“The horrible,” Harvey says, “shouldn’t be hidden.” And as I browse through the 32-page script for Ilium, the 2013 incarnation of the Center for Creative Work’s Dionysia project, there is much that is horrible and little that is hidden. Throughout the text, a collage of contributions regarding the nature and effect of war, children die, fathers and uncles die, a little girl is dropped off in a field ICU by Medevac only to die of a gunshot wound to the head. This is horrible, I think to myself, and it is. Why not hide it? Why embrace the darkest and most troubling aspects of humanity, and not just embrace, but broadcast them, shout them even?
As the players, mostly fresh-faced undergraduates between the ages of 18 and 21, are gathered to rehearse the script, dig into its brutality – learn to engage it even – I am reminded of the oft-quoted penultimate line from a Robert Burns poem about “man’s inhumanity to man.” The title of that poem is not as often remembered or alluded to as that line. Burns titled it, “Man was made to mourn: A Dirge.” Ilium adapts the Iliad in attempting to converse in a meaningful way about war, and both Ilium and The Iliad are, I realize, dirges. The first line of The Iliad reads, “The wrath sing, goddess, of Peleus’ son, Achilles, that destructive wrath which brought countless woes upon the Achaeans, and sent forth to Hades many valiant souls of heroes, and made them themselves spoil for dogs and every bird.” Why sing of such things? What about war, about death and destruction and horror and ultimate inhumanity, should inspire song?
We derive the English word “dirge” from the Roman Catholic (also Anglican and Lutheran) Office for the Dead, from the first antiphon in fact, which reads, “Dirige, Domine, Deus meus, in conspectus tuo viam meam,” which translated means, “Direct my way in your sight, O Lord my God.” In the Bible, many Psalms – the quintessential song of the ancient Hebrews – are songs about sorrow, songs about death. Jeremiah’s poetic lamentation of the destruction of Jerusalem, aptly titled Lamentations, is afforded its own book of the Bible. It, in turn, was influenced in style and form by the Mesopotamian “city lament,” of which the oldest and best known is the Lament for Ur. It was written (it is estimated) roughly 2000 years before the birth of Christ. One can browse through literature, poetry, and song back and back and back in time, and there is an indisputable omnipresence to the lamentation, to an examination of sorrow and brokenness – and especially the aftereffects of war – through song. Why? Why do we sing about these things?
In browsing through the Ilium, poring over its brutal (but in no way gratuitous) descriptions of mayhem and violence, I think back to a man I knew, Aaron. He was in his mid-twenties, and he had done contract work – IT stuff, I think, connecting networks and satellite equipment and such – for organizations contracted by the US Government in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was a personable guy, made friends easily, always quick with a joke (or to light up your smoke, as the Billy Joel song goes) and we spent many hours playing poker and drinking merrily at his house before I ever heard him speak about his experiences in the Middle East.
Then one day, he hooked up his digital camera to his television, and proposed to show us (most of us young, college-aged noncombatants who had never seen a gun or a corpse in person, much less fought a war) what “things were like over there.” He clicked on a video file, one of dozens if not hundreds it looked like, and the screen was filled with grainy footage of desert, a fence visible in the short distance. Aaron was filming as his coworkers laid some sort of cable, and there was casual conversation and joking, and the sun shone brightly, sparkling off of the infinite grains of sand as though each were a tiny jewel. It was a beautiful day.
Then there was an indescribable noise and the picture went dark for a moment, which Aaron explained to us was him dropping the camera into the sand as he threw himself onto the ground. Suddenly, there was shouting, screaming, wailing, bustling activity, two or three loud pops of gunfire, and Aaron picked the camera back up. It was as though the camera had been transported to a different world altogether.
I wanted to turn it off. I asked if we could turn it off, but I was hushed by Aaron, who watched, not the television, but us watching the television intently. The camera panned over the scene, and the first thing I noticed was that there was blood. It was not the crisp, bright catsup-red of the “blood” I am accustomed to from Hollywood movies. It was a dark, mottled, brown and not so much liquid as gravy. Some soldier – or contractor in a military-style uniform with a rifle – confusedly lifted a ball, but of course, it wasn’t a ball. It was the head of the man who had just rushed at the group, shouting in Arabic as he triggered a bomb he wore like a vest, filled with hundreds of cruel ball-bearings. It had ripped him to shreds, to literal shreds, which afterward lined the fence, the wall of the building, the sand, and the clothes and skin of almost every man who flashed in front of the camera. I didn’t cry, nor did my stomach necessarily turn as I would have expected, nor did I have any response I could have expected. I was angry.
“Why would you show us this?” I asked, furiously.
“Because this is what’s happening. This is all happening now,” he replied.
I didn’t get it. Harvey does, and I realize it was this line that had spurred my memory of that scene in the first place.
“It’s all happening now,” Harvey says to the actors and musicians and writers who are gathered to rehearse the Ilium. That is why The Iliad, a poem first sung nearly 2,900 years ago about an event 400 years prior, is not simply an interesting, archaeological-type curiosity about a long-ago people and their long-ago concerns and affairs.
“The Iliad,” Harvey says to me later as we discuss the production, “is a poem we’re constantly living.”
The last time that the United States Congress declared war, “formally” authorized war, was June 5, 1942 against Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania. Yet we have been more or less constantly at war since: a “cold” war against the Soviet Union, wars against Iraq (twice) and Afghanistan, and Nixon even declared war on drugs, as though he weren’t battling on enough fronts. We are a warlike people, perhaps simply because we can be. The end result is that we, the American people and many others that we welcome within our borders, are touched by war.
“Always,” Harvey continues, “whatever you bury doesn’t stay buried. We should see the coffins.”
In Ilium, we will. Nothing is hidden; nothing is buried. Just as Aaron felt driven to show me and my friends, untouched by the sort of bloody and unimaginably violent conflict he had witnessed, Harvey is driven to show the world man’s inhumanity to man, just as the students and other contributing writers were driven to show their stories. Ilium will show everything, I gather, unvarnished and raw.
And because we can’t hide it, because what is buried never stays buried, we mustn’t hide it. We must sing it – as Homer exhorted the goddess to “sing the wrath” – because it exists, and because in existing, it touches us. And those touched by war, like Aaron, need and deserve to tell their story, just as the rest of us – who may never have seen a man explode or a child shot through the head – need and deserve to hear their stories told.