Monday, May 21, 2012

More about the June 16 Odyssey

Homer's Odyssey is the second oldest surviving work of Western literature.  Composed towards the end of the 8th century BCE, this great epic story has been a sourcebook for many of the themes, images and devices that have preoccupied writers and readers for 2,800 years.  It has survived not because it is old, but because people down throught the centuries have loved and valued it: the story of a heroic but all-too human veteran struggling to get home after a decade-long war.  On his long journey, Odysseus encounters monsters, magic, spirits of the dead, storms, foreign cultures, beautiful women, gods and goddesses, mind-enslaving blossoms, and those most deadly hazards, human folly and human treachery.  Meanwhile, on the home front, his wife fends off unwelcome suitors and his son searches for a father he cannot remember.

Many scholars believe that the Odyssey was first composed and performed as an oral story; that it was meant to be heard rather than read. 

On June 16 there will be a rare opportunity to experience the Odyssey "live and whole" here in Ottawa at the NAC 4th Stage, in a day-long telling by a troupe of Ottawa storytellers (including your truly).  True, engaging with the Odyssey for a full day will stretch your attention span more than a Youtube video or a Hollywood movie; but the rewards are also greater.  Even if you have read the Odyssey or seen some film interpretation of it, I think you'll discover that absorbing it the way they did 2800 years ago brings a whole new perspective.  And yes, there will be plenty of breaks! Here's one of the official blurbs: 

"On June 16, at the National Arts Centre's 4th Stage in Ottawa, Ontario, Ottawa StoryTellers and 2 women productions present Odysseus’s journey, from beginning to end, in a full day of epic storytelling featuring Homer's Odyssey! Circe, the Cyclops, gods and goddesses will carry the audience into an ancient world. Eighteen storytellers will take the audience on the hero’s quest as Homer meant it to be heard, from Troy’s defeat to Ithaca’s shores, and all the points in between. This twelve-hour show offers a unique performance experience, and offers the audience the opportunity to become part of a community of listeners
with a shared cultural journey. 10am to 10pm, with breaks for stretching, conversation, and meals. Tickets $60 from the NAC Box Office.
A limited number of evening-only tickets are also available."

For more information please visit

P.S. If you won't be able to attend but would still like to support this independent artistic venture, please consider making a donation at  Donors are eligible for a number of interesting perks...

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Spending Time with the Beggar in the Palace

On Saturday June 16th, at the NAC 4th Stage, I will be one of several storytellers telling Homer's Odyssey from beginning to end.  (Not reading. Not acting out. Telling from memory.)

This is the fourth time (over a period of about 16 years, I think) that I find myself preparing to tell Book 18 of the Odyssey.  You would think that by now I could just dip into my memory and pull the whole chapter out, ready to go; but no.  Although the shape of the story hardly fades in my mind, my brain cells don’t retain many of the actual words during the long gap between tellings. For that matter, the actual text has been slightly different each time,  reflecting the time constraints of different performances, the choice of translation, and the different artistic choices of the people involved. 

So I begin again. The great advantage of this is that I get to discover all over again Homer’s vivid descriptions, his perspective, his humour, his insights, and the deceptively simple ways in which he fleshes out the characters of the Odyssey.  And along with the sweetness of rediscovering the familiar, there always seems to be more to discover:  things I somehow missed last time, or things I understood or experienced differently.  Things that either loom larger or diminish in relative importance.

For I also bring a slightly different version of myself  to the Odyssey each time: a self  with a bit more mental and emotional mileage, more grey hair, more accumulated stories, bruises, and discoveries.  A somewhat  wiser self? Maybe. In some ways.  I hope.  But at least different.  So the return visit is never boring.

Book 18 is not the most famous or spectacular part of the Odyssey.  Apart from a couple of subtle interventions by Athena, “goddess of the flashing eyes,” it contains no supernatural fireworks: no gigantic Cyclops,  no magic-wielding sorceresses, no ravening sea monsters.  And while there is some violence and bloodshed, the action does not have the grandeur of the Trojan War: just one sordid, ridiculous brawl between a couple of vagrants competing for begging  rights in a houseful of aristocratic “party animals.”  For me, the fact that one of these vagrants is the long-lost master of the house, Odysseus himself, lends an enigmatic, ironic, “layered” quality to the episode: on one hand, Homer clearly shows his hero to us (and to the Suitors) as an old, scruffy, broken down homeless man with a balding head and a pot belly.  This does not appear to be entirely a disguise: on one level, Odysseus really seems to be living the part.  His emotional engagement in the quarrel with the other beggar is too convincing to be all “pose.” Yet  we glimpse some surprising muscles under Odysseus’s rags; his voice reveals occasional echoes of the warrior hero, and we are reminded at critical moments that this down-and-out geezer remains “the master of many exploits” and “the sacker of cities.” We almost pity the obnoxious Suitors for their inability to read the warning signs, to recognize the contained menace of the nemesis in their midst. 

Odysseus’s long-suffering wife Penelope gets a brief but satisfying outing in this chapter.  Like him, she is no teenager (their son Telemachus is a grown man, or at least trying hard to be one); but Homer makes it clear that she still has the beauty and wit to bamboozle the Suitors utterly.    

I am delighted to be once again readying my part, this all-too-human portion of the great story.  I look forward with excitement to experiencing  again the unique pleasure of co-creating the Odyssey “live and whole,” from morning till night, with a dedicated troupe of storytelling colleagues and, I hope, a large  audience of epic fans.  For more information please visit  You'll also find there some opportunities to support this project, if you are so inclined...