Men and Gods
Two men appear out of the darkness on a bare stage laterally framed by long black, purple and gold curtains; in the background a flat screen of pale blue reaches down to the floor. One of the actors begins the recital with a scene-setting description. Miss a few words and lose the context.
Despite paying rapt attention, viewers unfamiliar with the Iliad will still need assistance with the plot from the program insert, Literary Background. Consulting that crib sheet, readers discover that Kings (The Siege of Troy) represents over forty years of effort by English poet Christopher Logue to update the Homeric classic for contemporary audiences.
Logue’s adventures with a poem that originally held little interest for him began back in 1959 as an invitation from the late classicist Donald Carne-Ross to revise certain passages from the ancient Greek epic for a new version to be aired on the BBC. The rewrite evolved into a decades-long immersion in an assortment of other authors’ translations, including a literal one provided by Carne-Ross, and the creation of this and other poems based on sections of the Iliad.
Kings, taken from Books I and II, opens with a supplication by Achilles, the merciless Greek warrior, to his mother, the sea goddess Thetis, that she use her connections to induce Zeus, the king of the gods, to punish the Greek king Agamemnon for taking for his own the woman that Achilles had been awarded following his destruction of her city:
…Briseis, my ribbon she,
Whose fearless husband, plus some 50
Handsome-bodied warriors I killed and burned
And so was named her owner by you all
In recognition of my strength, my courage, my superiority.
In retaliation for that insult, Achilles withdrew his troops from the nine-year-old Greek effort to breach the walls of Troy and gain victory over that city. Seeking further vengeance, he asks the gods to ensure the destruction of the Greeks and their king:
Beg him this:
Let the Greeks burn, let them taste pain,
Asphyxiate their hope, so as their blood soaks down into the sand,
Or as they sink like rings into the sea…
As for Agamemnon, his arrogance and inflated ego (even for royalty) contribute to his inability to recognize the trap the gods set for him when they entice him to order an ill-conceived assault on Troy. Those character flaws also cost him his best fighter.
In the Introduction, Logue explained his decision to retain the original storyline and, inspired by liberties taken by the other writers and mindful of the characters’ intentions, winnow away Homer’s excessive dependence on adjectives, and alter the descriptions and dialog “to make their voices come alive and to keep the action on the move.”
For the most part he has done just that. Some of the strongest scenes contain venomous exchanges between Achilles and Agamemnon, illustrating to the extreme their will to power. At other times, the action slows as the two actors create settings with words or enact other, somewhat peripheral roles that afford little opportunity for character development. Logue delights with occasional insertions of film directions that enhance the contemporary relevance of the poem:
Reverse the shot.
In the lands of the Iliad, women remain out of sight except as deities and spoils of war. One wonders whether, in the absence of tempering by the feminine traits of empathy and nurturing, such an imbalance leaves men more prone to violence. A murderous lunge by Achilles in answer to Agamemnon’s refusal to change his mind about taking Briseis gets aborted by Athena, acting on Hera’s orders.
`Hera has sent me. As God’s wife, she said:
`Stop him. I like them both.’
I share her view. In any case
We have arranged another death for Agamemnon.
If you can stick to speech, harass him now.
But try to kill him, and I kill you.’
Use words not violence, the goddess dictates. Having little choice, Achilles responds with a volley of vitriol and then storms off. Not quite diplomacy, it does avoid bloodshed, if only for the moment.