Nestor and Menelaus as if he expects to hear only bad news (3.86-97, 4.322-27). In this respect he shares the perspective of the suitors, who are close to him in age and rank and who are certain Odysseus is dead. Even when faced with Odysseus himself, Telemachus has a hard time accepting him. Does this doubting Telemachus represent the resistance of a younger generation to tales of ancestral heroism? If so, the poet may have eased their ultimate acceptance by his sympathetic portrayal of a Telemachus who shares their doubts. My favorite touch in this portrayal is the pact between Telemachus and Peisistratus, when Peisistratus agrees to catch hell from his father for letting Telemachus go home without stopping to hear more of Nestor's interminable stories (15.195-214).

The great majority of characters in the Odyssey are of noble birth, as befits the genre. Yet if we consider the probable range of performance contexts, including religious festivals, it is clear that not all members of the audience for oral epic would have been aristocratic. In the character of Eumaeus, and in Odysseus' own adoption of the beggar's role, the poem goes farthest toward acknowledging the perspective of lower-class people. Peter Rose has argued convincingly (in Sons of the Gods, Children of Earth, Cornell 1992, pp. 92-140) that the sheer length of the narrative devoted to Odysseus' disguise, in proportion to the poem's overall size and to the hero's more famous adventures, bespeaks an interest in class mobility and conflict that would be appropriate to the archaic age and to a poet who may himself have been a demioergos, a 'worker for the people.'

As much as Eumaeus differs from Telemachus in age and status, he nonetheless resembles him in being cast primarily in the role of listener. In the humble setting of his hut, Eumaeus' hospitality creates a facsimile of the banquet that the poem has presented thus far as the normal performance context for epic. Here Eumaeus hears a version of Odysseus' wanderings from the hero himself. Of course, there are significant alterations in this account: the goddesses and monsters have been edited out, and Odysseus portrays himself as a less than heroic figure, who once dropped his shield and surrendered in battle to save his life (14.276-84). But the general outlines, and even many details, of the tale are constant: participation in the Trojan War, seven years of inactivity in a foreign land, survival of a shipwreck caused by Zeus to punish the ship's crew. The alterations are designed to make the tale believable to Eumaeus, and to win his sympathy for the 'beggar' by creating parallels between the two men's experiences. Odysseus goes so far as to invite Eumaeus to tell his own story in return, and it extends for almost a hundred lines (15.390-484). The perspective of lower-class men--indeed, of 'downwardly-mobile' men--is thus given a startling prominence in this section of the narrative.

Like Telemachus, moreover, Eumaeus is resistant to some of what he hears. The alterations in Odysseus' story are presumably necessary because--beyond the hero's desire to maintain his disguise--Eumaeus could not be expected to swallow the account of monsters and goddesses that had so charmed the Phaeacians. So it is possible that the poet is having some fun at his expense, especially since the one point Eumaeus resolutely refuses to believe is the truest, namely, that Odysseus is alive and on his way home. Yet Eumaeus, like Telemachus, is a highly sympathetic character, loyal to the absent Odysseus and hospitable to the 'beggar.' The attention paid to his perspective, I suggest, may be an implicit appeal by the poet to the lower-class men in his own audience.

I have mentioned Penelope's role as a listener in Book 1, where her response to Phemius' song is contrasted with that of Telemachus, and indeed discounted by Telemachus in his first assertion of adult male authority. Penelope is like Telemachus and Eumaeus in being explicitly cast in the role of listener, and in rejecting at least some of what she hears, both from Phemius and from the disguised Odysseus. She differs from Telemachus and Eumaeus in being deliberately excluded from an internal audience by other characters. It is Odysseus himself, moreover, who reverses this exclusion at the end of the poem, when he retells the story of his own nostos to her alone. Between these two framing scenes, there are other indications that the poet means to portray Penelope as a model female listener, and that he himself--like his hero--is addressing an implied audience that includes women.

It has long been noted that because Penelope's role keeps her out of the action for most of the epic, the series of other female characters Odysseus meets are used to anticipate various dimensions of her relationship with him. I have argued at length elsewhere that Arete, queen of the Phaeacians, anticipates Penelope in the role of listener to Odysseus' story. I see her as being singled out, like Penelope, for this role by the hero, who depends on her good will to be assured of his safe passage home.

