- “You had to wade this deep in blood?”: Violence and Madness in Derek Walcott’s The Odyssey
Since the psychiatrist Jonathan Shay first suggested that the ancient Greek warriors suffered the very same kind of post-traumatic stress as soldiers returning from war today, scholars, theatre practitioners, and clinicians have explored the therapeutic value of the Homeric epics and the fifth-century tragedies. Outside the Wire’s ‘Theater of War’ project began touring around military camps in the United States in 2008, staging readings of extracts from Philoctetes and Ajax. Initially collaborating with them, Peter Meineck’s ‘Ancient Greeks/Modern Lives’ project has since expanded exponentially, having won a large grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities; it officially launched in New York in April 2011. Peter Sellars’ recent Hercules (2011) proclaimed to tackle this same subject of the psychological damage of war, returning to a theme that he may have first encountered in his politically-engaged 1986 production of Ajax, starring Howie Seago.1 While Sellars’ pre-show discussion at the Lyric Opera in Chicago in March 2011 engaged overtly with the combat trauma suffered by contemporary returning veterans, the production reflected it - and the broader contemporary resonance of the play - primarily in the costuming of Iole in an orange jumpsuit reminiscent of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and of Hercules in combat fatigues. Clearly a consideration of the plight of war veterans through the lenses offered by classical literature is proving both appealing and fruitful. This paper examines a relatively early instance of this: Derek Walcott’s stage version of The Odyssey, first performed in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1992, which exposes the modern resonances between classical literature and the contemporary experiences of soldiers in the aftermath of war.
Walcott, the St. Lucian, Nobel Prize-winning writer, has been actively engaged with the literature of classical antiquity throughout his career, most famously in his 1990 ‘epic’ poem, Omeros.2 Two years later he returned to Homer once more, this time under the commission of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Given his frequent proclamations that he had never read Homer ‘all the way through’ when he wrote Omeros,3 his decision to return to the Greek epics once more may seem surprising. However, such a claim should be understood in a number of lights: firstly, that of Walcott’s distancing himself from the Western canon (as he has memorably said, he has no wish to be accused of depicting a ‘2nd-rate Aegean’) (Walcott, ‘Reflections’ 232); secondly, in terms of his appreciation of Homer as an oral tradition: he may not have read the epics, but he has, nebulously, heard them (in the sea and in the environment of the Caribbean, as he suggests in Omeros) (Farrell 256–257); and finally, as being in a similar vein to the recusatio of the Augustan poets, and therefore not intended to be taken as an outright [End Page 43] rejection of that which he disavows, but rather to be seen in the context of what Gregson Davis terms ‘the complex dialectic of rejection and reassimilation’ (G. Davis 324).
Walcott’s Odyssey, subtitled ‘A Stage Version’, converts Homer’s epic poem into theatrical form; in the translation from one genre to the other, Walcott introduces a tragic tone which the epic predecessor almost defiantly avoids,4 and he responds to much else besides, casting Homer in a new light that speaks to socio-political concerns of the twentieth century. A change of genre from epic to drama, particularly in the context of Greek literature, is not such a great leap: Homer’s poems, of course, had a great influence on the ancient Greek dramatists.5 Indeed Walcott’s play follows Homer’s epic very closely, if in condensed and dramatic style, though it begins at Troy, rather than years after the end of the war. The opening scene contains a much-reduced contest between Ajax and Odysseus for Achilles’ arms, made almost bathetic by its brevity, while simultaneously signalling the speed at which Walcott will render each episode of the Homeric canon. Intriguingly, a close friendship between Odysseus and that class-warrior/ social misfit (depending on your point of view...