Last night we closed The Odyssey. As you might imagine, the play had a lot of moving parts. Getting it on its feet was no small task. It’s a long play, and we had a truncated rehearsal schedule. All of this led to our great surprise when our audiences loved the show. But then I remembered that a similar thing happened when I acted in a production of the same script in New York. It was a great deal of work, and we weren’t sure we could pull it off. But then, too, the audiences loved it, and the reviews were great.
What is it about Odysseus’ story that continues to thrill us? I’ve loved it ever since I first read Homer’s telling. And last night when I locked the doors of the theater, I loved it even more.
Most classroom conversations about The Odyssey degenerate into skim milk denouncements of Odysseus’ infidelities, as if the value of a piece of literature depends upon the mores of an ancient culture conforming to our own. What a waste. I’ve tried to imagine an Odyssey wherein Odysseus lives up to our standards, but it ends before he even gets to Troy. He gets an axe to the back of the head for suggesting that his men start a community garden on the ship.
No. The Odyssey thrives to this day because it is so rich in iconography, poetry, symmetry, humanity, and most of all, adventure. It’s a wonderful adventure. It makes our hearts come alive. It makes us want to transcend dread and stop speaking like citizens. It makes us want to quit our land-loving and find our shipwrecks.
“The heart is a compass.”
At first he thought only of home, and Penelope. But after a few years, like anyone on his own, he couldn’t separate what he’d chosen from what had chosen him. Calypso, the Lotus-eaters, Circe; a man could forget where he lived. He had a gift for getting in and out of trouble, a prodigious, human gift. To survive Cyclops and withstand the Sirens’ song–– just those words survive, withstand, in his mind became a music he moved to and lived by. How could govern, even love, compete? They belonged to a different part of a man, the untested part, which never has transcended dread, or the liar part, which always spoke like a citizen. The larger the man, though, the more he needed to be reminded he was a man. Lightning, high winds; for every excess a punishment. Penelope was dear to him, full of character and fine in bed. But by the middle years this other life had become his life. That was Odysseus’s secret, kept even from himself. When he talked about return he thought he meant what he said. Twenty years to get home? A man finds his shipwrecks, tells himself the necessary stories. Whatever gods are––our own fearful voices or intimations from the unseen order of things, the gods finally released him, cleared the way. Odysseus boarded that Phaeacian ship, suddenly tired of the road’s dangerous enchantments, and sailed through storm and wild sea as if his beloved were all that ever mattered. –Stephen Dunn