Arete is obviously like Penelope in being a highly honored aristocratic woman whose good judgment is valued by her husband and her subjects. But the most telling parallel, I find, is in the way she is snubbed when she tries to act like a full-fledged member of the epic audience by taking the lead in rewarding Odysseus for his tale. Using a variant of the same formula Telemachus has used in Book 1, Alcinoos tells Arete that Odysseus' escort home will be the men's concern (pompe d'andressi melesei, 11.352, in place of Telemachus' muthos d'andresse melesei, 1.158). Odysseus, however, has heard from two women-- Arete's daughter Nausicaa, and Athena disguised as a young girl--that Arete is in fact the host he really needs to please, the one whose attitude will be decisive for his homecoming. The epic thus portrays a difference of opinion between women and men over the extent of the queen's influence. Odysseus, however, seems to take her power seriously, and to court her favor as he will later court Penelope's. In addition to his explicit appeals and compliments to her, his account of the famous women he saw in the Underworld seems tailored to please her, and it is immediately after this account that he interrupts his tale and is in fact praised by Arete.

I believe this is only one example of a subtle interplay between bards and internal audiences in the Odyssey--an exchange of implicit and explicit compliments which I see as a strategy of the poet to compliment, and appeal to, his own audience. As Longinus already observed, much of the Odyssey plot consists of storytelling. Frequently these stories are prefaced or followed by accounts of the setting in which they were told, and of their reception--usually positive--by an internal audience. The reception of Odyssus' tale by the Phaeacians is only the most obvious example. Think of Eumaeus' praise of the 'beggar's' tales (17.513-21) or Odysseus' own lavish praise of Demodocus. The linchpin in this strategy is the identification of Odysseus himself as a bard. For in the course of his adventures the hero has reason to address women and men of all classes, whom he attempts to enlist as allies.

Nancy Felson-Rubin has written of the 'courtship dance' between Odysseus and Penelope, and argued that the poet sets out to court his own audience in a similar way. I would reaffirm this analogy and suggest that, like his hero, the Odyssey poet knows how to court an amazing variety of listeners, women and men, young and old, privileged and poor. He acknowledges the range of perspectives among his listeners by assigning these to characters who are themselves portrayed as members of audiences within the poem. That some of these characters resist what they hear--as the skeptical Penelope herself resists Odysseus' revelations, even when he drops his disguise--may simply increase the effectiveness of the strategy, since all of them (except the monsters and the benighted suitors) are eventually won over.

Gregory Nagy has argued that our Homeric texts are the products of panhellenic competition among rhapsodes (Pindar's Homer, 1990). If this is the case, then the small, intimate audiences and even the style of performance portrayed in the Odyssey may already have been anachronistic to the original audience for the poem as we know it. Whether Nagy or Richard Janko is closer to the truth on this issue, I believe the Odyssey's elaborate portrayals of internal audiences could still be used by the performers to elicit the interest and approval of different segments of their own audiences. This strategic accommodation of audience diversity may have been a factor in the widespread appeal of the poem, and thus one reason for its survival.

I would like to close by repeating my caveat about the difference between model audiences and actual audiences: we have no way of knowing how actual women or lower-class men--or aristocratic men--in the poet's original audience reacted to the Odyssey. Even if we suppose they were drawn into the kind of consensus I have postulated here, the larger question of its implications remains open. Does identification with a figure like Eumaeus or Penelope serve to reconcile the listener to a subordinate place in a social or gender hierarchy? Or does the honor paid those figures by the poet and his hero stimulate the ambitions of those who identify with them? We who are professional scholars tend to take for granted the value of the works to which we devote much of our lives, and to assume that a positive response is as 'good for' the audience as it is for the poet's reputation (and, incidentally, our own livelihood). But the Odyssey poet, cunning as he was in shaping an audience consensus, was honest enough to leave this final question open. Will the Phaeacians suffer permanent isolation on their island for having listened to Odysseus? The poet isn't telling.

Lillian Doherty
University of Maryland
E-mail: Lillian_E_DOHERTY@umail.umd.edu

(Lillian Doherty is co-chair of the Women's Classical Caucus and author of Siren Songs: Gender, Audiences, and Narrators in the Odyssey, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.)