Saturday, October 22, 2016

Reflections on Gilgamesh

On Wednesday, October 19th, 2016, at the Arts Court Theatre in Ottawa, Jan Andrews and I told the epic story of Gilgamesh, with musical support by Armin Rahmanian on the tar and setar (see previous post).  Over 90 people turned out, which is not bad for a storytelling performance of an ancient Sumerian epic going head-to-head with the final Clinton-Trump debate on TV.  Now I can give my Facebook friends a break from continual reminders and explanations regarding this important but relatively little-known story (though I guess I will post this blog entry!).  My sincere thanks for all who came out: as I have learned again and again, the quality of the listening has an amazing impact on the quality of the telling.  Storytelling really is a joint effort between the teller and the listener.

Jan proposed this project to me well over a year ago. I felt very honoured to be invited to co-present with her (Jan being a leading light of epic storytelling in Canada), and for my own information I started tracking down background information and different versions of the epic. I was familiar with the story already, through various paraphrases and literary references (for example, did you know that the title of Michael Ondaatje’s wonderful novel, In the Skin of a Lion, is taken from the Epic of Gilgamesh?).   I was particularly drawn to the story and character of Enkidu, the hairy wild man who first opposes, then befriends Gilgamesh, the godlike King of Uruk.  Also, as my personal odometer clicks ever higher, Gilgamesh’s struggles with loss, aging and mortality resonate with me more and more.  (One of my former university professors and theatre mentors attended the show; he said of the story, “we are all living it.”)

Coming to grips with the epic proved harder than expected. First, we had to trim the text enough to fit into a single evening, and that meant sacrificing many beautiful or sonorous phrases, dispensing with a lot of the ritual repetitions, and refusing to linger over images or language that did not advance the plot. (Despite our best efforts, the show ran a little over two hours, including intermission.)

On the positive side, the need to consider run-time allowed us, with very little guilt, to cut out many passages that were confusing, contradictory, or incomprehensible.  The Epic of Gilgamesh probably began as a cluster of stories which were not entirely consistent with one another, and which merged in the way myths and tales often do, retaining seams and scars and fragments of their former selves. The text has been reconstructed from clay tablets and stitched together with the help of versions in different languages, written down several centuries apart.   While most of the story is clear, in a number of places the English translations seem speculative and do not agree with one another. Presumably the ancient Sumerian or Akkadian readers or listeners would have been so familiar with the various back stories and the overarching cosmology that many references which are obscure to us would have made sense to them.  What were the “holy things” in Urshanabi’s boat that Gilgamesh destroyed, and why did he do that? Did Enkidu have a wife at some point, or not? Was Humbaba really evil, or are we supposed to feel compassion for him?

The story of Gilgamesh’s quest to slay Humbaba is the most puzzling and obscure section of the epic, and the one that caused us the most hair-tearing. It is lengthy, but (to the modern ear) not very eventful: It cycles repeatedly through a pattern in which Gilgamesh and Enkidu take turns being afraid of Humbaba and reassuring each other. There is a series of prophetic dreams adumbrating the outcome of the battle, and the whole leadup to the encounter with Humbaba risks being tedious and puzzling. After all that, the battle itself is described quite briefly and ambiguously; one gathers that it is a spiritual conflict for which we no longer have the key. Various attempts to make the story tellable finally persuaded us that we needed to give ourselves the freedom to condense this middle part of the epic considerably and to adapt it in ways that would make it work better as an oral story.

In exchange for the sizable swaths of the Humbaba story that were removed or vigorously adapted, we allowed ourselves to put back in more of the story of Ishtar’s failed seduction of Gilgamesh and its consequences.  It was a good exchange: the catalogue of Ishtar’s love affairs, while somewhat of a digression, is much clearer and more satisfying to tell than the pieces we excised from the Humbaba story.

Another challenge was to ensure that the latter part of the epic, from the death of Enkidu to Gilgamesh’s return to Uruk, was more than just a series of dreamlike episodes or a long depressive rant. Our early attempts were, in Armin’s words, “very philosophical,” but somehow not satisfying as a story. We needed to emphasize Gilgamesh’s quest: he is not just wandering through the wilderness grieving, he is relentlessly searching for someone who can save him from death. His sadness over Enkidu is genuine and deep, but ultimately it is superseded by his own obsession with escaping “the common lot of man.” When we focused on this storyline, everything worked better.