Sunday 26 November 2017

An Epic Week, in Several Senses

An epic week. Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule in Zimbabwe ended, an event headlined in NewsDay Zimbabwe as ‘Epic Fall of a Dictator’. Less epically, I helped host Professor Emily Wilson when she came to my university to talk about her superb new translation of the Odyssey.

It's a literary landmark and an epic achievement which I predict will rival previous stellar Odysseys by Alexander Pope and E.V. Rieu. Rieu’s was only knocked off the top of the list for bestselling paperback in the UK by Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I discuss Wilson’s version in a Telegraph review which I was told would come out this weekend, but haven’t yet seen as it is, er, not my regular newspaper. I will provide a link here soon.

On Thursday I felt like the academic equivalent of an epic warrior since it was the most strenuous day of my entire working life. In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg and my mates Paul Cartledge and Sam Gartland was about Thebes, believed by the ancients to be the oldest Greek city of all. Epic poems about its serial sieges and ‘epic fail’ royals were composed from the Bronze Age to Statius’ Thebaid and beyond.

First Gresham Lecture
From Broadcasting House I dashed to Gresham College in Chancery Lane, where at 1300 I gave my inaugural lecture as Visiting Professor. It was on the epic movie Troy, the epic poem the Iliad, and the Mycenaeans they both portray. It can be watched here

The best thing about the movie is the casting. Brian Cox’s Agamemnon is always in my head when I teach the Iliad: this Mycenaean monarch combines the raucousness of Cox’s working-class Dundee childhood with the nastiness of President Snow in The Hunger Games. Even our pets look terrified when he raises the war-cry on our TV (the epithet 'good at the war-cry' is not actually used of him in the Iliad, rather of Menelaus and Diomedes, but Cox is so good at it that I'll tolerate the inaccuracy).

Brian Cox, the Definitive Agamemnon
Thence quickly to Nottingham, where at 1800 I lectured to the local Classical Association on Virgil’s Aeneid and possible Carthaginian sources—even epic poems?—lost when the Romans ‘deleted’ the library of Carthage along with the rest of the city in 146 BCE. The venue happened to be Nottingham Girls’ High School, which I attended in the 1970s. This brought back memories of reading Virgil there myself, and already preferring Homer.
Annihilation of Carthage 

But the week ended with Mother Courage at the Southwark Theatre, directed by Hannah Chissick. It is the best production I’ve ever seen of my favourite piece of Brechtian Epic Theater. It was influenced by both Euripides’ Trojan Women and Aristophanes’ Lysistrata.  Josie Lawrence is remarkable as the woman whose real name was Anna Fierling: Courage got her nickname after braving the non-stop bombardment of Riga to keep on selling bread.
Lawrence: Unforgettable as Mother Courage

Brecht invented the term episches Theater in 1926 because he wanted a new type of non-realist drama that would make audiences think about class oppression rather than sentimentally relate to characters’ plights. But I clearly don’t know how to appreciate Brecht. I ended up with wet eyes both when Courage is forced to disown the corpse of her son Swiss Cheese and when her daughter Kattrin is shot dead at the end.

The word epos  originally began with a 'w' (digamma) 
The ancient Greeks rarely used the adjective ‘epic’, epikos, even to describe poetry. Their noun epos, plural epea, which in Mycenaean times still had its initial w, wepea, meant words of any kind, but especially significant words such as those used in prophecies or promises. Nowadays epic can just mean ‘notable’. 

I also wrote a review, published in the Guardian Wednesday, of Stephen Fry’s charming new retelling of classical myths mostly drawn from epics: Hesiod’s Theogony and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. And I was delighted to read the excellent new book, developed out of a doctoral thesis I supervised, by Miryana Dimitrova. It discusses sources, including Lucan's epic Pharsalia, for Julius Caesar's own epic afterlife on the stages/screens of the world.  This means I have engaged within 5 days on almost all the major classical epics besides the Argonautica. It certainly feels appropriate to describe my own exhaustion today as wepic.
Finlay and Satan Watching Troy

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