BMCR 2022.10.09

One man show: poetics and presence in the Iliad and Odyssey

, One man show: poetics and presence in the Iliad and Odyssey. Hellenic studies, 78. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2020. Pp. 392. ISBN 9780674980020

Katherine Kretler’s One Man Show: Poetics and Presence in the Iliad and Odyssey explores how ancient performers of Homeric epic also layered characters, settings, and stories onto the imagined reality of the narrative or physical space of the audience. Like modern technologies of augmented and virtual reality, when a performer apostrophizes Patroklos (Iliad 16) or Eumaios (Odyssey 14), blurs boundaries between direct and reported address in Phoenix’s speech (Iliad 9), or embodies Diomedes in aristeia through a gesture (Iliad 5) “as though a surgeon has…slipped his hand into a virtual reality glove” (65), Kretler argues that Homer exploits the dramatic potential of performance to invoke the presence of others. One Man Show provides a stimulating if at times dizzying pursuit of this “play of presence among bard, audience, and characters… [and its] variety of effects in performance” (21). The study will be of benefit especially to advanced students and scholars interested in its treatment of individual passages and the multilayered experience of Homeric poems.

One Man Show’s notion of presence is a dramatic “layering” (51–2) of characters, stories, and setting evoked by the poet in performance. To construct this idea, Kretler draws primarily from drama theory, beginning with Aristotle through Michael Goldman, Antonin Artaud, and Peter Brook, that considers how actors embody subjects and engage audiences as characters. In this view, Homeric texts function as “scripts” (e.g. 2–3, 82, 100, 320) that provide speeches, gestures, themes and imagery to provoke audiences into imagining one character as another or themselves as someone else in another place. The operable metaphor for this layering is the matryoshka doll (passim) that produces a surfeit of meaning, the effects of which are haunting (22), strange (45), and, most often, uncanny (passim). The introduction and first chapter survey twelve moments in the Iliad and Odyssey that especially feature this dramatization, such as in the prophecy of Theoklymenos (Odyssey 20) wherein “the bard undergoes a strange merging” with the character (46). Chapters two through four then scrutinize longer scenes that exploit to a greater extent the theatrical capabilities of performance.

Chapter two focuses on the character of Phoenix in Iliad 9 and the way that the text facilitates a “double enactment” whereby “the performer becomes Phoenix” and Phoenix becomes “another character from the deep, ‘heroic’ past: Kleopatra, wife of Meleager” (107). The most important contribution here is the extensive analysis of the stories-within-stories of Phoenix’s speech and merger of male and female characters (100). Kretler expands the condensed accounts of the mother of Kleopatra, Marpessa, and her assault by Apollo, and the mythological references to Halcyon (138–42) that culminate in the eruption of Kleopatra’s catalogue of the miseries of war (159–63). Although Kleopatra’s list is better classified as free indirect speech rather than unintroduced direct speech as argued on pp. 159–63, its effect is nevertheless persuasive: the accumulation of presence that culminates in narrative rupture compels Meleager to return to battle.[1] The interlude immediately following (167–94) interprets the mythopoetics of Phoenix in book 23 in relation to more birds (the phoenix and the Egyptian solar bird benu, 174–5), the Etruscan François Tomb (181–90), and solar calendars.

Chapters three and fourth follow ways that “background stories” become present in the actions and speech of speakers such as Patroklos, Odysseus, and Eumaeus. As with other passages, Kretler maps thematic, mythical, and spatial resonance (198) of backstories to the immediate narrative. When Ajax mimics the leap of Protesilaus from the dead hero’s ship in book 15, it sets off a series of mythological and kinesthetic associations with the story of Protesilaus and his wife that cast Patroklos as Protesilaus and Achilles, in his mourning, as his wife (208, 223; cf. Iliad 2.698–702, 15.704–708). Such parallels heighten themes such as domesticity, substitution, and resurrection, and play on the imagined space of performance as before the ships (214–32). A second interlude connects the theme of eros and the backstory of Phoenix’s speech and Protesilaus to reinforce the “deepening sense of tragedy” leading up to the death of Patroklos (237–42). Similarly, Odysseus’ “Cretan Lies” and Eumaeus’s speeches in Odyssey 14–15 engage the background story of Idomeneus, mythic story types of theoxenic visitation and trial by a god, and employ apostrophe to heighten the presence of the enslaved Eumaeus. The close readings of Eumaeus’ often neglected speeches are especially welcome (286–321).

One Man Show provides numerous points of departure for future work, especially within various contexts of Homeric performance. What layers accrue or peel away when multiple rhapsodes perform passages in sequence, or when an enslaved person performs Eumaeus or a woman the story of Marpessa? Questions concerning the narratology of presence also linger. If the bard “cedes his identity” (320) to characters such as Odysseus and Eumaeus through extensive direct speech and by elaborating their conversation with apostrophe and responsive details (Od. 14–15), who is to say that all character speech does not constitute a loss of the performer and a “giving up of…control of the narrative” (320)? When does direct speech not generate presence? And how can the performer ever truly lose control of the narrative? Epic narrators have plenty of safeguards to keep the traditional story on track in resistance to the urges of characters, including but not limited to the epiphany of a god to grab a character by the hair. There is more work to be done on such a rich topic as presence in epic. Thankfully One Man Show breaks new ground and supplies plenty of material to help us reimagine the augmented experience of epic performance.



[1] For classification of Kleopatra’s speech, see Deborah Beck, Speech Presentation in the Homeric Epics, Austin 2012, 70–3.